There is no denying that for a nation as small as Jamaica, with a population of just 2.7 million, the country's rich musical legacy has had a colossal impact on the international stage.
Over the last 50 years, Jamaica’s music has evolved into an international phenomenon – a movement that has garnered worldwide acceptance and praise, through the talents and work of musical greats, such as Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Ziggy Marley and Shaggy.
“It is our music in the last 50 years that is our greatest calling card, and potentially among our top income earners,” says Director/Curator, Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica, Mr. Herbie Miller.
It all began with the musical phenomenon known as Ska – the sound that echoed the birth of a nation. This was the monotonic beats of a quick paced, tantalising rhythm, fused with Rhythm and Blues undercurrents.
This musical revolution, born out of the slums of Kingston’s inner cities, is considered the first known sound of authentic Jamaican music.
Songs like, ‘Forward March’ by Ska legend, Derrick Morgan, released in 1962, appropriately became the soundtrack to Jamaica’s Independence from British rule in that same year.
“Gather together, be brothers and sisters. We’re independent! Join hands to hands, children started to dance. We’re independent!” sang the Clarendon native, on the track which still resonates with Jamaicans today.
It was a unique Jamaican sound, a twist between authentic Jamaican melodies and the beats of the American music form, Rhythm and Blues. The music spoke to a nation and a people, who would now direct their own paths, and forge their own destiny.
“Coming just before Independence in 1962 and extending beyond, the Ska was a launching pad for one of the most creative periods of Jamaican music,” writes former Prime Minister, the Most Hon. Edward Seaga, in his article, ‘The Origins of Jamaican Popular Music’.
“New composers, new songs, new performers emerged as if all this talent had been in a cupboard just waiting for the door to be opened,” he adds.
Mr. Seaga informs that in just a couple of years, Ska not only became the dominant music in the country, but had begun to penetrate the international market, reaching many thousands of Jamaicans who had migrated to England in the previous decade.
This spawned Jamaica’s first international hit in 1964 in the form of the song, ‘My Boy Lollipop’ by Millie Small, which was produced by Chris Blackwell.
“From there on, a series of Jamaican hits followed in England, where the Ska was known as the Blue Beat,” writes Mr. Seaga.
Also in the 1960s, the renowned Studio One, created by the late Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, would become Jamaica’s ‘Motown’, where all the musical greats would get a chance to record. It was the first recording studio in Jamaica to be owned by a black man.
Many, including musical legends, Toots and the Maytals, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Prince Buster, the Skatalites and Theophilus Beckford, got their start recording at the studio, paving the way for what would become Jamaica’s rich, musical legacy.
Ska would later give way to Rock Steady, which emerged in 1967. This later evolved into Reggae – the flag bearer of Jamaican music – a musical force that has undoubtedly taken the world by storm. Reggae could easily be regarded as Jamaica’s most recognisable and influential musical form on the international stage.
Mr. Seaga writes that, “in everyday reference, particularly abroad, reggae became a generic term for all Jamaican music, the sound of Jamaica.”
The formidable force of Dub/DJ/Dancehall followed Reggae, which also revolutionised Jamaica’s musical landscape. Dancehall became more than music. It evolved into a lifestyle, with its own forms of dress, dance, social norms and even speech.
Today, Jamaica’s music has developed into a global movement, becoming probably the single most influential aspect of Jamaican culture.
Mr. Miller tells JIS News that it is a major achievement that this country is so well-known internationally for its music. He notes too that though unofficial, music is one of Jamaica’s top income earners.
“When an artiste tours with a dozen crew members, that’s one dozen families, plus the shopkeeper, the tailor, and the hairdresser… that will benefit from the earnings of this one artiste,” he says.
He points out that with this earning potential and international impact, Jamaica’s musicians have contributed significantly to the country’s economy.
“Many musicians earn enough to buy their own homes. When you think of all the other interests they have…they set up studios, they buy and rent out instruments, and their contribution to the economic development of Jamaica is significant,” he says.
In addition, Mr. Miller notes that in relation to tourism, Jamaica’s culture and music is a part of the tremendous pull that attracts so many tourists to the island’s shores.
“It is our culture that is bringing all these people here. They are amazed at who we are, and we amaze them with our achievements musically,” he says.
Mr. Miller further posits that Jamaica’s achievements musically can be rated second to none. “Tell me, which other part of the world has so attracted the attention of the entire world?” he asks.
He also informs that Jamaica has helped to shape and dictate world trends in music for the last 30 years.
In the meantime, Mr. Miller says of note also are the achievements of Jamaica’s many artistes, “who continuously sell records in the millions.”
Among the great Jamaican musicians was the late legendary Robert Nesta Marley, who many have regarded as Jamaica’s greatest achievement in music. The St. Ann native, who later moved to Trench Town with his mother in the 1950s, is arguably Jamaica’s most prolific and revered musician.
His greatest honours, however, came after his death in 1981. These include a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a GrammyLifetime Achievement Award. His songs and albums have also won numerous honours, such as Time Magazine’s Album of the Century (for Exodus) and the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Song of the Millennium – ‘One Love’.
Mr. Miller posits that no other Jamaican, in any arena, is as recognisable across all cultures, in almost all countries of the world, as Bob Marley.
Another outstanding Jamaican musician, who continues to have an incredible impact on the world, is Jimmy Cliff (James Chambers). Mr. Seaga writes that Jimmy Cliff “was part of every period of Jamaican music."
“From the outset, he was writing beautiful hit songs… Jimmy Cliff proved to be one of the most enduring artistes even until today,” notes Mr. Seaga.
In 1993, Mr. Cliff was awarded the Order of Merit for his contribution to music by then Prime Minister, the Most Hon. P.J. Patterson. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.
International recognition in the form of awards has also been forthcoming for many Jamaicans, with the enviable Grammy Awards, being at the top of the list. In 1985, the group Black Uhuru received the first Grammy Award for ‘Best Reggae Recording’ (later changed to ‘Best Reggae Album’ in 1992). Since then, a slew of dynamic Jamaicans have been recipients of the award, which is probably the highest achievement of any recording artiste.
These include, Jimmy Cliff in 1986; Steel Pulse, 1987; Peter Tosh, 1988; Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, 1989, 1990 and 1998; Bunny Wailer, 1991, 1995 and 1997; Shabba Ranks, 1992 and 1993; Inner Circle, 1994; Shaggy, 1996; Sly and Robbie, 1999; Burning Spear, 2000 and 2009; Beenie Man, 2001; Damian Marley, 2002 and 2006; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, 2003; Sean Paul, 2004; Toots and the Maytals, 2005; Ziggy Marley, 2007; Stephen Marley, 2008, 2010 and 2012; and Buju Banton, 2011.
By Athaliah Reynolds-Baker, JIS Reporter