A Brief History of Jamaican Music Prior to Reggae

A look at the various genres of music that came out of Jamaica before reggae became the dominant sound.

The Origins of Jamaican Music

Jamaican music has its origins in the African slave trade, when slaves were brought over to the island to work on plantations. The music was a way for the slaves to express their feelings and communicate with each other. The music was also a way to pass on African traditions and culture to the next generation. Reggae is a genre of Jamaican music that developed in the 1960s.

African influences

The first Africans to arrive in Jamaica came as slaves, brought by the Spanish from their colonies in South and Central America. These early slaves were forced to work on the sugar plantations, where they were introduced to new musical styles and instruments from Europe and other parts of the world. African music, which was based on rhythm and percussion, began to mix with these new influences, creating a unique African-Jamaican sound.

One of the most important African-Jamaican genres is nyabinghi, a type of drumming that is still practiced today. Nyabinghi drums were originally used for religious ceremonies, but they later became popular in secular settings as well. Other African-influenced genres include Mento (a type of Jamaican folk music) and Kumina (a spiritual music tradition).

European influences

The firstrecorded Jamaican music was brought to the island by European sailors and settlers in the 1600s. These early musical styles included English and Scottish ballads, Irish reels, and African work songs. By the 1800s, Jamaican music had evolved into a unique blend of all these influences, which laid the groundwork for the development of reggae in the twentieth century.

One of the most important early genres of Jamaican music was mento. Mento is a blend of African folk music, Caribbean calypso, and European ballads and Dance tunes. It was performed by a duo or trio with guitar, banjo, bass, drums, and percussion instruments like maracas and güiro. The lyrics were often improvised and were often about everyday life on the island.

Mento was popularized in the 1950s by artists like Lord Flea and Count Lasher who performed in Kingston’s clubs and hotels. Mento bands continued to be popular into the 1960s, when they began to be challenged by ska. Ska is a faster-paced style of Jamaican music that emerged in the late 1950s. It combines elements of mento, calypso, jazz, R&B, and rocksteady. The first ska song to become a hit was “Don Drummond” by The Skatalites in 1965.

Ska quickly evolved into rocksteady, which was slower and more soulful than ska. Rocksteady became Jamaica’s dominant form of popular music in the late 1960s. Artists like Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, and Dillinger helped to popularize the genre with hits like “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Cocaine In My Brain”.

Reggae emerged out of rocksteady in the late 1960s as a more politicized form of Jamaican music. Reggae is distinguished by its heavy bass sound and its slow, offbeat tempo known as “the one drop.” The first major hit song in this style was Toots & The Maytals’ “Do The Reggay,” which gave reggae its name. Reggae continued to grow in popularity throughout the 1970s with artist like Bob Marley & The Wailers leading the way. In the 1980s and 1990s , reggae fusion artists like Shaggy brought reggae-style rhythms to hundreds of millions of new listeners around the world

American influences

The first recorded instance of Jamaican music was in 1778, when British soldiers stationed in Jamaica began to sing and play local folk songs. These songs were largely borrowed from the African slaves who lived on the island, and they helped to establish the Jamaican musical tradition. In the 19th century, American sailors and traders brought music from their homeland to Jamaica, and this had a profound impact on the development of Jamaican music. These new influences led to the creation of Mento, a musical style that combined African rhythms with European melodies.

The Development of Jamaican Music

Jamaican music has undergone many changes over the years, from its earliest beginnings in the African rhythms brought over by slaves to the development of such genres as Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, and, of course, Reggae. Each form of Jamaican music has been influenced by the others, creating a rich tapestry of sound that is uniquely Jamaican.


In the late 1950s, Jamaican musicians began to experiment with a new style that would eventually come to be known as ska. Ska is a fast-paced, upbeat style of music that uses horns and guitars to create a unique sound. The popularity of ska spread throughout the Caribbean and soon found its way to the United Kingdom, where it became hugely popular in the 1960s. Ska was later eclipsed by reggae, but its influence can still be heard in Jamaican music today.


In the late 1960s, rocksteady emerged as a slower and more soulful successor to ska. This style was typified by the work of singer Alton Ellis, one of the genre’s most important artists. The rocksteady sound began to decline in popularity around 1968, leading to the rise of the more up-tempo and politically conscious reggae.


The 1960s saw the development of ska, an forerunner of reggae. Jamaican musicians began to hybridize American R&B and jazz with Jamaican mento and calypso. Mento is a rural folk music that is characterized by its staccato rhythms and call and response vocals, while calypso is a music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago that is similar to Mento but with a heavier emphasis on African rhythms. The first wave of ska was led by bands like The Skatalites and The Wailers.

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