Music of Jamaica

Jamaican Reggae

Map of Country


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This webpage introduces the reader to Jamaica and Jamaican reggae music.   I discuss the general location, geography, history, and climate of Jamaica.   I then describe the origins and cultural significance of reggae.   Finally, I include a reggae song accompanied by the original lyrics and an interpretation of the song.



When anybody mentions Jamaica, many people will imagine the white beaches, the beautiful landscapes, and even the bobsled team.   However, why not think about the Jamaican culture that is filled with various art forms, religious beliefs, and music?   Jamaica offers the world many wonderful and exciting places to visit and explore, yet music may be one of the greatest gifts the country has to put forward.   Reggae, the form of music that has spread all over the world, is Jamaica's form of expression in many arenas.   Jamaican reggae represents the indigenous art form of music for the masses, and a way in which the Jamaicans chose to define themselves.   Reggae music is very much part of Jamaica's cultural heritage.


Location, Geography, and Climate of Jamaica

The island of Jamaica is located in the Caribbean Sea, just south of Cuba.   Jamaica is a bit smaller than the state of Connecticut (CIA 2004).   Jamaica is also located between the Cayman Trench and the Jamaica Channel, which is one of the main sea lanes for the Panama Canal (Murphy 1995).

Jamaica is the third largest of the Caribbean islands, but the country is only 146 miles wide at the widest point (Murphy 1995).   Jamaica is comprised of mainly mountainous terrain, although there are a few coastal plains (CIA 2004).   Surrounding the country is the Caribbean Sea and many beaches, and Jamaica reaches it tallest point at 7,402 feet on a mountain ridge known as Blue Mountain.   The country was primarily formed from volcanic origins, causing the mountain ridges (Murphy 1995).

Jamaica has a tropical climate causing it to be hot and humid almost year round (CIA 2004).   The temperature usually averages 75 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer, although the mountain region is a bit cooler.   Jamaica is usually sunny, while there is a rainy season during the months of May, June, September, and October (Murphy 1995).


Brief History of Jamaica

Before Christopher Columbus discovered Jamaica in 1494, the Arawaks from South America had already settled in the country.   When Columbus arrived, Spain took over control and eventually the Arawaks were killed off by disease and slavery (Sadie and Tyrrell 2001).   The British then took formal control in 1670 with the Treaty of Madrid.   At this point, Jamaica was a valuable country due to the slavery and sugar production.   The British Parliament abolished slavery in 1834, although freed slaves, called Maroons, still faced many hardships.   At this time, the sugar crop was diminishing, and production began to focus on bananas (Wikipedia 2004).   It wasn't until the 1930s that Jamaica gained some local political control from the British colonial rule.   Jamaica held its first election in 1944.   Starting in 1958, Jamaica was a member of the Federation of the West Indies until they withdrew in 1961.   On August 6, 1962, Jamaica gained full independence and continued to be a member of the Commonwealth (U.S. State Department 1998).


Distinctive Features of Jamaica

Jamaica derives much of its foreign exchange through tourism into the country.   There was a significant decline in the number of tourists entering Jamaica after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2002.   There was a rebound near the end of 2003 with an increase in tourism dollars.   This high amount of tourism may be due to the fact of Jamaica's easy access location in the Caribbean in addition to Jamaica being an English speaking country (CIA 2004).


Origins of Reggae

Reggae was formed from many different influences from around the world.   In general, this form of music comes from a foundation based in Africa, but one that has been largely influenced by European, Cuban, and American music (History of Reggae 2003).  

Mento was the first music known and recorded in Jamaica during the 1950s.   This style was comprised of folk music that was created to fulfill certain social functions within their churches and work songs.   Mento is a “loose-sounding folk music sometimes confused with calypso” that can be described by its use of European trumpets and African drum instruments (History of Reggae 2003:c1).   This form of music has had an influence on all later music developed by Jamaica (Barrow and Dalton 1997).   Soon after mento was recorded, Jamaicans started listening to American music.   This created what has come to be known as Jamaican R&B, styled after the American rhythm and blues.   This also brought about the creation of the “sound systems,” otherwise described as traveling discos (Davis and Simon 1979).   Around the 1960s, American R&B began to diminish, Jamaica claimed their independence, and reggae started to emerge and develop (Prahlad 2001).  

Local musicians began to create their own music after the influences of American, British and Canadian music forms.   This music came to be known as ska, consisting of R&B and mento forms.   Ska was distributed around the world, and became a quick hit in Britain (Barrow and Dalton 1997).   Eventually though, ska music was replaced with a new form known as “rock-steady” (Davis and Simon 1979).   This form of music seemed to be steadier and more relaxed (History of Reggae 2003).  

In 1968, reggae emerged.   This form focused more on a slower sound and had an emphasis in the bass (Davis and Simon 1979).   Reggae is slower than rock steady in that it focuses more on chanting and musical meditation.   As with rock steady which had a prominent role in bringing bass to the forefront, reggae continues with an almost booming bass line included in the music. The bass is what makes the song, and creates the different versions of music (History of Reggae 2003).   This form of music took quite awhile to appeal to other parts of the world, and was often times thought to be a joke (Prahlad 2001).  

Lastly, Rastafari, also known as Rasta, had a large influence in reggae music.   Rastafari is a movement of African Americans who believe that Africa is their homeland.   The movement emerged from the depression that the African slaves had to endure.   The sentiment of this movement was pure, without anger, and full of love.   The philosophy of Rastafari is “Freedom of Spirit, Freedom from Slavery, and Freedom of Africa” (Rastafari 2004c:1).   This is when the reggae music began to show elements of the African Jamaican culture (Prahlad 2001).   While Rasta is not a church, it “is more a core of spiritual and cultural beliefs open to a variety of interpretations” (History of Reggae 2003c:5).   Rasta carried a message of black self-empowerment and to not feel shameful for African heritage (Hebdige 1987).   Rastafari helped to make reggae music important both socio-politically and culturally (History of Reggae 2003).   Reggae music is “an avenue of Rastafarian self-expression that signifies peace, pride, and righteousness” (Rastafari 2004c:2).


The Cultural Significance of Reggae

Sample Song: One Love by Bob Marley  

Original Lyrics of Song and Translation

Interpretation of Song


Prognosis for this Musical Genre

I believe that reggae does and will have a long lifetime of national and international renown.   Reggae is Jamaica's gift to the world, and I think will remain one of the world's last and best genuine folk musics.



It is apparent that Jamaica's reggae music form is a part of every Jamaican's cultural heritage.   Reggae is the masses link to their African origins and to their Jamaican lifestyle. This form of music is the way in which the Jamaican people can express their views on social, religious, and political inequalities and discrimination.   Reggae allows the voices of the Jamaican community to be heard both locally and around the world.


Internet References Cited


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Barrow, Steve, and Peter Dalton

                  1997 Reggae The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Ltd.

    Chang, Kevin O'Brien, and Wayne Chen

                 1998 Reggae Routes The Story of Jamaican Music. Philadelphia: Temple

                              University Press.  

    Davis, Stephen, and Peter Simon

                  1979 Reggae Bloodlines In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica.

                               Doubleday: Anchor Press.

    Hebdige, Dick

                  1987 Cut ‘N' Mix Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. London: Methuen

                                & Co..

    King, Stephen A., with Barry T. Bays III and P. Renee Foster

                  2002 Reggae, Rastafari, and the Rhetoric of Social Control. Jackson:

                                University Press of Mississippi.

    Prahlad, Sw. Anand

                  2001 Reggae Wisdom Proverbs in Jamaican Music. Jackson:   University

                                Press of Mississippi.

    Sadie, Stanley, and John Tyrrell, eds.

                  2001 The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 12: Jamaica.

                                Second Edition. Olive Lewin, ed. London: Macmillan Publishers




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