The history of the people of Jamaica is a microcosm of the history of the entire Americas – “founded” by the Europeans and populated by migrants from three continents with the Europeans coming in as landowners and the Africans and Asians coming in as the labourers.
From the sugar farms, came slow rural folk music styles like mento – one of the most famous mento songs is Jamaican Farewell by Harry Belafonte. As settlements became urban, music evolved as dance halls, clubs and urban hang out places mushroomed. Also as influences from New York and London started coming in, musicians of Jamaica saw themselves in a position to establish a new genre altogether. Ska and rocksteady evolved along with imported genres of jazz, samba and rock & roll. In this whole mix, Reggae music evolved from Jamaican styles of ska and rocksteady. The presence of Indians (through indentured labourers in the late 19th century) has also been a big influence in all the different Caribbean music styles. Later, reggae and Indian forms of music merged through the work of migrant communities in the UK.
The characteristic reggae beat was first recorded in the 1960s with an appropriately named band called The Pioneers credited with the earliest recording. Reggae music is and was always a dance hall phenomenon. It was controlled by the DJs, jamming the beats with random sounds. But the origins of reggae lay in folk music where the importance of lyrics was always paramount. As Jamaica progressed post independence, reggae musicians found themselves with a new way of expression.
This transformation of the genre happened when a whole army of Rastafarians took to the music form and made it a medium of expression. Big Bob was one of them. Perhaps the most famous. And according to American music critics, he was possibly the most profound and artistically sound.
One of Bob Marley’s classics is Sun is Shining, used by Ten Cricket as background theme song for its broadcast opening sequence for cricket broadcasts from the West Indies. Recorded by Bob Marley in 1971, it was covered in 1977 by Black Uhuru and it hit the charts again.
Sun is shining, the weather is sweet, ya
Make you want to move, your dancing feet
Who, to the rescue… here I am
Want you to know ya
Where I stand, know, know, know, know.
When the morning, gathers the rainbow
I want you to know, that I’m a rainbow too.
What Bob Marley pioneered was roots reggae – where the songs explored the roots of the Jamaican people – in Africa. Jamaica’s African heritage, both West African (physical origins) and East African (spiritual origins), resonates in these roots reggae songs. Songs that bring alive Jamaica flow into songs about Jah (Jehovah) and King Selassie (Haile Selassie) which in turn flow into songs about Rasta (referred to as dreadlocks in most songs).
In this post, we will not discuss Bob Marley. One single person, however influential, cannot define a genre. It requires a whole generation of musicians to work on this genre, produce some excellent exhibits or specimen musical works.
Bob Marley was a great ambassador for reggae and roots reggae of Jamaica. And also the worst. For the outside world, there does not seem to be anyone else in reggae music apart from Bob Marley. The nearest one gets is UB40. Or maybe The Police. Duckie Simpson of Black Uhuru says
“You notice, whoever sings reggae, apart from reggae singers, sells. But when guys from Jamaica sing reggae, it never sells. When UB40 or The Police do it, it’s great.”
We will listen to the music of three pioneering bands who balanced roots and dance hall beautifully, while living in the shadow of Bob Marley and Burning Spear – Inner Circle, Black Uhuru and Third World.
All the three bands are contemporary of each other. They began in the early 1970s where all bands start from – clubs and hotels of Kingston. The demand for more and more dance music – in clubs, on radio, on television – meant that they had work.
But these were not mere drum bangers and hip shakers. They were thinking artists. Duckie Simpson says, “.. I’m not the type who goes for DJ music. I strictly go for lyrics. I’m a songwriter, so when I hear stuff that’s not put together properlythen I don’t really go for it. “
All three bands combined popular tunes and rhythms with thought provoking lyrics.
Inner Circle, which had begun life in 1968, went through multiple personnel changes before got Jacob Miller, a strong vocalist and even stronger songwriter, and in the late 1970s, Inner Circle got themselves a recording contract. A bunch of albums and couple of US-Europe tours later, in 1980, only Bob Marley was more popular than Miller and Inner Circle. In 1977-8, one big hit of Inner Circle was Tenement Yard. While its rhythm has become iconic, the song itself is a lament or maybe a mild protest.
Dreadlocks can’t live in privacy
Anything him do, old near-guy see
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su-su-su-su
Till 2015, smoking marijuana or ganja was illegal in Jamaica. This meant people had to do it in their privacy. But the poor people living in tenements did not have their space to practice their religion. That is worthy of protest. Courts of various countries have barred the Rastafari people from carrying their herb stocks around causing, what the Rastafari call, oppression.
Jacob Miller died in 1980 in an accident and the remaining Inner Circle members, the Lewis brothers, moved to Miami from where they continue to work. Their 1987 song Bad Boys got picked as the theme song for COPS.
Why did you have to act so mean?
Don’t you know you’re human being?
Born of a mother with the love of a father
Reflections come and reflections go
I know sometimes you wanna let go
The special thing in the song is that, while it looks quite innocuous and preachy, there is also an empathy for people who may be have floated into crime because of poverty and economic desperation.
Black Uhuru gets their name from the Swahili for freedom. In that they follow the footsteps of Burning Spear in using Swahili imagery for their name. Their personnel changes resemble most bands of the era. Only Duckie Simpson remains as the constant member from start to present. Over the years, they had many members including Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and the ethereal Sandra “Puma” Jones
One really deep song by Black Uhuru is What is Life? From their Grammy Award winning album Anthem. The lyrics go something like this:
What is life? I try to see.
What is life? It’s unity.
What is life? I try to feel.
What is life? It’s really real.
Another song from the same album is the Black Uhuru Anthem where songwriter Duckie Simpson refers to the Rastafari faithful as the “living dread” and rhymes it with the “living dead”, referring all the other people.
Third World and Inner Circle had a lot of common members including Bunny Rugs and Stephen Coore. In 1977, they published an album 960 In The Shade. The title song referred to an incident in 1895 called the Morant Bay Rebellion where over 500 people were killed by the British either through military action or through execution. In the song, the songwriters write:
You caught me on the loose,
Fighting to be free,
Now you show me a noose,
On the cotton tree,
Entertainment for you,
Martyrdom for me.
These songs were, of course, very popular in Jamaica. But international fame required them to cross over. Third World got international fame when they did a number of cover versions like Now That We Have Found Love (The O’Jays) and live shows with Stevie Wonder who loved their song Journey to Addis. Stevie Wonder wrote a song for them called Try Jah Love which is a very syruppy American pop song.
In 1988, came Hurricane Gilbert. Willie Stewart, the drummer, was one of ther long standing members. He says that 1988 was a life changing year for him and most Jamaicans as Hurricane Gilbert tore through the island. Stewart says in Bordowitz’s Noises of the World:
From the whole thing we got a very important message. Your home is within you. You can’t get a physical structure and say, that’s your home, because that can be broken up.
Jamaica was going to rebuild the country fully. The world has to take theat structure from Jamaica. Say that we are going to rebuild a new, musical sound/
In 1989, the song Forbidden Love saw Third World go beyond dreadlocks, Jamaica and Jah and they were writing about love in a verySufi sort of way.
When I look into the mirror I see someone
Who’s life will never be the same again
‘Cause they say that what we found forbidden love, love
And the question we are up against
Dance Hall Poetry
In a very weird way, I find all these reggae bands very similar to our own Bappida. Ostensibly dance music, the songs themselves were extremely poetic with deep messaging embedded in them. When you listen to dance songs in a dance hall, you are not paying attention to the lyrics at all. In fact dance hall music is not supposed to have any lyrics. But these songs draw your attention, like Bappida’s disco songs which had some heavy lyrics.
Roots reggae takes you to the milieu of Jamaica, both physical and mental, and you are vicariously living the lives of the Rasta on the streets of Kingston or on the ridges of the Blue Mountains or in Addis Ababa. To close this piece, it would be apt to go to Bob Marley and his epic Roots, Rock, Reggae.
Feel like dancing, dance cause we are free
Feel like dancing, come dance with me
Roots rock reggae, this a reggae music
I have created a playlist of 11 reggae songs here: They are:
- Jamaican Farewell, Harry Belafonte, (cover traditional)
- Long Shot Kick de Bucket, The Pioneers, 1968, considered the first reggae recording
- Sun is Shining, Black Uhuru, 1977 (cover of Bob Marley)
- Bad Boys, Inner Circle, used in COPS
- Tenement Yard, Inner Circle / Jacob Miller, 1977
- What is Life, Black Uhuru, 1983
- Black Uhuru Anthem, Black Uhuru, 1983
- Now That We’ve Found Love, Third World, 1978 (cover of The O’Jays)
- 1895 (960 in the shade), Third World
- Forbidden Love, Third World
- Roots, Rock, Reggae, Bob Marley and the Wailers