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The Roots of Reggae

Reggae: Roots, Religion and Rhythm

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds …” ~ Bob Marley, Redemption Song

Most people familiar with the musical genre Reggae immediately associate the term with the legendary Bob Marley. For others, the characteristic beats might conjure up images of dreadlocked rastas, or even a portrait of the regal Haile Selassie, late Emperor of Ethiopia.

Where did Reggae come from? What are the musical roots of this style of music? How does it differ from related forms of popular music? What is the connection between Reggae and the Rastafari movement?

This article aims to shed some light on these questions, and the sometimes larger than life characters who popularized it.

What Is The Origin Of The Word “Reggae”?

As with the names of many musical styles, the origin of the word “reggae” is something not all fans or musicians agree on. There are at least four versions concerning the origin of the word.

[1] The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English defines reggae as more recent form of the word “rege”, as in rege-rege, a word that can mean either “rags, ragged clothing” or “a quarrel”.

[2] By the late sixties the word reggae was already being used in Kingston, Jamaica as the name of a slower dance and style of rocksteady. Bunny Lee, a well-known producer of the genre is also credited with creating a sound with an organ and rhythm guitar which sounded like “reggae, reggae”. He started using the word and soon the term became common amongst musicians of the time.

[3] According to Reggae historian Steve Barrow, Clancy Eccles (a Jamaican ska and reggae singer, songwriter, arranger, promoter, record producer and talent scout) altered the Jamaican patois word “streggae” (meaning “loose woman”) into reggae.

[4] It is also said that Reggae legend, Bob Marley, claimed that the word came from a Spanish term for “the king’s music”.

Ska, Rocksteady and Social Justice: The Ingredients of a New Musical Genre

Reggae first developed in Jamaica (especially Kingston) in the late 1960s from the musical genres of Ska and Rocksteady, while also being strongly influenced by traditional African musical styles.

Ska, which originated a decade earlier, combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with the Southern US musical styles of jazz and rhythm and blues. Like Ska, Reggae is based on a rhythm style characterized by regular chops on the off-beat. The tempo of Reggae is, however, generally slower than that found in Ska.

The sometimes hypnotic effect of Reggae stems to a large degree from the repetitious chord structures, with some songs being played in only one or two chords — one example is the Bob Marley and the Wailers song “Exodus”, which is almost entirely comprised of A-minor chords.

In terms of lyrical content, Reggae is often associated with the Rastafari movement. Many songs focus on faith, with regular references to religious figures and Biblical themes. Poverty, injustice and other social and political issues are also addressed. Songs about love and relationships are also amongst some of the most well-known and popular of the Reggae musical legacy.

Jamaica in the Sixties: The New Rhythm

After being a colony of first Spain and then Great Britain for more than 400 years, Jamaica slowly gained their independence. In 1958, it became a province in the Federation of the West Indies, a federation including all of the British West Indies. Jamaica attained full independence by leaving the federation in 1962.

At roughly the same time as Jamaica gained its independence, a trend became popular amongst the so-called “rude boys” of Kingston — they started deliberately playing their Ska records at half speed, preferring to dance slower to complement their tough image.

By the mid-1960s, this trend had caught on as many local musicians started slowing down the tempo of their Ska melodies, while still emphasizing the characteristic walking bass and offbeats. This slower sound became known as rocksteady. This style characterized popular Jamaican music until 1968, when musicians began to slow the tempo even more, while adding other musical effects like the organ shuffle pioneered by Bunny Lee.

The Wailers, started by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer in 1963, is the most well-known group of musicians to have made the transition through all three stages, from early Ska to Rocksteady and finally the Reggae sounds that became a worldwide phenomenon.

“Roots Reggae”: Music of the Natural Mystic

Although religious themes are common in mainstream Reggae, the lyrics of Roots Reggae are predominantly in praise of Jah (God). Other song themes include poverty, resistance to oppression, African unity, black nationalism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, criticism of the political and socio-economic establishment known as “Babylon”, and the ideals of the Rastafari lifestyle. Many of Bob Marley’s and Peter Tosh’s songs can be called Roots Reggae.

Here’s a short list of songs that fall in the category of Roots Reggae:

  • “Natural Mystic”: Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus)
  • “The Heathen”: Bob Marley and the Wailers (Exodus)
  • “Zion Train”: Bob Marley and the Wailers (Uprising)
  • “Forever Loving Jah”: Bob Marley and the Wailers (Uprising)
  • “Africa Unite”: Bob Marley and the Wailers (Survival)
  • “Mystic Man”:Peter Tosh (Mystic Man)
  • “Jah Seh No”: Peter Tosh (Mystic Man)
  • “Moses – The Prophets”: Peter Tosh (Bush Doctor)
  • “Enter Into His Gates With Praise”: Johnny Clarke (Enter Into His Gates With Praise)
  • “Jah Jah We Are Waiting Upon You”: Johnny Clarke (Enter Into His Gates With Praise)
  • “Thank You Lord”: Horace Andy (You Are My Angel)
  • “Government Land”: Horace Andy (In the Light)

The Rastafari Movement: Religious Roots of Reggae

An attempt to summarize any belief system in a single article, much less in a single section, will always be hopelessly inadequate. So, instead of writing a few paragraphs in a feeble attempt to explain what the Rastafari movement is about, I’ll settle for a few important points.

  • The Rastafari movement regards Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, as God incarnate, called Jah or Jah Rastafari.
  • The name Rastafari comes from Ras (literally meaning “Head,” an Ethiopian title equivalent to Duke), and Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I.
  • The movement emerged in Jamaica among working-class and peasant Jamaicans in the early 1930s, arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy (Revelation 5:5) partly based on Selassie’s status as the only African monarch of a fully independent state, with the titles King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah.
  • Some estimates put the number of Rastafari faithful worldwide at more than one million . About five to ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari.
  • Many Rastafarians follow an diet called Ital which is based on the dietary Laws of the Old Testament (no shellfish or pork, for example). Although there are different attitudes to the consumption of meat, many Rastafari maintain a vegetarian diet all of the time. Usage of alcohol is also generally deemed unhealthy, partly because it is seen as a tool of “Babylon” to confuse people.
  • The wearing of dreadlocks is very closely associated with the Rastafari movement, though not universal among, or exclusive to, its adherents. Reasons for allowing hair to grow naturally and, in the case of men, not to shave their beards, are also found in Old Testament religious laws. Dreadlocks have also come to symbolize the Lion of Judah (its mane) and rebellion against “Babylon”. It is also believed that the length of a Rasta’s dreadlocks is an indication of his wisdom.
  • Adherents of Rastafarian beliefs consider the smoking of cannabis (also known as “ganja” or “herb”) as a sacrament, a spiritual act, that cleans the body and mind, heals the soul, exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah.
  • The colors associated with Reggae as well as the Rastafarian movement are the colors of the Ethiopian flag – red, gold and green, with a fourth color, black, sometimes added. Each color has its own significant meaning, and together they represent the Rastafari way of life: Red is for the blood of all living things; gold is for the sun and Jah’s light that shines on people; green represents the Earth, to which Rastas feel a special connection; and black represents the skin of the African people.

Other Reggae Sites/Pages

  • The Rhetoric of Reggae Music
    The Rhetoric of Reggae Music is a course offered at the University of Vermont. This web page is for the students enrolled in this course as well as for others on the web who are interested in this subject.
  • Bob Marley: The Official Site
    A tribute to the legendary Bob Marley exploring his life, music, and philosophy. Includes unseen photographs, essays, sound, video, and merchandise.
  • Reggae Festival Guide
    Online version of the popular Reggae Festival Guide magazine. A good place to start if you’re searching for reggae festivals around the world.
  • “Reggae” (Wikipedia article)
    “While sometimes used in a broader sense to refer to most types of Jamaican music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that originated following on the development of ska and rocksteady …”
  • “The Rastafari Movement” (Wikipedia article)
    “The Rastafari movement (also known as Rastafari, or simply Rasta) is a new religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I, the former Emperor of Ethiopia, as God incarnate, called Jah or Jah Rastafari …”
  • BBC – Religion & Ethics – Rastafarian History
    “The Rastafari movement began in Jamaica during the 1930s following a prophecy made by Marcus Garvey, a black political leader. Garvey led an organisation known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association, whose intention was to unify blacks with their land of origin.”

Did You Know…

  • The 1972 film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff, generated considerable interest and popularity for reggae music in the United States.
  • Eric Clapton’s 1974 cover of the Bob Marley song I Shot the Sheriff increased the global popularity of Reggae and acceptance of it as a musical phenomenon by the so-called “white rock world”.
  • As the UK punk rock scene was starting to take off in the second half of the 1970s, some punk DJs played reggae records during their DJ sets. Some punk bands, such as The Clash, The Slits, and The Ruts, incorporated reggae influences into their music.
  • The Reggae-organ shuffle is unique to this musical style. Typically, a Hammond organ-style sound is used to play chords with a choppy feel, known as the “bubble”. The organ sounds are typically played very low, and is often more felt than heard. Examples include the Bob Marley and the Wailers’ songs “Natural Mystic” and “Is This Love”.
  • Lovers Rock is a sub-genre of Reggae which originated in South London in the mid-1970s. It is characterized by a smoother, more commercial sound, with more apolitical lyrics.
  • Toasting is a style of chanting or talking over the music. It was first used by Jamaican DJs in the 1960s. By the late 1970s this product of the Jamaican music scene influenced the pioneers of a new genre that became known as hip hop or rap.

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If you’re inspired to move from listening to playing, or if you want to improve your repertoire, here’s a list of online resources to assist you on the journey.

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