continental drift 8/23/23- jamaica

Welcome back to Continental Drift! For our first episode of the semester, we’re gonna be looking at Jamaica. Listen to the playlist here and listen back to the episode here.

Jamaica is an island country in the Caribbean Sea, just south of Cuba and west of Haiti. With a population of just under 3 million people, Jamaica’s population is 137th largest in the world, but the 3rd most populous English-speaking country in the Americas, behind only the US and Canada. Most Jamaicans speak Patois, which is an English-based creole language which also contains elements of Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and Twi, among others.

Jamaica was colonized by the Spanish in 1509, but after the Anglo-Spanish War ended in 1660, Jamaica was firmly under the control of the English. As early as 1907, Englishmen like Walter Jekyll would begin to take notice of the folk songs sung by the inhabitants of the island. Sometimes they’d be just be music for music’s sake, and other times they’d based on folklore, like stories about Anansi, the mythological trickster spider who regularly outwitted much larger foes; amidst occupation by various empires, the concept that brains could beat brawn was of some comfort to Jamaicans.

Later into the 20th century, Jamaican musicologists like Louise Bennett and Dr. Olive Lewin would record and publish the folk songs for posterity, occasionally building ensembles such as the Jamaican Folk Singers to perform and preserve Jamaican folk songs in Patois rather than “pure” English. 

Folk Music Segment:

Linstead Market // Louise Bennett

Towns of Jamaica // Louise Bennett

Hol’ ‘M Joe // Louise Bennett

Louise Bennett, also known as Miss Lou

Louise Bennett, or Miss Lou, was dedicated to preserving Jamaican culture by producing literature spoken in Patois. Miss Lou also had an impact on the development of mento, a uniquely Jamaican music form. Mento fuses African and European musical techniques to make something new. It started to get popular in the 40s, but saw a meteoric rise in the 1950s as it started to become better known outside of Jamaica.

One of the most popular mento artists was a man named Harry Belafonte, a Jamaican-American singer who put Jamaican music on the map with his 1957 hit Banana Boat (Day-O). Miss Lou was directly involved in its creation, having told Belafonte about a Jamaican folk song called Hill and Gully Rider which would be the basis for the song.

Mento often gets confused for the Trinidadian music form calypso, and Belafonte’s success as a mento artist helped popularize calypso to mainstream audiences. One mento musician by the name of Lord Flea is cited as saying that this confusion is not fully accidental, because while it does play into the stereotype that Caribbean islanders are all happy-go-lucky, that’s what the tourists wanna see, so it became a smart business move to market mento as calypso to people outside Jamaica.

Mento Segment

Banana Boat (Day-O) // Harry Belafonte

Jamaica Farewell // Harry Belafonte

Belafonte’s mento album (it’s only titled Calypso!)

In the late ‘50s, more and more Jamaicans bought radios that were able to pick up signals from the Southern part of the United States, and as tends to happen when people hear new music, this led to cultural diffusion. In particular, they were influenced by R&B and this led to the eventual development of ska by groups like the Skatelites and Desmond Dekker. The earliest ska was characterized by prominent horns and its rhythm guitar “skanking” on the off-beats of the song, and this type of pattern would live on in some manner through the art forms descended from ska.

Ska + Rocksteady Segment

Freedom Sounds // The Skatelites

King of Ska // Desmond Dekker and the Cherry Pies

007 (Shanty Town) // Desmond Dekker

Rude boys in 1966

Just as ska arose from the mixing of mento and American R&B, the mixing of American soul music with ska led to the birth of a genre called rocksteady, which, like ska, has a rhythm guitar playing on the offbeat, but it’s a bit slower, which lets the bass line shine through a bit more. Rocksteady found an audience with rude boys, which are a Jamaican subculture of discontented youths who had a reputation for violent, disruptive behavior. However, as a genre, rocksteady didn’t enjoy much time in the sun, and quickly was supplanted by perhaps the best-known Jamaican music form at the end of the 1960s. 

Reggae Segment

I Shot the Sheriff // Bob Marley and the Wailers

Reggae, like its predecessor rocksteady, was descended from ska, but allowed itself to embrace a sort of roughness that the soul-inspired rocksteady didn’t lend itself to. And like its predecessors, it and its performers adapted other forms of music to make something new.

Modern Jamaican Music Segment

Still Searchin’ // Damian Marley

Boombala // Infantry Rockers

Boombala is an example of a genre called dub, which combines reggae with elements of electronic music. It also features a mode of performance called toasting, which usually involves speaking or rapping over a reggae beat, often in a monotonous voice.

Still Searchin’ is more clearly an example of a Jamaican adaptation of an American music style, particularly hip-hop; you can hear how even though Damian Marley isn’t really leaning into a reggae influence in the song, he’s performing it in Patois, showing a different way for how the cultures can syncretize.

This has been Continental Drift!

Last Song Because It Wouldn’t Leave Me Alone

Israelites // Desmond Dekker