What is reggae? What are its origins?
“One good thing about music; when it hits, you feel no pain." ~ Bob Marley
Reggae, which came out of ska and rocksteady, took Jamaican music into the 1970s. It is Jamaica’s home-grown popular music. Reggae has elements of mento, calypso, R&B, soul and rock and is characterized by a heavy bass line and its strong rhythm guitar on the offbeat. Bob Marley was reggae’s most famous artist.
Reggae song lyrics deal with wide-ranging topics from love to sexuality to poverty to injustice to political and social issues. It’s no surprise that many reggae lyrics also deal with the history of slavery, considering that the majority of Jamaicans descend from enslaved Africans. Many reggae songs promote the use of marijuana (also known as herb or ganja), considered a sacrament in the Rastafarian movement. Some artists use religious themes in their music, either focusing on a particular topic, or the Bible, or simply to praise the Rastafarian God, Jah. By criticizing racism, capitalism, politics and Babylon (the Jamaican English term for corrupt establishment systems, primarily the police), they attempt to raise the audience’s consciousness.
Ask a Jamaican and he will probably tell you the origin of the word reggae is the song Do the Reggay by Toots & the Maytals in 1968, but there are many disagreements about the origin. The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the word is unknown. Here are some of the other theories:
- It may come from the Jamaican word rege or rege-rege, a word meaning either a quarrel or ragged clothes (from the 1967 Dictionary of Jamaican English); or
- It may come from a sound created with an organ and rhythm guitar which sounded like reggae, reggae. Bunny Lee, a well-known producer of the genre, supposedly used the word and it came to be commonly use by other musicians; or
- It may be a distortion of the Jamaican patois word streggae (meaning either a prostitute, someone who is poor and barefoot, or someone who looks raggedy); or
- It may come from the word Regga, the name of a Bantu-speaking tribe on Lake Tanganyika in central Africa; or
- It may be derived from the Latin word Regis, meaning of the king (this was Bob Marley's explanation of the origin); or
- It was used to describe a dance fashion in Jamaica after first being used by the artists, Toots & the Maytals, in their hit Do the Reggay in 1968; or
- It may be a made-up name describing the ragged rhythm.
Wherever it comes from, reggae is the most popular music in the world and has influenced many other forms of music. Harmonically, the music is often very simple, and sometimes a whole song will have no more than one or two chords. These simple repetitious chords and mesmerizing drum beats and rhythms add to reggae's sometimes hypnotic effects.
But probably the most captivating thing is that reggae songs consist of not simply great lyrics but messages to which we can all relate, whatever our circumstances. The messages inspire us, motivate us, or remind us of the past, where we come from and where we're headed. Everybody loves reggae, which is demonstrated by the popularity of reggae bands all over the globe, in places as diverse as Denmark, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Malawi, Poland and the Philippines. The fact that non-Jamaicans have fallen in love with the genre is a tribute to its acoustic appeal and its positive message, not its politics.
Next, we’ll take a look at the subcategories or subgenres of reggae music and its influences on other genres. Click here for info on reggae's ancestors.