When it comes to reggae, Bob Marley1 deserves praise as a great singer/songwriter, and the one true international superstar reggae music has produced. But he was just one contributor to a musical genre that has had more influence on popular music than anything except the blues.
Sure, it has been covered by a whole host of mainstream artists - everyone from Eric Clapton to the Clash2 and the Fugees3 - but reggae's more enduring influence has come from its dancehall scene and production innovations. The huge sound systems, the prominence of drum and bass, deejay toasters chatting over rhythm tracks, the mind-bending rhythmscapes of dub music where the vocals are dropped in and out of the mix, have all had a huge influence on rap and the current dance and rave scenes.
For a tiny island nation of around two million people, Jamaica's influence is astounding. And reggae itself covers a vast gamut of sounds, from the early ska of the Ethiopians, to the dapper militancy of early Gregory Isaacs recordings, or the digital phase kick-started by King Jammy.
However, there's always one characteristic that's a dread give-away, the syncopation probably best described by early vocal stylist Alton Ellis,4
"I see the whole a dem as one sound, y'know - this is a lickle bit faster, this a lickle bit slower; this time the emphasis is on the drum, the nex'time the emphasis is on the bassline, but basically the nerve centre of Jamaican music is the aftabeat."
It comes partly from the early Jamaican music called mento, and partly from Afro Cuban forms such as the mambo and the rhumba, and partly from the huge influence American rhythm and blues had on Jamaica in the late 50s and early 60s. It was around then that R and B crossed over to white teenage audiences in the US and Jamaican sound system owners found their supply of the music they preferred drying up. They turned to locally produced versions and soon it began to sound more Jamaican with that distinctive emphasis on the offbeat, and ska was born, just in time for Jamaica's Independence in 1962.
Reggae, from its roots in the slavery days, when central and west coast Africans were brought to Jamaica by the English to work on the plantations, through the ska and rocksteady years, to the political activism of the late 60s and early 70s, is still growing today. Bob Marley can 'rest in peace'.