The Origins of Reggae – Ska Music

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“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don’t complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don’t bury your thoughts; put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live! ” – Bob Marley When the genre of Reggae is mentioned the first artist that comes to mind is the legend that is Bob Marley. With his music reflecting his bright outlook on life and mankind he soon became the iconic figure of Reggae. However I am getting well ahead of myself here as the Genre of Reggae would not even exist in its modern form if it wasn’t for its predecessors Rock-Steady and Ska.

On the 5th of August 1952 Princess Margaret made Jamaica an independent country during her tour of the Caribbean. The music that spawned from this newly found freedom was known to the people of Jamaica as Ska. The main source of broadcasted music at the time in the Caribbean was from the now almost obsolete FM Radios which could pick up waves broadcasted from as far as the radio stations in the southern states of America. In the US at the time Jazz music was one of the main popular genres which soon started to influence the Jamaican music scene.

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The people of downtown Kingston would be out dancing in the streets to the Jazz music being played through the newly invented sound system. As time went on sound systems turned into clubs and so competition began to see who could attract the most amount of people to their club by playing the newest American Jazz and R&B songs. The two biggest names to arise out of the Jamaican music scene were Clement Coxsone Dodd & Arthur Duke Reid. These two visionaries of music both combined their own Liquor stores with their Sound System dances to create a mass interest.

The club scenes of the modern day can easily be said to share roots back to Dodd & Reid’s businesses with the main reasons of ‘going out’ still being to drink and dance to the best new music. Towards the later end of the 1950’s Dodd & Reid started to move into the area of record production. With no intentions of selling the records that they produced Clement & Arthur would get American Jazz and R&B artists who the people of Jamaica loved to record Jamaican stylised versions of their own Jazz or R&B songs.

It seemed a strange idea not to sell the records and to only produce one record of each song recorded but their idea was to use these Jamaican influenced tunes at their dances to draw in an even bigger number of people. In my opinion this was the birth of Ska music; elements of Caribbean Calypso and the newly discovered American Jazz to form a beautiful mutation of music which would play a big part in the breaking down of social and racial barriers in Britain during the 1960’s right through to the 1980’s.

Ska music developed over time and influenced other countries youth cultures most noticeably in Britain during the ‘mods & rockers’ era of the 1960’s it finally reached its peak at the end of the decade but this would certainly not be the end of Ska. As the genre grew more interest was taken and soon became part of the pop culture in Britain. Millie Small started off as a Jamaican teenager who along with Roy Panton recorded a song that was quite popular at the time named We’ll Meet.

This song was recorded under Clement Coxsone Dodd & Arthur Duke Reid’s Studio One in Kingston, Jamaica the same studio that really helped push the genre of Ska into the public eye or ear should I say. The song that Millie had recorded was soon overshadowed when she and her song rose to number two in the UK and American charts with a new arrangement of the Barbie Gaye song My Boy Lollipop. This was Island Records’ first massive hit and would go on to be covered again in 1982 by Bad Manners a ‘skinhead’ Ska band with their own take on the song entitled My Girl Lollipop.

This hit and others like it at the time such as Wings of a Dove by Lloyd Campbell and Phillip James and My Girl by Smokey Robinson really popularised Ska music and familiarised the genre to the rest of the world. Soon enough Ska bands like The Skatalites and Prince Buster were being played through everyone’s radios in Britain. Ska music in Britain was predominantly related to the youth culture of the 1960’s mod movement.

Two afflicting cultures known as Mods and Rockers were one of the biggest parts of 60’s pop culture, if you were a mod you listened to Northern Soul, Ska and beat music and if you were a rocker you listened primarily to Rock’n’Roll. With these two cultures playing such a large role in the youth scene during the 60’s it is safe to say that this movement made Ska a very popular genre and one not to be forgotten. The genre of Ska was to make a big come back again in the 1980’s with a two-tone Ska revival of new bands such as The Selecter, Madness and The Specials being the most famous.

The two tone revival played a large part in the breaking down of social and racial barriers as many of the Ska bands had a multicultural line up to be set as role models for the youth to help stop racism. Ska is performed typically using instruments such as guitar, bass, drums, brass and piano or organ between the tempos of 92 and 132 BPM. The guitar is played on the off beat or the ‘and’ of each beat so that it brings the pressence of the songs tempo out more and acts as a driving force along with the drums and bass to keep the song moving.

The guitar tone on most ska songs is a bright clean sound with a higher amount of treble to better pick up the brightness of the guitar and the accents created from the scratching on the strings on the ‘on’ beats. Some songs featured a walking bass line which was taken from American Jazz music when Ska began to develop, the walking bass line helps keep the song moving and as a lot of Ska songs are in major a key the scales that the bass uses adds texture to the arrangement and gives songs the traditional happy Ska sound.

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