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American Rhythm and Blues Influence on Early Jamaican Musical Style

By Brad Fredericks


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Jamaican Music has evolved due to ever changing musical and cultural influences surrounding the island. Of the multitude of musical influences subjected to Jamaican music, American Rhythm and Blues has left the most lasting legacy. Although this influence may only be apparent in early recordings from the middle part of this century, analysis of the music reveals the true level of this influence and its repercussions later on.

In order to understand the impact of R&B on Jamaican music, the origins of both styles must first be examined. The roots of Caribbean music and R&B can be traced back to common roots in Africa. Many rhythms from Africa were transplanted in the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade. Due to cultural influences, African music in America would follow a drastically different evolutionary path than its Caribbean counterpart.

Early Jamaican Music

 From the later part of the 19th century to the late 1930s, popular Jamaican music existed as a blend of Caribbean and Latin rhythms referred to as Mento. The cause of this musical fusion is primarily due to the geographic relocation of culturally homogeneous slavery. In many Caribbean islands, including Jamaica, the highly rhythmic musical forms of African slaves mixed with rhythms of indigenous island inhabitants. During the middle to later part of the 19th century, many Jamaican slaves were transported by the British to the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica to work as temporary laborers. According to Edward Dupris, these laborers returned to Jamaica with the Latin rhythms of samba (Fig. 1, ),

Fig. 1

merengue (), and rumba (Fig. 2, ). These rhythms, referred to as polyrhythms, are actually comprised of several rhythms superimposed on top of each other. During this same period, Jamaican travails to Cuba brought back influences from the Son rhythm. () Furthermore, the Jamaican rhumba box, a bass instrument with plucked metal lamellae, originated from the Cuban marimbula. Despite these geographically diverse influences, most musicologists agree that the greatest influence on Jamaican Mento music came from the Trinidadian calypso rhythm.()  Calypso, unlike Latin and Cuban rhythms, has more of a unifying central beat. Because of the minimal white presence on the island, Mento received few European musical influences.

Fig. 2


 The recording "Mento Merengue Meringue" documents a group of rural Jamaican musicians playing in the early Mento style. In these songs, () performed with a harmonica, coconut grater, and a home made wooden trumpet, one can clearly hear the calypso rhythm. Until 1954, Mento was enjoyed primarily on a regional basis, with many regional bands playing various strains of Mento. With the construction of Jamaica's first recording studio in 1954, Mento groups enjoyed a brief period of national exposure. The Jolly Boys. "Touch Me Tomato" (), recorded in 1990, exemplifies the sound of this form of popular Mento. However, Mento was considered "street music" by radio station operators and was easily wiped off of the popular music scene by an influx of American music.

Origins of R&B

While Jamaican music evolved rhythmically by absorbing African and Caribbean rhythms, African American music evolved harmonically by absorbing elements of European music. The complex rhythmic heritage of Africa began to fade as African Americans were exposed to European music. The focus on complex polyrhythms shifted to a focus on harmonic structures. African Americans used the European 12-tone system (Fig. 3, ) to approximate the rudimentary five tone scales used by African

C Major Scale
Fig. 3


musicians. The merger of these idioms created what was later described as the Blues. The cruel environment of slavery existed as a powerful force that shaped the development of the Blues. In what was called a field holler, slaves sang of their extreme suffering and inhumane treatment at the hands of their masters. Eventually the field hollers mixed with spirituals, church music, and dance tunes to form a coherent musical style that can be traced as early as the 1860s. A distinguishing characteristic of this style is the call-and-response structure, where a solo vocalist sings a melodic phrase that is answered by another signer or group of signers. Instrumentalists readily imitated this musical dialog by exchanging melodic phrases on their instruments.

The early 1920s marked the beginnings of Jazz music. New Orleans musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton expanded upon the traditional Blues form by incorporating new harmonic structures, chord progressions, and improvisational styles into the music. The 1930s and 1940s mark the swing period in Jazz, lead by big band leaders such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. A huge appreciation for this new music developed around the world, establishing America as a musical superpower. Unfortunately, with the end of World War II, the economics of the entertainment business began to change. The slowing of the wartime economy, coupled with changing social conditions, made large 18 piece bands financially unfeasible. In response to these changing conditions, former big band musicians began to organize small blues-based combos. Johnny Otis explains:,

When the big bands died and we found we couldn. t function in that context anymore, in the mid to late forties& we had to break our bands down& when we played a blues type thing with three horns, it had a different character& . See, Roy Milton is a blues singer and when he got his band together to play a little gig, he didn. t use two guitars, bass and drums; he used three horns, piano, bass and drums. The horns were important to him because he had come out of the big band Swing era& he was used to that sound& . See, that was the one thing that made rhythm and blues different from the old fashioned blues.

These groups were designed to function as a scaled down big band. The most common instrumentation configuration was with an alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet, piano, guitar, bass, and vocalist.  The mainstream R&B musical style present during the 1950s was characterized by twelve bar blues progressions. This three-chord harmonic progression can be represented in musical terms as I-I-I-I-IV-IV-I-I-V-IV-I-I, where each Roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. (Fig. 4, )

12 Bar Blues
Fig. 4


Usually a boogie style bass accompaniment pattern would be played by an upright bass and occasionally doubled by a piano. (Fig 5, )

Boogie Bass Line
Fig. 5


The drums played in a rolling shuffle-like style with emphasis on the second and fourth beats, creating simple syncopation. The vocals were sung in a blues holler style, where the singer would seem to shout out the melody. Horns were used in short melodic passages to add harmonic embellishment, and also for playing short bursts on the beat for rhythmic support. These elements can be found in the Roy Milton's hit, "Big Fat Mama." ()


R&B Influence on Jamaica

Modern Jamaican music developed in a relatively short period of time. This rapid stylistic shift in the early 1950s is where the dichotomous evolutionary paths of African American and Jamaican music join back together. This sudden influence of African American culture primarily resulted from both the availability of inexpensive radios and the importation of American R&B records.

Radio broadcasts on Jamaica began in 1939, however stations were only on the air for as little as four hours daily until 1947. The formation of Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion (RJR) in 1950 marked a change in programming to British and American pop and jazz tunes, which was only slightly more interesting to Jamaicans than the BBC Radio relays that were transmitted earlier. The growing popularity of American R&B saw this emerging musical style broadcast on AM radio stations in Memphis, New Orleans, and Miami. When transistors began to replace vacuum tube technology, affordable and reliable radios became available to the Jamaican population. Listeners whose tastes were ignored by RJR tuned into these American stations. With the opening of Federal Studios, Jamaica's first recording facility, in 1954 an active recording industry and R&B scene emerged. Additionally, migrant Jamaican workers brought back American R&B records, which became the impetus for an active dance scene in Kingston. Competing DJs operating portable sound systems radically changed popular musical tastes on the island. The limited number of sound system operators able to afford the equipment had a great influence on young musicians. Jamaican musicians drew upon the highly evolved musical style played on these sound systems. Laurel Aitken's 1959 hit, "Boogie In My Bones" () typifies the early R&B style recordings that emerged from Federal. Notice how it incorporates the R&B elements described earlier. The song follows the 12 bar progression with a boogie bass line following the chord changes. Aitken sings in the standard blues holler style relating to the African American Blues tradition.

Path of Musical Influences
Path of Musical Influences

The Ska - R&B Relationship

According to critic Edward Dupris, Mento musicians were quick to adopt the R&B styling because of its "smooth rolling rhythms." (pg. 132) However, towards the end of the 1950s, local musicians began to fuse native Mento rhythms with the popular imported style to create music termed Ska. Dupris states that both a difficulty importing R&B records and declining Jamaican interest in the stagnate pool of R&B records on the island lead to this change. In a recent interview, Laurel Aitken described the development of Ska this way:

In the '50s we used to listen to American rhythm & blues from New Orleans. Everybody used to dance to that music in Jamaica, but in the '50s our music there was Calypso, which come from Trinidad, and we took Calypso and mixed it with the rhythm & blues and we turned that into Ska. So part of the roots of Ska music is from America. & Ska music is American rhythm & blues and Jamaican calypso and it went from there - that's where Ska come from. We used to listen to men like Smiley Lewis, Joe Turner, Roscoe Gordon, and all these guys in the '50s and we were influenced, I was influenced, by Roscoe Gordon because he played a downbeat boogie. Roscoe Gordon is an American black singer and I was influenced by him. Not only me, but other guys during that time was influenced by him because it was very popular - the boogie-woogie stuff. And as I said, we mixed the boogie-woogie stuff with calypso and that's where Ska came from, as simple as that. (Urfer)

Many critics point to the 1960 recording of "Oh! Carolina" by the Folkes Brothers as the first Ska tune. () Originally composed in 1958, this song primary follows the same R&B framework as the Jamaican songs that preceded it. It follows an up tempo three-chord progression with a boogie bass line played by the piano. However, a percussionist by the name of Count Ossie provides a heavy driving drum accompaniment that clearly distinguishes the song from the R&B style. Ossie plays in what was called a Rastafarian Burru percussion style, but what actually is quite similar to a Calypso rhythm structure. One critic relates it to either an African or African American call and response style, suggesting that: "& the drums played off the other instruments and the signers. voices, trailing just a bit and almost playing call and answer." (Pg. 87) This provides a syncopated layer on top of the straight beats of the R&B background. The net effect of this syncopated call and response drum technique was to make the tune uniquely danceable by Jamaican audiences. John Folkes, the song's composer, echoes this sentiment when he told an interviewer that "When I sang [. Oh! Carolina. ] in those days I always got a gathering, and people would do a kind of dip dance to it, not Ska, and I realized it was a different kind of song." (Pg. 87)

Although critics hail "Oh! Carolina" as the first Ska song, some Jamaican musicians claim that Theophilus Beckford's "Easy Snappin. ," () which was released around the same time as "Oh! Carolina," probably had contained more of the trademark elements of Ska. Skatalite guitar player Ernest Ranglin, an early pioneer of Ska, describes how, "I was the first person who did Ska. I did it a JBC studio and I did it for Coxsone. The group was comprised of& Theophilus "Easy Snappin. " Beckford& . we did about six recordings of instrumentals and those were some of the first Ska records." (pg. 43) Ranglin's contribution was to introduce a rhythmic accent on the upbeats in each measure.

Ernest Ranglin
Ernest Ranglin

For example, instead of the accent coming in at the beginning of each beat, like this (), the emphasis was moved to the second half of the beat (), syncopating the rhythm. This can be thought of simply as a modified R&B boogie bass line with the accents shifted foreword. This accompanyment pattern was actually a standard musical device used in R&B tunes like Louis Jorden's "Blue Light Boogie" () or Howlin. Wolf's "Rockin. Daddy." () Although Ranglin was absent on Beckford's hit recording, the upbeat accents are played both by the replacement guitar player and by Beckford's own piano accompaniment. According to Kevin O. brian, the "& . oh so lazy. feel and emphasis on the off-beat were widely emulated and influential." (pg )

The Derrick Morgan's hit, "Forward March," further emphasizes the upbeat accents. () Here, the horns play short, quick bursts of sound on each upbeat. This harder, more pronounced upbeat accent signals a change from the R&B boogie accompaniment pattern found in Beckford's arrangement. It provided a driving rhythmic lilt that carries the song. The style played by Ska drummers also changed to accommodate this syncopated pattern. In this stereotypical Ska drum beat, listen how the snare drum comes in on the upbeat to help drive the piano along. () To understand the profound effect of this hard upbeat accent in a band context, listen to a comparison between the horn arrangements from Laurel Aitken's "Boogie in My Bones" and "Forward March." () The horns in Aitken. s song play on the start of every beat, while the horns on Morgan's tune are playing the same line except in an inverted fashion with the emphasis on the upbeat. This simple rhythmical change dramatically alters the feel of the song, making it imminently more danceable.

Many critics hold the later part of 1963 and early 1964 as the point where Ska began to divide into two distinctive styles. Although the two styles that emerged were still primarily dance tunes, one had a more carefree pop sound, while the other had a bolder brassier sound. Sparse instrumentation and upbeat tempos characterized the pop style Ska. This allowed the signer's romantic or whimsical lyrics to stand out as the prominent element in the tunes. Prince Buster's 1965 hit "Hard Man Fe Dead" () and Jimmy Cliff's "Miss Jamaica." ()

Prince Buster at RJR Studios

Prince Buster at RJR Studios

These songs have a clear resemblance to African American pop music. Notice how each tune has a one chorus horn solo that plays a restated version of the melody, typical of American R&B songs such as Fats Domino's "My Blue Heaven," () Many of the recordings containing the brassier Ska sound came from Island Records. These songs had tight horn lines with many carefully arranged melodic passages. Unlike other Ska music, these recordings usually contained a driving shuffle rhythm differing from the R&B type shuffle. According to Edward Dupris, many of these songs included "& overt references to African rhythmic structures, such as the African Rumba." (pg. 134) Don Drummond's 1965 instrumental, "Man In the Street," () contains these signature horn and rhythmic features. Notice how two horns initially state the short melody and then several more join in an octave higher. This builds up a feeling of tension that climaxes with the wild trumpet solo. In his trombone solo, Drummond engages in a musical dialog by interspersing riffs between each phrase played by the horn section. These solos are unique from the pop Ska solos in that they are less restrained and more musically challenging. It is clear that this solo style is influenced more by American Be-Bop music than by R&B pop. Unfortunately, the sexual innuendoes in many of these songs assured that they would not be readily exposed to a wide audience in Jamaica.

Arrival of Rocksteady

Around 1966, Ska music underwent a shift to the style that has been described as Rocksteady. Many critics, including Edward Dupris, explain this change as an attempt by Jamaican musicians and record producers to recreate the fresh sounds of American Soul music that were gaining international popularity.

A popular Rocksteady Group.

Many Rocksteady songs contained emulated the slower and more melodic Motown and Philadelphia style Soul sound. The hard, driving rhythmic features of Ska were smoothed out and played in a more relaxed manor. Musical focus changed from horns to primarily guitar and vocals. The New Orleans born Soul musician Lee Dorsey exemplifies the sound Jamaican record companies were trying to imitate. () Delroy Wilson's 1966 hit, "Dancing Mood," () and Desmond Dekker's "007 (Shanty Town)," () exemplify the stylistic shift to Jamaican Soul music. Many elements of R&B present throughout the Ska years are completely absent from these songs. The standard 12 bar blues progression has been replaced with more casual I-IV-V changes. Additionally, the boogie style bass has become a bouncy, syncopated bass pattern. Instead of a bass note being played on each of the four beats, it is played in a laid back-rolling pattern, sometimes beginning between the beats. Perhaps the most obvious connection to American Soul music resides in the vocal styles used by both Wilson and Dekker. The smooth, flowing vocals externalize the relaxed aura that Rocksteady attempted to create. The seductive saxophone solo in "Dancing Mood" beautifully echoes this mellow sentiment.


Reggae Emerges

By 1968, a new style of Jamaican music emerged on the scene that would dominate the popular culture and eventually drive Ska and Rocksteady into obscurity. Although some critics suggest that Reggae was another evolution of the Ska and Rocksteady styles, many musicologists agree that Reggae developed as a separate strain of music. Although the upbeat accents of Ska can still be heard in the Reggae, many rhythmic elements from Africa, America, and the Caribbean were incorporated into the style. Reggae developed a distinctive rhythmic pattern (Fig 6, , Fig. 7, )

A Common Reggae Rhythm
Fig. 6


A Common Reggae Rhythm
Fig. 7


that didn. t contain the shuffling rhythm found in Ska. A hightened awareness of African heratage grew among Jamaican musicians during this period. This makes it quite difficult, if not impossible, to trace this new rhythm to a specific location. One assumption would be to describe Reggae as a composite of African-American syncopated rhythms with overtones of African and Caribbean rhythms. The factors leading to the birth of Reggae can not be seen merely through external influences on musical structure. Unlike its predecessors, Reggae musical structure is not of primary importance in the analysis of the music. While Jamaican music throughout the 1960s contained many subtle political and social commentaries, Reggae emerged as an overt ideology.  The importance of the music lies mainly in the message, rendering the medium less significant. (Dupris pg. 200) Although musicians most definitaly continued to admire American music, these influences were not manifested in the Reggae style to the same degree as in earlier Jamaican music.


Works Cited

Davis, Stephen; Simon, Peter. Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica. Da Capo Press. New York. 1992.

Dupris, Edward. This is How the Music Was . The Story of Ska and Rocksteady. Tatum Press. London. 1991.

Leigh Urfer "Laurel Aitken," 02/99,, 410/00

Manuel, Peter Lamarche. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean music from rumba to reggae. Philadelphia: Temple University Class, 1995.

Merwe, Peter Van Der. Origins of the Popular Style. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1989.

O'Brien Chang, Kevin; Chen, Wayne. Reggae Routes; The Story of Jamaican Music. Temple Univ Press. 2/19/98

Potash, Chris. Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub. ed. Schirmer Books. 1997., "The History of Ska.", 4/5/00


Audio Citations

"Tougher Than Tough. The Story of Jamaican Music." Island Records. 1993.

"Mento Merengue Meringue - Country Dance Music From Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Haiti & The Dominican Republic." Origional Music. 1991




Warrantees as to the accuracy or redeeming value of this page are neither expressed nor implied.

The assemblance of the materal of this page is copyrighted by Brad Fredericks. All rhythmic examples were based on notated rhythms in the public domain. These recordings are property of New Union Studios. All copyrighted material on this page is used in under terms of the Educational Fair Use clause of United States copyright law.