Tracing the Roots of Jamaica’s Reggae Music

Undoubtedly, Jamaica’s reggae music genre arose from important cultural traditions. Reggae gained immense global popularity after centuries of evolving out of traditions related to the events that shaped the music of the Jamaican people.

A cultural and linguistic subgroup of indigenous Caribbeans known as the Taíno once inhabited Jamaica; originally calling the land Xaymaca, which means the land of wood and water. During Christopher Columbus‘ second voyage to the West Indies in 1494, he chanced upon the land and renamed it Santiago. Columbus later brought with him colonists, who forced the Taino people into hard labor, along with other slaves he brought over from Africa.

Due to lack of valuable resources and disapproval of church authorities, the Spanish colonists could not build defenses that could protect the land from pirates and from British colonizers.

Eventually, Xaymaca was taken over by the English in 1655, while the Spanish colonists fled to the nearby island of Cuba. They freed and armed their slaves to help them fight the British invaders. The freed mix of slaves subsequently became a community of Bantu Jamaicans known as Maroons.

However the existence of the Maroon community inspired the next waves of slaves in Jamaica, to rebel against the English colonists. Others slaves escaped from plantations and joined the Maroons in securing new lands that they could inhabit as a free population. The British Empire on the other hand met with humanitarian activism and anti-salvery movements that sought the abolition of slave trade and slavery.

The full implementation of the Abolition Bill of 1808 in Jamaica in 1838, allowed the colony to produce citizens who would work toward attaining independence from the British Empire. Although the nation became independent in 1962, life among Jamaicans after independence, was still marked with unemployment and poverty. Independent Jamaica later opened its doors to U.S. capitalists, which somehow relieved the economic and social strife in the country.

Through the centuries, singing and dancing were part of traditional Jamaican way of life, mainly for three key aspects: work, play and worship.

Forms of Jamaican Traditional Music

Traditional Jamaican music can be categorized into three forms, worksongs, play songs and worship music.

Worksongs

Worksongs in Jamaica are known to be the oldest living musical tradition. They were mostly African-derived songs sung at plantations and were widely tolerated by English slavers because they promoted productivity among laborers. However, since forced labor under the colonial rule applies to all waking hours, the condition inhibited the development of other musical traditions.

The text of worksongs were reflections of contemporaneous work experiences while the rhythms were literally in sync with the beat of their labour. Jamaican male slaves sang songs about digging and various kinds of field labor, while the women sang about domestic housework, weaving and fishing.

Traditional worksongs were valuable because it served as a channel of communication among slaves. Through singing, they were able to tell stories, histories, identities, as well as share gossips, exchange news and even express veiled ridicules about their masters.

Play Songs

As the conditions gradually changed in Jamaica, including the pervasiveness of slavery, loosened restrictions enabled the people of Jamaica to cultivate music for recreational and social activities, gathering and festivities.

The development of play songs in Jamaica were similar to the worksongs but mainly voiced local news, gossips, scandals and unusual events, usually using patois speech patterns and wordplay. Play songs were also used to express criticism and observations with provocative or insulting connotations but veiled in humor.

Songs of Worship

Not surprisingly traditional songs of worship in Jamaica built most of its foundation in African spiritual music. The freed slaves comprising the Bantu Jamaicans or the Maroons practised ritual music involving responsorial singing accompanied by polyrhythmic drumming with solo and/or collective dancing. In rituals for spirit possession, singing and drumming were means of calling on ancestors, usually to seek spiritual guidance or blessings.

Throughout the course of Jamaican history, these three types of traditional Jamaican music served as the roots of the globally popular Jamaican reggae.

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