Some Historical Facts: Jamaican music

Notes on Mento, Ska, Sound Systems,Rocksteady, and Reggae.


Eventually, Mento (Jamaican equivalent of Calypso, which was from Trinidad) evolved into Ska – the music which proved to be the soundtrack for Jamaica when the country received its independence from Britain on 6th August 1962.

Contrary to popular belief, there was never really a dance called Ska. The music was merely a hybrid of Mento, doo-wop, r&b and jazz. Although early recordings like Theophilus Beckford’s Easy Snappin and Ska-ing West by Sir Lord Comic were popular in the Caribbean, it was Millie Small’s hit, My Boy Lollipop that first brought Jamaican music to the attention of an international audience. The track topped the British charts in 1964 and was the first sign that Jamaican music (previously confined to Kingston and the West Indian ghettos of east London) was much more than a passing fad.


The importance of portable discotheques (or sound system as they are more commonly known) in relation to the Jamaican music industry cannot be overstated. They first appeared in the late 1940s and were largely established by entrepreneurial record shop owners who wanted to increase sales. They would travel around the country playing the latest and most obscure records they could lay their hands on.
Few people owned radios and the only way to hear the latest SKA or rhythm and blues was to go the big outdoor dances. Consisting of up to thirty or forty speakers, the sound system was Jamaica’s most valuable source of information.

The sound systems had massive followings and clashes would start when rival sounds accidentally found themselves playing in close proximity. People would often wait and see which sound was playing the best music before deciding where they would spend the night partying.

In the early 1950s, Tom The Great Sebastian was the leading sound system, but by 1955, new sounds like Trojan, Downbeat, Prince Buster, Merritone, Lord Koos and Duke Vin (the last two would later relocated to the UK), were taking precedence and Tom was forced to take a back seat.

Of all the old sound system men, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid was the most intimidating. As the founder of the infamous Trojan sound system, Reid would often show up to dances adorning a glimmering crown, two Colt .45s in twin holsters and a shotgun strapped to his back. As an ex policeman, Reid associated with many of Kingston’s underworld figures and it is often claimed that it was he who first introduced the element of badmanism into the sound system business.

Reid’s closets rival was Coxsone Dodd’s Down Beat and although Trojan was crowned ‘King Of Sounds’ between 1956 and 1958, Down Beat dominated until 1966.

Sound system bosses became Jamaica’s first record producers and in 1957, both Coxsone and Reid began recording songs for their respective labels: Studio One and Treasure Isle. The law of supply and demand was inescapable and coupled with Coxsone’s realisation that American record companies didn’t seem to notice when he shamelessly pirated their material – the cornerstone of the Jamaican recording industry was born.

Legend has it that the first rapping session took place on Boxing Day 1950, when Tom The Great Sebastian played at a dance in downtown Kingston. When Tom left the dance to get liquor, he left Winston ‘Count’ Machuki to select music for the audience. Still a teenager and given his first opportunity to select solo, Machuki began chatting over the discs he was spinning. He would use hip phrases and make them rhyme in time with the music: ‘If You dig my jive/You’re cool and very much alive. Everybody all around town/Machuki’s the reason why I shake it down.


By the mid sixties, most of the prominent record producers were selling their music to British labels. The injection of extra cash led them to improve their equipment. New instruments and the urge for a slower tempo (many critics believe the extraordinarily hot summer of 1966 was the catalyst for this) led to the evolvement of a new sound.
Rocksteady was lighter and more airy than Ska and allowed both artistes and musicians more freedom of expression.

Although the Rocksteady era only lasted for a short period (1966-68), the sound introduced a whole new wave of singers and musicians. The Wailers, Alton Ellis, Ken Booth, John Holt and the Paragons, Desmond Dekker, Derrick Harriot, The Heptones and the Techniques all made their names during the Rocksteady era.

A sure sign of Rocksteady ‘s popularity is the fact that in 1967, Max Romeo’s Wet Dream (a track banned by the BBC because of its sexual conations) went on to sell close to 1 million copies in the UK alone.
It is impossible to say when Jamaican music evolved from Rocksteady into reggae, but although Larry and Alvin’s Nanny Goat and the Beltones’ No More Heartaches both compete for the status of first Reggae record – the Maytal’s hit, Do The Reggay (released in 1968) was the first published use of the word.

The birth of Reggae marked a significant turning point in Jamaican culture. Whereas the Ska and Rocksteady periods had encompassed a more laid back and soulful attitude, Reggae was militant and rebellious. As ever, the music was merely a reflection of Jamaica’s social climate.


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