The Origins of Jamaican Popular Music
By The Most Hon. Edward Phillip George Seaga, ON, P.C., B.A., Y.B.A., LL.D. (Hon.)
This piece was prepared to illustrate the origins of Jamaican popular music which has established itself across the globe over the last 50 years. During that time, it maintained its popularity as it passed through different musical styles, from ska, rock steady, reggae, dub, deejay and dancehall.
Jamaican music can be said to have emerged in 1961 in a serious way. The year 2011 is also the 50th anniversary of the emergence of Jamaican music which, in the course of its development, demonstrated a triumph of creativity by borrowing nothing to build something.
We can now assess the importance of Jamaican music to the country and the world over the past half century.
- The Jamaican sound system of the inner-city has become the disco of uptown, at home and abroad, engineering a trans-formation through popular music with a social message.
- The development of dubbing and dee-jaying in Jamaica spawned the most compelling popular music in America today, rap and hip hop.
- Jamaican music has had a greater global impact than the music of any other country proportionate to size. This is a proud record of worldwide achievement.
This presentation is intended to set the development of Jamaican popular music in the sequence of the emergence of its rhythms and styles.
- Boogie, rock, rhythm and blues
- Boogie, rock, rhythm and blues
- Dub / Dee – Jay
To fully understand these developments, the music must be set in the framework of the media through which music reached the people and how it was produced and promoted.
After World War II, in the late 1940s, Jamaicans had few choices available to them for hearing recorded music. There was a part-time radio station with a call sign ZQI. It operated for a short period only each day to broadcast the news. Some music was played. The selections were mostly American tunes with a few other Western or Latin American pop selections. Radios and gramophones for playing 78 rpm records were found only in the homes of well-off residents. The broad mass of the population had little opportunity to hear music at their leisure.
Three developments occurred between the late 1940s and early 1950s:
- Sound-system dances occurred for the first time. Sound systems were sets with overpowering amplifiers, huge speaker boxes and a turntable. The systems played at dances in inner-city yards, meeting halls and street corners;
- In one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the century, the transistor was developed to replace bulky inefficient vacuum tubes.This electronically reproduced the music. The result was a pocket sized transistor radio which became available for play at home, at work and in between.
- ZQI was replaced by a fully established radio station, Radio Jamaica and Redifusion (RJR). Redifusion was a cable network of speaker boxes for homes or offices through which music was piped by cable from RJR at affordable rates.
By the mid 1950s Jamaicans were in a much better position to enjoy and be entertained by recorded music. Radio stations in nearby American states could be received at nights and recent American recordings could be heard on radios and at dances.
American music at that time, was undergoing a paradigm shift from jazz and big band to rhythm and blues, boogie and rock and roll. In Jamaica, the mass of the population enjoyed rhythm and blues (R&B) and boogie while residential urban areas were entertained by big band and rock and roll. Sound systems, in particular, relished the R&B and boogie music of the top artistes in America. Some of the most popular artistes were: Fats Domino, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and BB King.
Records were imported for the general public. Sound system operators, however, went to America to find unique recordings which would not be known to others here. These choice recordings were a vital part of the sound system repertoire in establishing which sound was best. Their reputation and financial success depended on these special records being used as surprise hits at dances and when two or more sounds “clashed” in a play-off. Sound systems would set up their equipment in their favourite dance areas of downtown Kingston, turn up the volume of their powerful sets to drown the sound of rivals nearby. Sometimes strong-arm tactics would be used to dissuade patrons from attending nearby dances. But mostly, the competitive edge was secured by having exclusive records to play which would draw the crowd.
To ensure anonymity, the recordings would be soaked in water to remove the record label. When the record became a hit, it would be given a name and be sold in very limited numbers at exorbitant profits. Later they would be released, gradually, in larger quantities at decreasing prices.
RJR played few local records, or even imported R&B recordings. Popular local tunes played by sound systems, hardly received airplay at RJR. It is said that the Wailers had to employ strong-arm tactics to get their records played.
In 1957, the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) was launched. JBC changed the policy of marginalizing Jamaican recordings. A programme featuring Jamaican recorded music, American R&B and boogie, was initiated to be aired every Friday in the early evening hours from The Glass Bucket Club in Half Way Tree, the leading uptown nightclub in Kingston. It was appropriately called Teen Age Dance Party with well known deejay Dwight Whylie as the host. It was very popular and well attended by teens as a live show. Hit music downtown, local and foreign, could be heard uptown.