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A style of music from Jamaica

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Quora Answer : What kind of people like reggae music?

Jul 18, 2013

It's tempting to make these generic comments that "humans" or "anyone" can like reggae. And I agree that you don't have to be a particular race or age or classification to like it. But as someone who likes reggae periodically (I go through phases of not listening and then listening to nothing else) I'd say that there are characteristic virtues of reggae which may indeed appeal to certain kinds of people.

First off, I'd say good reggae is serious. Some genres lend themselves to irony, pastiche or silliness but reggae is not one of them. Comedy reggae is dire in a way that, say, comedy rock isn't. Reggae can be sensuous and serious about love. It can be hard and serious about politics or social problems. It can be serious about religion or spirituality. Or it can be serious about just getting stoned and being irie. But it can't be trivial or self-deprecating[1] Ska can be feel-good and light-hearted. Ragga can be cheeky. Electronic dance music can sample a bit of reggae for cheesy feelgood vibes. But reggae itself thrives on gravity.

The corollary is that if you aren't looking for a serious music, if you like your music to be varied and pleasant but not something that demands too much emotional commitment from you then you may just not get it. Reggae is all about immersing yourself, it's excellent mood music for obsessives. But if you aren't looking for a mood then it might all sound a bit repetitive, worthy and dull.

Second, it's a bit of a truism that reggae has rhythm. Though almost all popular music of the last 50 years or so has been rhythmically driven. Nevertheless the rhythmic matrix is crucial to the essence of reggae. And you either catch that swing (and nod your head / wind your waist) or you don't. If you aren't particularly caught up with the groove in music then once again, you'll miss what makes reggae so great.

Thirdly - and here I admit this is the perspective of a white Englishman, not a Jamaican - reggae is weird. Yes, we got used to it. And it's been terribly influential on everything else in Anglo-Saxon pop. But it's still an exotic, alien sound. For me, one of the joys of Jamaican music is that it's like looking at an alternative evolutionary history of modern pop. A kind of Galapagos with its own ecosystem. Like discovering Australia and finding all the ecological niches are occupied by marsupials instead of mammals.

The same ecological niches are there : party-time, showing off to girls, young men with long hair getting serious and spiritual. Technology. Loudness and heaviosity. But everything turned out a bit different from the way it did in the rest of the world.

Compare Jamaica with (a slightly stereotyped idea of), say, Sweden. Sweden is full of fine songwriters and musicians but whenever a Swedish artist breaks out it's through doing something in a well known global genre. Pop and disco from Abba; hard rock from Europe; heavy metal; indie from The Cardigans; Swedish House Mafia etc. Sweden is a passive reflection of global pop culture. Most of the time you don't even notice when the latest artist you like happens to be Swedish.[2]

That NEVER happens with Jamaica. Jamaica takes whatever you throw at it, chews it up and spits back a completely new thing. Show it Soul and Motown and you get Ska, something which is obviously the height of 60s modernity and yet curiously quaint. Show it John Lennon and get Bob Marley. Bring Jamaica the basic 4-track recording technology that the Beatles and 60s psychedelic bands used, and get taken on a voyage through the caverns of dub by Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby. Give it the same cheap Casio synths and drum-machines that spawned electropop in Europe and get the Sleng-Teng riddim and raggamuffin. Show it rap and rave and get back some of the most brilliant / disturbed music of the 90s.

Hot Bwoy - Beenie Man & Buccaneer


Just to be clear, I'm pretty sure this second is an insane, murderous apocalyptic fantasy, equivalent to anything that Osama Bin Laden could have dreamed up, but it's a brilliant if horrid record.)

Jamaica has done something that no other insignificant impoverished island has done. It's fought a culture war with the great Anglo-Saxon rock empire and won its independence. It speaks back to the dominant culture on equal terms. Even the casual listener around the world knows instantly when he or she is listening to reggae (or its progeny).

For that reason, I think that Jamaica is loved by certain listeners the way that certain leftists admire Cuba. It's an existence proof that resistance and independence is possible. That a music culture from outside the dominant centres of power can hold its own on the world stage.

[1] There's no hipster / nerd reggae the way there's hipster / nerd rap. It's just not a viable genre.

[2] If anyone thinks there's a racial component to my Jamaica / Sweden comparison, forget Sweden and think French hip-hop. Some excellent black / French and French-African rappers and great hip-hop music from France, but they don't make new genres, they just make hip-hop with a local language and flavour. Jamaica is very rare in that it always does things its own way and exports its genres.

Quora Answer : Why does reggae seem dead?

May 11, 2017

Straight Reggae is like rock. It's based on a particular combination of instruments and a set of rhythmic / harmonic tropes.

Those patterns are significantly mined out by a lot of exploration over the last few decades and may be pretty much exhausted. (I'd argue rock is exhausted in its standard form too) .

All you can really do is start changing some of the rules. And see where you can go next.

Obviously Jamaica has had a lot of exploration "out of" reggae in the last few decades. But the reggae / ragga influence is increasingly mixed with (perhaps "polluted by") other kinds of music : dubstep / house / EDM / hip-hop / r'n'b etc. Increasingly Jamaican music just sounds like modern digital soul / hip-hop. And other musics have reggae flavour even though they're coming from Switzerland.

Modern offshoots seem to sound like this :

and this :

and this :

YMMV on whether you consider that this is still "reggae".

Quora Answer : Is a sad reggae or ska song even possible?

Oct 16, 2019

Reggae is full of sadness.

Don't be fooled ... "happy' reggae, while it exists, is not the norm. In fact it's often a travesty.

See Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to What kind of people like reggae music?

There's a whole strand of reggae about "suffering" and the pain of sin. Some of the greatest reggae in history is pretty much suffering taken to a kind of transcendental religious dimension.

  • CategoryReggae