History

Pre-1950

Roots in Jamaica & the Caribbean


Roots in Jamaica

From its origins in Jamaica, with dub plates spinning on the sound systems of Trenchtown, Reggae music has had an undeniable cultural influence around the world. However no musical genre can be isolated from its historical background and Reggae is no exception. Read on as we take a journey back in time spanning over 50 years….

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

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© Trustees of the British Museum

The Caribbean islands, known as the West Indies, owe their current appearance to the import of slaves from Africa, through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Goods and arms from Britain were traded on the African continent for African people, who endured atrocious conditions, packed onto ships during the horrendous Middle Passage across the Atlantic, where many perished. On reaching the American continent, slaves were then sold to plantation owners, to work on giant plantations in America and the Caribbean islands. The slave ships returned to Britain and Europe loaded with sugar, rum and molasses, completing this Tri-angular Slave Trade. Thus the links between Bristol and the Caribbean were formed.

Drumbeat of Africa

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© Trustees of the British Museum

African people from across the vast continent were thrown together, with different languages and religions, but with a shared culture of communication through music. The African drum accompanied slaves on their enforced journey and its traditional sound and rhythm has become the basis for all modern music. The British museum recognised the influence of the African drum in its series ‘A History of the World in 100 objects’.

Slavery was slowly abolished during the 19th century, following uprisings across the Caribbean, but conditions remained harsh for former slaves.

Jamaica’s Musical Roots – Ska & Calypso

Ska Covers Poster

© Urban Image Collection

The roots of Reggae began with the birth of Ska in the Caribbean, with pioneering artists like Prince Buster, the Skatalites, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires leading the trend. Inspired by music from Black America, including Rhythm & Blues harmonies and brass sections from Jazz, a distinctive ‘hitch’ sound of guitar and off-beat snare shots formed the basis of Ska. There are many theories for the origin of the word ‘Ska’. Alongside the music, a new culture and fashion was developing, with the sharp-dressing ‘Rude Boys’ (to be revived later in the UK in the 1980s with 2 Tone record releases by bands such as The Specials and Madness).

© Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

© Adrian Boot / urbanimage.tv

Calypso was also popular in the Caribbean, synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago and the annual French-influenced Carnival, or ‘Mas’, that was to spread across the globe, where each year a Calypso monarch would be crowned. Like Reggae, Calypso also had its origins in African music that had travelled across to the plantations. The music originated from West African folk songs, sung by plantation slaves in French and English Patois to mock their masters. In the 1930s Calypsonians such as Atilla the Hun, Lord Invader and the Roaring Lion were popular, with Lord Kitchener dominating the scene during the 1940s. The Steel Pan became central to the sound of Calypso during the 1940s, made from a steel or oil drum that is played using drumsticks with rubber ends, which remains an important symbol of Carnival to this day.

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