Most people associate reggae with a lifestyle; however, it is surrounded by lots of preconceptions. The most common is that “Rastafari smoke a lot of weed,” “they spend most of their time avoiding responsibilities,” or “they spend a lot of time thinking about, peace, love, and more weed.” Although it’s true that reggae has a close connection to the Rastafari movement, we must look beyond the stereotypes surrounding it.
In many ways, reggae has been considered an embodiment of revolution. The origins of this musical genre can be traced to Kingston, in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Around the 1960s, the island was absorbing every external influence, especially from the UK. Popular rhythms like afro, calypso, and tempo were mixed with rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and R&B songs that were played on the radio, acquiring new, vibrant sounds.
Little by little, this fusion evolved into what is now known as reggae. Then, other variations emerged like the reggae roots (a more primal sound), dubstep, rocksteady, ska, and dancehall. In 1962, when Jamaica gained its independence, it became a touristic country with an important musical industry.
Pioneer record companies like Coxsone Dodd Records and Trojan Records were fighting for the album distribution supremacy, just as the sound system battles on the streets were heating up the setting of an emerging popular culture. During this neuralgic period in the genre’s history, a young composer and leader of a band called The Wailers emerged. Bob Marley, the son of an English man and a Jamaican woman, forever changed the course of reggae music with his particular way of creating songs and his commitment on stage. However, his international fame and the transcendence of his figure as a myth or icon sometimes overshadowed other musicians who also elevated the genre’s quality and made of reggae a highly popular and well-known type of music in the world. Below is a modest list of reggae singers and bands you must know to see that Bob’s not everything.
Another Kingston native, he’s considered one of the most emblematic representatives of rocksteady. He was even more famous than Bob Marley in Jamaica, who also disagreed with him when it came to deciding what course Jamaican music should take. Besides, he had a different point of view regarding Marley’s religiousness, which was sometimes extreme and reactionary. He’s the author and original interpreter of “I’m Still in Love with You, Girl,” which years later Shaggy’s would reprise.
Many people simply know her as the woman who got married at 18 with Norval Sinclair, a white Jamaican of English lineage, and a year later had a son called Robert Nesta Marley, best known as Bob Marley. However, we can tell where he got the talent and verbal abilities from.
Toots and The Maytals
Frederick “Toots” Hibbert was raised within the chords of gospel music in a Christian church, but during the 1960s he moved to the place where reggae was born: Kingston. He met Henry “Raleigh” Gordon and Nathaniel McCarthy, with whom he formed a trio called The Maytals. They started recording at Coxsone with other giants of Jamaican music like The Skatalites and Prince Buster. Around 1968, after Toots was released from prison after being charged with drug possession, the band obtained recognition for their energetic compositions filled with soul, funk, and quick rhythms. “54-56 Was My Number” is the band’s most popular song.
Lee “Scratch” Perry
Lee “Scratch” Perry, besides being one of the pillars of reggae and rocksteady, is one of the most innovative and respected producers in the genre’s history. His work with Coxsone Dodd and a prolific career in the control panel are proof of it. He was responsible for some of the first recordings of Marley & The Wailers and many other important artists of the movement. With an eccentric and controversial personality, in 1969 he secured an important spot in the annals of music history with a single called “The Upsetter,” which is a basic of the reggae canon.
His real name was Donat Roy Mitoo, but he’s best known as Jackie Mitoo, the legendary musical director of Studio One and one of the keyboardists of The Skatalites. His rhythmic style combined with the characteristic sounds of his organ, places him among the most peculiar reggae musicians. His music, which can be labeled as incidental and instrumental, makes reference to the films of the seventies, to popular culture, R&B, and funk.
Considered the most romantic reggae singer, Gregory Isaacs was a pillar of the genre. Slim and tall, (among other reggae singers) he was part of the cast of the movie Rockers. Prolific at the recording studio and with a huge presence on stage, his unique voice has captivated thousands. He spent some time at a rehab center because drugs were harming his vocal chords. He passed away in 2010 in London.
Little is known about Billy Boyo. Just like Delroy Wilson, he made his first recording when he was only 10 years old. His singing style, just as his tessitura, made him an essential figure in the DJ nights of Kingston. He’s remembered as an entertainer and MC at shows, concerts, and reggae parties of the eighties, but then he disappeared from the spotlight, sparking the rumor that he’d been killed . The truth is that he passed away in 2000 due to a brain tumor. His most popular song is “One Spliff a Day,” a rhythmic song with very bold lyrics for his age.
Reggae has as many faithful supporters as raging detractors. However, it has endured time and has been able to find new followers. Additionally, reggae has found a way to merge with other genres creating incredible musical experiments.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards