| The Matrix | Rhetoric of Reggae Music | Reggae Links | Dread Library Catalog |

Harmony and Howling — African and European Roots of Jamaican Music
Tim Marcus

English colonial rule began in Jamaica in the year 1655. The growth of a plantation culture in the West Indies quickly changed the need for labor in the area. Between 1700 and 1786, more than 600,000 African slaves were brought to Jamaica. These slaves were required to work for their English colonial masters who would purchase them from slave traders at various ports around the island.

Slaves were abducted from various regions of Africa, and brought over to the New World in large boats, packed to the teeth with the Africans. The slave trade over the Atlantic served as a connection between the West Indies- islands in the Caribbean, and what was to become the United states. In fact there was a large amount of interchange of slaves between these two regions. Therefore, an American reader with an understanding of the Atlantic slave trade in his own history will have some sort of an understanding of how this system worked.

Slavery was not a system designed to accomidate freewill. Slaves were literally kidnapped from Africa, and as soon as they were in custody of slave traders they were assigned a submissive position under the white and Arabian merchants. When the slaves entered the New World, they remained in this submissive role and were forced into labor. Any freewill was instantly compromised the moment a shackle was placed around the limb of an African.

European, Spanish, and Arab slave traders did not particularly like the Africans who were "volunteered" into slavery. Their actions, which were considered ugly and unacceptable reinforced their submissive position under the Europeans. An example of this kind of thought is the practice some African people had of "picking lice off their heads, with their fingers, putting them in their mouth and eating them." According to this slave trader, monkeys "had a parallel custom." Observations such as these reinforced the stereotype of slaves being monkeys. This is an example of how blacks, in a white mind, could descend to the level of an animal.

Today we have a term for this: Ethnocentrism, but in the days of slavery this European view drawn from their own culture only served to further compromise the dignity of the Africans in the slave trade. This degrading view of Africans also made the moral aspect of slavery easier to digest. The European slave traders and masters did not even consider slaves to be human beings, they considered them to be animals, therefore it was not wrong to take these sub-humans from their natural surroundings and place them into a system of forced labor.

This association of slaves as animals was used more in the Caribbean than it was in America because Slaves and livestock were linked in the British West Indies. According to John Pinney, a planter "slaves and livestock….are the sinews of a plantation." On pens, or small animal ranches in Jamaica, slaves were treated on the same plain as a cow, or a chicken, or a pig. The whites did not even want to be with the slaves and animals at all, and were frequently absent from these situations until a law was passed in 1695 requiring at least one white to be in the presence of a pen. This shows how the slaves were looked at to be sub-human, and similar to an animal. A white would not want to hang around there because he considered it to be like hanging around with a bunch of cows, or pigs, or chickens. The average number of black slaves on these pens was forty three.

Slaves on the island were seen as little more than moveable equipment with which to exploit in order to make money. Money, in both American and West Indian slavery is the heart of the matter. The entire slave trade over the Atlantic, and resulting degrading of the African dignity which still exists today was all in the name of making money. This is the climate that existed in colonial Jamaica (as well as throughout the New World) when African and European music first met.

African Music in the New World

Slave traders, when crossing the Atlantic noticed that music was very heavily engrained into the African people. Any occasion was a good occasion for music, and for dancing which usually accompanied the music. Music from Africa was extremely different from the European style of music, and slave traders noticed these differences immediately.

In order to understand these differences, African music must be discussed through a typically European framework. This music, although radically different from what the Europeans had ever heard before, is still music and the fundamentals that need to be discussed can be examined through this methodology.

African music is nonnotated. It is passed on through oral tradition, and this accounts for much of the improvisational techniques that can be found in the music as well. European music, excluding some folk music is usually written down in the accepted form of musical notation. That way it can be repeated exactly the same way over and over again. Music with no notation is left for the performer to remember, and perform in a different manner each performance since there is no specific way of playing the music.

This music also has contains a vocal pattern called call and response. Usually alternating between a soloist, and a chorus, the call and response is interactive. A verse sung by the soloist is responded to by the chorus in a non-European sounding harmony. The harmony may not sound patterned because it is based on un-tempered scales. Whereas the usual European instrument, like a piano for example has a specific note (each key of the piano when hit makes the instrument sound only one note at a time) an un-tempered instrument, like the human voice, or a fiddle can slide over a variety of pitches including pitches that may lie between the pitches found on a keyboard. European music does not include these notes, because they do not fit into the diatonic and chromatic scales upon which European music is based. African music on the other hand makes use of many more pitches. Therefore, harmonies of the chorus in a call and response pattern may sound different and unstructured to a European ear, but will sound completely structured and patterned to an African ear.

African music also features drums, which are in most cases central to the music. Use of drums either accompanies songs using the call and response pattern, or makes up its own song. Some African music consists entirely of drumming, which at the time of the Atlantic slave trade was a very new idea for a European who was only used to melodic instruments and human voice making up an ensemble.

Since African music is passed on through oral tradition, songs are usually based on reiteration of brief rhythmic and melodic patterns. These patterns usually descend from a pentatonic scale, which is a scale consisting of five tones. (Penta equaling five, tonic equaling tone.) At that time European music was based on major and minor diatonic scales, which consisted of eight tones, and their modes.

The meter of these rhythmic phrases is not always regular. In some cases music of African origin uses successive meter, which is meter that changes from measure to measure. A count of four can be followed by a count of five, for example. In European Music from this period, the meter was regular. Dance music used either a count of three or four, and did not stray from that meter. African music on the other hand was not always regular, and African dancers could account for the irregular meter.

These differences are outstanding. Imagine a white slave merchant hearing this radically different type of music for the first time. The music of the African was based on a completely different set of ideas, and all of these ideas came over to the New World with the captive slaves in the boat.

The music of the Africans was also introduced to the whites on the plantations. During times of no work, such as a holiday or after a harvest the slaves of African descent would get together and play their music on hand fashioned instruments resembling instruments that they used in Africa. Dancing frequently accompanied the music, and was equally different from the European norm.

Plantation masters encouraged dancing, and as a result many African forms of dance entered the New World. An example of a dance form that probably came from the coast of Guinea, and from the Kingdom of Arda is the Calenda, or Kalenda. This dance was a favorite of the blacks living in the new world, and is here described by Pere Labat from his 1724 book on the subject.


The dancers are arranged in two lines, facing each other, the men on one side and the women on the other. Those who are tired of dancing form a circle with the spectators around the dancers and drums. The ablest person sings a song which he composes on the spot on any subject he considers appropriate. The refrain of this song is sung by everyone and is accompanied by a great hand clapping. As for the dancers, they hold their arms a little like someone playing castanets. They jump, make swift turns, approach each other to a distance of two or three feet then draw back with the beat of the drum until the sound of the drums brings them together again to strike their thighs together, that is, the men's against the women's. To see them it would seem that they are striking each other's bellies although it is only the thighs which receive the blows. At the proper time they withdraw with a pirouette, only to begin again the same movement with absolutely lascivious gestures; this, as many times as the drums give the signal, which is many times in a row. From time to time they lock arms and make several revolutions always slapping their thighs together and kissing each other. It can readily be seen by this abridged description to what degree this dance is contrary to al modesty.

Plantation masters thought these sorts of dances, including the Chica, which eventually evolved into the Rumba, or Mambo in Cuba, and the Banboula a Jamaican dance that was named after a drum used in the Calenda dance to be quite distasteful as Labat suggested in the final sentence of his "abridged" description. Along with African music, dance was quite different from what the Europeans were used to, however, in both cultures music and dancing went hand in hand. Therefore, if the whites encouraged dancing, they also encouraged music.

Slaves in Jamaica were usually given a break after Christmas, and another at Easter. Frequently, during these periods of rest the plantation masters would allow the slaves to dance in front of their houses. This description of one such dance took place in Jamaica at Christmas time and is here described by J. Williams:

They [slaves]…assembled on the lawn before the house with their gombays, bonjaws, and an ebo drum, made of a hollow tree, with a piece of sheepskin stretched over it. Some of the women carried small calabashes with pebbles in them and stuck on short sticks, which they rattled in time to the songs, or rather howls of the musicians. [Remember, this author is unable to understand the complicated harmonies used here] They divided themselves into parties to dance, some before the gombays, in a ring, to perform a bolero or sort of love dance….Others performed a sort of pyrrhic before the ebo drummer, beginning gently and gradually quickening their motions, until they seemed agitated by the furies…The entertainment was kept up till nine or ten o'clock in the evening…..and at last retired, apparently quite satisfied with their saturnalia, to dance the rest of the night at their own habitations.

The plantation masters considered this African form of dance entertaining, but it is obvious from the descriptions of these dances that they did not gain much approval. Just as the Europeans did not understand the different system that African music takes its shape from, they did not understand the different system of dance that the Africans performed.

European Music in the New World

Plantation masters had a lot of exposure to African traditions that were kept alive through the oral traditions of the slaves who carried them across the Atlantic. The whites, coming from a European tradition did not particularly like these different traditions. They considered the dancing to be very improper, meaning sexually suggestive, and they just did not understand how the music worked (Recall the howls that Williams described above). The disapproval of the African traditions led to two things. First, the further degradation of African dignity. Dancing and music were used as ammunition. This behavior, when looked down upon so harshly by the whites reinforced the idea that blacks were truly inferior, and deserved their submissive position.

The second thing triggered by the general dislike and disapproval of African tradition was the infliction of European tradition onto the slaves by the plantation masters. To terminate the oral traditions of the slave would put them into an even more submissive role, and the Europeans would not have to hear any more of this African music and see anymore of this indecent African dance if they assimilated the slaves to European culture.

The plantation was not the first place that slaves entering the New World heard European music. Many captains of slave ships had policies on board the ship to exercise the cargo in the name of health. This exercise often included dancing to European music provided by members of the boat's crew. It is safe to say that this is the first time the Africans ever heard anything like this before. Accounts from slave traders say that the African slaves originally had no idea that they were supposed to dance to this music, and had to be violently forced into some sort of movement. On some vessels, Africans would provide the music so that the slaves would know what to do when they were brought on deck to exercise.

When the slaves finally reached their new home on a plantation or in a pen, music from both Africa and Europe would be there to greet them. Plantation masters developed a habit of kidnapping slaves from other plantations that were rumored to be good musicians. Then the masters would have the slaves trained to play fiddle, or other European instruments for their own entertainment. These slave ensembles would play at formal dances at the master's house, and they would also play country dances for the white people.

As whites and blacks began to have more interaction, a hierarchy began to form. White slave masters would tend to choose lighter skinned slaves, who were usually the product of mixed race relations, to serve in the house. These house servants thought themselves to be of a higher class than the field workers, whose darker skin was thought to be better for working in the sun by the masters.

The house servants had a lot of interaction with the whites, and began to learn some European traditions from them. For example, if the master were having a formal dance at his house, the lighter skinned servants would get exposure to the European forms of music and dancing which was performed at the gatherings. Since the field workers admired the house servants, they would learn the rudiments of European dance and music from them.

Slave musicians and house servants both brought European traditions to their own people. The slaves would try to imitate the music and the dancing of their masters, and the result of this was an intermingling of African and European tradition. By 1825 in Jamaica, dances were already taking European rudiments. Crop-over dances, or dances that occurred to celebrate the last of the crops being harvested in a season were hosted by plantation masters. S. Barclay, a Jamaican resident of over 25 years describes the transition from African dances to European dances during the crop-over celebration.

…in the evening, they assemble in their master's or manager's house, and, as a matter of course, take possession of the largest room, bringing with them a fiddle and a tambourine. Here all authority and all distinction of color ceases; black and white, overseer and book-keeper, mingle together in the dance. About twenty years ago, it was common on occasions of this kind, to see the different tribes forming each a distinct party, singing and dancing to the gumbay, after the rude manners of their native Africa; but this custom is now extinct. Following the example of the white people, the fiddle, which they play pretty well, is now the leading instrument; they dance Scotch reels, and some of the better sort (who have been house servants) country-dances.

The adoption of the customs of the plantation masters by the African slaves served the purpose of assimilation to European culture. The masters were able to cut off the traditions left behind from African ancestry and interject their own tradition into the void. One result of this crossing over is the alienation of the slave from their homeland. Since the history and tradition of the Africans was passed on through oral tradition, it was essential for the plantation masters to sever those ties in order to fully dominate the slaves.

European culture was imitated by the African descendants, but they were probably not aware that they would soon lose their own heritage. Not all African traditions were eliminated, but enough were lost that the oral history of the slaves was forgotten, and slaves began to lose their sense of a motherland.

Along with the degradation of the African's image, this new loss of history would only serve the whites desire to fully dominate the blacks. For blacks living in Colonial Jamaica and all throughout the West Indies, there was no longer a sense of history.

What This All Means

The European roots of Jamaican music and dance are still very strong to this day. The predominant music that has surfaced from the mixing of African and European music and dance has remained very European to this day. Even after slavery was ended in Jamaica in 1834, the social climate of blacks and whites did not change.. However, despite the bad interracial climate in Jamaica, good things have arisen out of this mingling of African and European music and dance.

Jamaica is the birthplace of Reggae music, which comes directly from African, European, and other musical forms of the West Indies that have similar influences. Reggae music employs many different philosophies and opinions, but examining the music itself, one will discover that its roots come from the plantation circumstances mentioned above.

There are elements of African music that are still incorporated into Reggae music. For example, the call and response patterns are still there. Many reggae artists make use of repeating phrases and interact with a larger group singing in harmony. Also, Reggae music is frequently based on a repeating melodic and rhythmic patter which remains steady throughout the song. These are African attributes that can be traced directly to African music.

A feature of the music that is uniquely African is the heavy role of percussion in the music. There are usually multiple drummers in Reggae performances, playing different and overlapping rhythms. Another African tradition is the use of sliding pitches, and untempered scale tones. Often a Reggae artist will use their voice to create these effects, or in some cases horns will assume this role (as well as the role of instrumental call and response).

Much of the music descends from Africa, but European tradition also plays a large role. For example, the use of the pentatonic scale is not all that common in Reggae music: most Reggae songs are based on the diatonic scales that the Europeans used. Also, there is a very strong presence of tempered pitches. Most of the instruments are tempered, including guitar, piano, organ, etc. Some reggae tunes are loosely based on traditional European melodies, however reconsidered, they still come from that European tradition.

Reggae music is also metered. Whereas some African music had no regular meter, or a successive meter, most Reggae gets its meter from European music which is usually in 4/4 meter (meaning four quarter note beats per measure, and the quarter note gets a count of one). Reggae music has been syncopated, but the regularly repeating meter is always there. The syncopation of Reggae music eliminates the stress on the count of one, therefore creating an unusual stress on the count of three. European music has a tendency towards one and three, and music of African-American origin has stress on two and four. In that sense, Reggae music is very unique onto itself. The extra stressed down beat on three gives Reggae music its very drive.

Another unique quality of Reggae music is the inherent theme of reestablishing the connection to Africa that was severed long ago by the white plantation masters. The music seems to be coming around full circle to its roots in Africa. Perhaps this desire to reconnect with the lost history and tradition will undo some of the wrongs that created Reggae music. This music came out of a struggle between black and white, and the return to Africa reinforces the black nature of the music, almost subjecting the European tradition to a submissive role. In this respect Reggae music is a response to the European traditions that were inflicted onto black slaves in Colonial times in an unjust manner.


The exploitation and eventually liberation of the Jamaican people have produced a very unique social condition. Reggae music is an optimistic answer to the history of oppression that draws upon the past, and uses it as a resource. In order for there to be a good future, the past must be considered and accepted. There is no way to right the wrongs of Jamaican history, but there is a way to promote awareness of these wrongs.

The harmony that exists in reggae music between African and European tradition is a symbol for how it should exist in the world, and perhaps it is a map of how to get there. If two different combating traditions can exist in one music, then it is very possible for them to exist in every other facet of our society. Is this possible? What one person considers a howl is another's harmony…