The Music Of Jamaica

A dynamic and vibrant cultural force that has influenced the entire world for generations the Music of Jamaica is as diversified as it is delightfully infectious. Along with Trinidad, Jamaica has provided us with a truly colorful and uniquely spicy West Indian musical genres that represent a veritable paradise of hip shaking & heart pleasing styles.
The music of Jamaica includes well-known and  popular genres such as
Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dub music.


While much of early Jamaican music was directly influenced by American jazz, rhythm & blues, and the unique sounds of Trinidadian Calypso, Jamaican music has had a worldwide influence on pop & rock music, and also represents the origins of rap, hip-hop, and electronic dance music.

Naturally, Rastafarians have their own spiritual folk music, which includes drumming & chanting rarely heard in the world of popular recorded music. To a large extent Rasta culture has been carried worldwide by popular Jamaican music, particularly Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dub Version.

Outside of churches, tourist resorts, street carnivals, and recording studios there was very little live music played in Jamaica. This led to the early development of a complex network of musical and vocal recording artists, and heavily competitive record production & distribution out of the capital of Kingston.

It was in the Kingston recording studios where all the different genres joined together to share the styles and musical skills that lifted Jamaican music off of the island and onto the radio waves of the world.

Part of the international spread of Rastafarian culture originates with the popularity of Reggae musicians like Bob Marley, who as a short haired young man in a suit launched his career as a professional musician singing Mento tunes to drunk tourists at beachside resorts.

Here’s a brief rundown on some of the primary genres of Jamaican music that have brought us so much enjoyment, and that have been dynamically influential in spreading Rasta culture around the globe.


Often confused with Calypso from Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaican Mento is a musical style that predates and greatly influenced Ska and Reggae music. Mento typically features  instruments such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the ‘rhumba’ box – a large box shaped marumba that can be sat on while being played and generates the bass line of the music.

Lord Flea and Count Lasher are two of the more successful Mento artists, and well-known Mento songs include Day-O, Jamaica Farewell and Linstead Market.


Ska is a genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and was the precursor of both Rocksteady and Reggae.

Ska combines elements of both Caribbean Mento and Calypso with American jazz and rhythm & blues. The first ever Ska recording was ‘Oh Carolina’, made by the Folks Brothers and Count Ossie, who was a Nyabhingi drummer from the Rasta community.

 It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. In the early 1960s, Ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was super popular with British mods.

Sound Systems, DJs, & Toasting

Live music in Jamaica traditionally consisted of what are referred to as ‘Sound Systems’, which are exactly as described; a set of speakers, an amplifier, a record player, and someone with a collection of the latest hit records.

In the early days most young musicians in Jamaica were too poor to have either the  instruments or the equipment needed to stage live concerts, nor did they have the transportation to get all their gear there, and even if they could there was always the risk that their equipment could be damaged or stolen.

As a result a majority of musicians restricted their performances to working inside recording studios, creating records for a wide collection of different vocal & song writing artists. Almost all live music performances happened inside of recording studios, where the public was not generally invited.

Actual live performances by bands were rare events, and as a result  Sound Systems and the deejays that controlled them became the real celebrities on the Jamaican live music scene. Not only did DJ’s host dance concerts, but they were also responsible for introducing the public to the latest records, and were largely responsible for creating the popularity of individual musicians and their songs.

The only difference between a simple stereo system and a Jamaican ‘Sound System’ was that Sound Systems eventually evolved into a literal wall of speakers, stacks of amplifiers, and a number of turntables. These Sound System parties were where young dressed up Jamaicans went out at night to dance, fall in love, drink rum, or smoke ganja.

Sometimes sound systems were mounted on trucks driven to a certain location where the dance party eventually surrounded the truck wherever it was parked.

Along with the rise of Ska came the popularity of deejays such as Sir Lord Comic, Lord Emperor Faith, King Stitt and pioneer Count Matchuki, who began talking stylistically over the rhythms of popular songs at Sound System dance parties (Toasting), and all of whom, dressed in outrageous costumes and possessing their own extensive record collections, became real superstars of the Jamaican live music scene.

In Jamaican music The Deejay is the one who talks/raps/chants (known elsewhere as the MC) and The Selector was the person who chooses the records.

Toasting is a form of lyrical chanting over the beat that deejays created  and that became popular across Jamaica in the 1960s and 70s. Sound System and Dancehall music involves deejays chanting or humming over the rhythm track, and actually originates with old  African music traditions.

The popularity of Toasting Deejays as an essential component of the Sound System music scene created a need for instrumental versions of popular songs.

In the late 1960s producers such as King Tubby and Lee Perry began stripping the vocals away from popular hit songs, creating records made specifically for Sound System parties. (see ‘Dub’ below).

With the bare beats and bass dominating and the lead instruments dropping in & out of the mix, toasting Deejays began delivering humorous and taunting jabs at fellow deejays and local celebrities. Over time Toasting became an increasingly complex performance, and became as big a draw as the original hit dance records being played.

The basic elements of hip-hop & rap music are found in Jamaican Toasting; boasting raps, rival posses, throwdowns, and political commentary, all of which originated from Trinidadian music known as Extempo Wars that was practiced as far back as the 1800s, and showed up in the first commercial musical recordings of the 1920s and 30s.

Calypso continued to evolve throughout the ’50s and 60s, so when Rocksteady and Reggae bands looked to turn their music into a form of national or international black resistance they followed Calypso’s well established  example.

Like Calypso, Jamaican music moved back and forth between the predominance of boasting and toasting in songs packed with sexual innuendo and topical, political style.


By the mid 1960s, a time when The Wailers and The Clarendonians dominated the charts, Rocksteady was the music of Jamaica’s ‘Rude Boys’, the fearless street gangsters that for a time made Kingston the most dangerous non-war zone city on earth.

Desmond Dekker’s “007” brought international attention to this new Jamaican genre. In contrast to Ska’s strong horn section, Rocksteady put heavier emphasis on the bass line, and the rhythm guitar began playing on the upbeat. Session musicians like Supersonics, Soul Vendors, The Jets, and Jackie Mittoo (of the Skatalites) became popular Rocksteady artists.


Reggae is one of few music genres that originated entirely in Jamaica. In the late 1960s, around the same time of Toasting, Reggae began to expand and infiltrate the ears and bodies of countless Jamaicans.

Reggae stems directly from early Ska and Rocksteady sounds, but has its own particular style of authenticity, speaking about life ups & downs, and bringing a positive spiritual slant to popular music. Bob Marley is the most renowned of the Reggae performers, and remains a legendary musical celebrity across the entire planet.

The term Reggae is a Jamaican patois pronunciation of the word ragamuffin. A person who is reggae was considered rough around the edges, simple, humble & unsophisticated – but a completely sincere sort of figure.

A 1968 single by Toots Hibbert and his band The Maytals called “Do the Reggay” was the first popular song to use the word “Reggae,” effectively naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience.

In the late 1960s Reggae emerged as a danceable reinterpretation of American R&B with lyrics that directly addressed social issues of racially and economically oppressed Jamaican citizens. Reggae was on one hand militant while on the other hand spiritual. These two forces gave it a strangely graceful & powerful sound built on the 4/4 rhythm which precisely matches the natural beat of the human heart.

It was just a happy accident that the 1970’s peak of the international American pot smoking Hippie movement coincided with the ganja burning philosophies of the Rastafarians. Richard Nixon’s drug war temporarily shut down the Mexican border on the Pacific coast,  forcing the ever adaptive marijuana trade to look for unexploited sources of good weed. Enter Jamaica & South Florida.

The obvious geographic & cultural connection of the South Atlantic and Gulf states to the Caribbean blossomed along with the growing trade in Jamaican ganja, leading to a new focus on the music of the region that eventually led to the international success of artists like Jimmy Cliff and spliff burning rebels Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Burning Spear.

Bob Marley soon came to be viewed as a messianic Rastafarian figure by many throughout the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and among Native Americans and even Australian Aborigines. His lyrics about love, redemption, overcoming oppression, and natural beauty captivated audiences everywhere.

At the height of his popularity Marley garnered international headlines for fearlessly negotiating a truce between the two violently opposed Jamaican political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, getting them to actually meet onstage  and shake hands at the One Love Concert in Montego Bay, and only 24 hours after the bandaged up Marley had been shot by political hitmen in his own home.

Reggae has endured as the most widely recognized and popular of all Jamaican musical genres, and remains the one most publically associated with Rastafarian culture.

Dub / Version

By 1973 Dub music had emerged as a distinct Reggae genre, and heralded the dawn of The Remix.

Developed by record producers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, Dub featured previously recorded songs remixed with prominence on the bass.

Often the lead instruments and vocals would drop in & out of the mix, often heavily processed with studio effects.

King Tubby’s advantage came from his intimate knowledge with audio gear and his ability to build personal Sound Systems & recording studios that were superior to the competition. He became famous for remixes of recordings made by other artists, as well as those he created in his own studio.

Dub is also referred to as ‘Version’, basically meaning that it’s a stripped-down instrumental version of the original song, with bold sonic affects and much greater amplification of the drumming and baseline.

This style proved to be extremely popular, and invariably famous recording artists would release a Dub version of their popular albums – simply because their fans demanded it.

Dub is looked upon as more hard-core, rough, and direct, and as such represents a really essential sub-genre of reggae music.