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Jamaica’s Heritage in Music

Revivalism: Revival Zion and Pocomania

Revivalism began in Jamaica between 1860 and 1861 as a part of a religious movement called the Great Revival. It is a combination of elements from African pagan beliefs and Christianity and has several forms, the two major forms being Revival Zion and Pocomania. The Revival ritual involves singing, drumming, dancing, hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and groaning along with the use of prayers to invite possession. It also includes music and songs from orthodox religion. Revivalism is found chiefly in the parishes of Kingston, St. Andrew, St. Catherine, St. Elizabeth and St. Ann.

Popular revival songs in Jamaica include, “O let the power fall on me my Lord” and “River Maid”.

O Let the Power Fall on Me Lyrics

O let the power of Zion fall on I for I

Let the power fall on I

Let the power from  Zion fall on I

Let the power fall on I



Mento is the original popular music form in Jamaica, developed during the plantation period and holding sway up to the 1950s. It was born out of the fusion of African and British influences.  Its performance mode, rhythmic impulse, as well as its call and response type of singing is African in origin, while the scale patterns, harmonic concepts, and verse and chorus song types are British.

Mento is regarded in some circles as the Jamaican equivalent to calypso.  While some of the songs were aired regularly, others were banned as they were thought to be too sexually explicit. Mento was first recorded by artistes such as Lord Flea and Lord Fly and later Harold Richardson and ‘Sugar Belly’ Walker. Popular Mento recordings include “Run Mongoose’, ‘Rukumbine’ and ‘Peel Head John Crow’.

Peel Head John Crow Lyrics

Dis long time, gal me nevah see yuh

Come mek me hol yuh han’

Dis long time, gal me nevah see yuh

Come mek me hol u han’

Peel head John Crow sidung pon tree top

Pick off de blossom,

Mek me hol yuh han’ gal, mek me hol yuh han’



Calypso is a phenomenon of the Eastern Caribbean. With a forward moving rhythm, its early forms bear a close relationship to Mento. However, the African heritage of calypso can be clearly identified. West Africans, ancestors of the New World black men, often sang songs of praise and songs of ridicule and mockery. Their professional street singers and community choirs performed these songs which relied on choral rhyme, the dancing chorus and the “call-and-response” order that are similar to native songs of the old Guinea coast.  Even the name “calypso” or (“kaiso”) can be traced to a West African source.

The first true Jamaican calypsoes were those of the famous Jazz pianist, band leader and vocalist, Baba Motta, who sang “She Pon Top”, recorded in the late 1950s. Pure calypso has since given way to a more modern form which was popularized by The Honourable Byron Lee, OJ and his calypso band called “The Dragonaires”.


Rastafarian Music

Rastafarian music originated from the Rastafarian Movement, which began during the 1930s in Jamaica.  A Rastafarian man by the name of Count Ossie Williams was very instrumental in the development of this music. His interest in music led him to take ideas from an easier type of Jamaican music called Burru which was originally from Africa. Count Ossie adapted the Burru drums and combined them with the Kumina rhythms of his youth in St. Thomas and arrived at what is now known as Rasta music.

Several instruments are played in Rasta music, for example, tambourines, shakers, scrapers, striker bells, sometimes the saxophone and trombone and, most importantly, drums. Three kinds of drums are used: The largest is the bass drum which produces the steady rhythm then the fundeh which sets the pace of the music and finally the Repeater which is the smallest of the three drums.

Satta Massagana Riddim



Ska, regarded as the forerunner of reggae music, was popularized by the late Don Drummond and the Skatalites during the early 1960s. It has been described as a Jamaicanized version of the North American Rhythm and Blues (R&B). The lyrics of ska were often about the prevailing socio-economic commentaries of the less privileged in the society. Popular songs of the ska era included Count Ossie’s ‘Oh Carolina’ and Millie Small’s, ‘My Boy Lollipop’.

The Ska dance

This consisted primarily of very fast paced movements such as “shuttle and split” which consisted of moving the hands upwards, downwards, side to side, backwards and forward while lifting the legs bent at the knees alternately.



Rocksteady, was a slower, somewhat erotic version of Ska, with elements of American Rhythm and Blues and the Mento.  With the slower beat, musicians were free to experiment with more complicated melodies. With the wider use of electronic instruments, horns were replaced by guitars – rhythms and solo – and the bass line became more complex and more melodic.

Rudie period

The transition period between Ska and Rocksteady was known as the ‘rudie’ period.  The songs of this period dealt with the criminal elements of the ghetto. Songs of the period included ‘007’, ‘Rude Boy’ and ‘Rudie in Court’, among others. Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley and the Wailers and Hopeton Lewis, were a few of the many artistes of this period.

The dance

The Ska and Rocksteady dances were similar in movements. The main difference was the beat of the music. In Rocksteady, the dancer would try to keep his/her feet as steady as possible.  He would then shift his weight from one foot to the other slowly.  At the same time he/she would shake his/her shoulder to the beat of the music while rocking the rest of his/her body.


Rocksteady had a fairly short life span.  By the end of the 1960s the music had become more up-tempo and the popular musical genre known as Reggae was born.  Reggae is a slower version of rocksteady music and is characterised by its heavy, often repeated bass.  Like its forerunners, Ska and rock steady, reggae songs often contain a message – political, religious or social.  There is also a strong element of Rastafarianism in the music.

Over the years, the popularity of reggae music has increased both locally and internationally. In 1983 the group Black Uhuru won the first Grammy Award with ‘Anthem’. The late Robert “Bob” Marley who died in 1981 still remains the most widely acclaimed reggae artiste. He was awarded the Order of Merit (OM) for his contribution to the development of reggae music. Other popular artistes include Toots and the Maytals, Third World, Jimmy Cliff, U-Roy, Beres Hammond and Dennis Brown.

Conscious Reggae

In 1993, there emerged a new dimension to reggae music. This was known as conscious reggae. The lyrics of these songs addressed social and spiritual issues. Artistes such as Tony Rebel, Sizzla Kalonji, Buju Banton, Luciano, Capleton and the late Garnet Silk would fall into this genre.

Audiovisual: The Story of Reggae Pt 1 & 2 [TV Dept DVD]



Locally, the term gospel can cover any expression of religious music.  The words, rather than the music determine the classification of the song.  Most often the only uniquely Jamaican feature is the lyrics.  Early gospel music in Jamaica was inherited directly from the United States of America.  However, over the years, Jamaican gospel music has evolved.

One of the more popular proponents of gospel is the Grace Thrillers. Father Ho Lung and Friends have also contributed to the development of gospel, both in music and performance. Popular gospel groups include the Love Singers, David Keane and the Sunshine Singers. New artistes have also emerged through the gospel festival competitions mounted by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission which has as its mandate the unearthing, training and showcasing of talent.


Deejay/ Dancehall Music

What began sometime in the 70s and blossomed in the 80s as a mere exhortation to the crowd to dance at a “session” led to the birth of deejaying.  Deejays were a new set of champions of the music who spoke to the masses. Patrons at dances began to compare the ability of each deejay to motivate or “rock the crowd” and eventually this caught on, with artistes trying to “ride the rhythm” (chanting in tune with the beat), while at the same time creating with witty lyrics.

Thus, deejay music became inextricably intertwined with dancehall.  Dancehall became not just the place where a dance was held, but the music itself.  Deejay/dancehall music is sometimes considered vulgar and disrespectful to women as the language is at times sexually explicit and graphic. However, because of strict rules for airplay set out by the Broadcasting Commission, the production of this type of dancehall music has lessened.

Deejays of the early days include Big Youth and Scotty.  In the 80s and 90s there were Yellow Man and Michigan and Smiley and Shabba Ranks, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer, to name a few.


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