From Ska to Reggae: A Darker Turn

Where ska embraced the celebratory, happy side of Jamaican culture, reggae expressed something quite different. It expressed the sounds and pressures of ghetto life, especially in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. The chunking sound of the guitar, that characterises reggae, is called Skengay. This represents the gunshots in the ghetto streets and was often an emotional expression of rejection of the established white-man culture.

         During the mid-60s, Jamaican artists hugely slowed the tempo of ska. The up-tempo rhythm of ska represented the happy, euphoric feeling of Jamaican independence. In contrast, reggae was burdened by the weight of political lyrics and topics such as economic injustice.

         Few of the first musicians to pioneer reggae were Toots and the Maytals with their song ‘54-46 (That’s My Number)’ in 1968.

This song describes the citizens’ struggles with the oftentimes unfair display of force and power by the police. More specifically, the number 54-46 was the number Toots was assigned when he was unrightfully incarcerated for possession of weed. However, this song also contains a more positive note, namely, Toots will not be held back by this experience. Rather, he will continue to prosper and grow.

         Another band that should not go unmentioned is Bob Marley and the Wailers, for example with the song ‘Get Up, Stand Up’

This song is an expression against oppression; you should “Get up, stand up, stand up for your right.” This song also contains several Rastafari remarks such as “Preacher man don’t tell me heaven is under the earth,” which expresses the Rastafarian disbelief in a real paradise after death.

         Now that the connection between Rastafarianism and reggae has first been made, it might be interesting to look into Rastafarianism a bit more. Rastafarianism deifies the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I, and believes in the sacramental use of weed. Rastafari fight for equal rights and justice. It draws power to do this from communication with ancestors, which already was an established ritual before the coming of Rastafarianism.

         During the 70s it, much like Ska, spread to the UK and other parts of the world, where it fused with other genres into eclectic multi-genres. For example, it’s fusion with EDM and hip-hop brought about dub. But more about this in another blog post.