In the wake of World War 2, Jamaican music underwent a transformative journey that would eventually give birth to iconic genres like ska and reggae. This musical evolution can be traced back to the widespread adoption of radios by Jamaicans, enabling them to tune into the captivating rhythms of rhythm and blues (R&B) music originating from the Southern United States, particularly in cities like New Orleans. Influential artists such as Fats Domino, Barbie Gaye, Rosco Gordon, and Louis Jordan were the maestros behind these enchanting tunes, and their early recordings laid the foundation for the distinctive “behind-the-beat” feel that characterises ska and reggae today.

American Influence: A Musical Resonance

The post-World War 2 era saw the deployment of American military forces in Jamaica, which, in turn, introduced Jamaicans to American music through military broadcasts. This cultural exchange brought a continuous influx of records from the United States to the shores of Jamaica. In response to the growing demand for American music, visionary entrepreneurs like Prince Buster, Coxsone Dodd, and Duke Reid came together to form sound systems.

The Birth of Jamaican R&B: A Local Twist

As the supply of imported jump blues and traditional R&B tracks started to dwindle in the late 1950s, Jamaican music producers decided to take matters into their own hands. Local artists were brought into the studio, and these collaborations gave birth to a Jamaican version of these musical genres. Initially, these recordings were made on “soft wax,” which was essentially a lacquer on metal disc acetate and later came to be known as a “dub plate.” However, as the demand for these unique tunes grew, producers like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid began releasing them on 45-rpm 7-inch discs, marking a significant moment in the evolution of Jamaican music.

Ska’s Transformation: From Imitation to Innovation

In its early days, Jamaican music imitated the American “shuffle blues” style, much like a mirror image of the music streaming from the United States. Within just two or three years, however, Jamaican music underwent a remarkable transformation, evolving into the distinctive ska style we recognise today. This transformation was marked by the introduction of the off-beat guitar chop, a defining feature of late-1950s American rhythm and blues recordings, such as Fats Domino’s “Be My Guest” and Barbie Gaye’s “My Boy Lollypop,” both of which gained immense popularity on Jamaican sound systems.

The Anatomy of Classic Ska

The “classic” ska style was characterised by bars composed of four triplets with a prominent guitar chop on the off-beat, also known as an upstroke or ‘skank.’ Horns took the lead in this style, often following the off-beat skank, and the piano emphasised the bass line while contributing to the skank. Drums maintained a steady 4/4 time, with the bass drum accenting the third beat of each four-triplet phrase. The snare played a side stick and accentuated the third beat of each 4-triplet phrase.

Ska’s Pioneers: The Skatalites

The Skatalites, a famous ska band, played a pivotal role in the evolution of ska music. They recorded tracks like “Dynamite,” “Ringo,” and “Guns of Navarone,” contributing significantly to the genre’s development. One theory suggests that Prince Buster, a prominent figure in Jamaican music, played a crucial role in creating ska. During a recording session for his new record label, Wild Bells, financed by Duke Reid, the guitar began emphasising the second and fourth beats, ushering in a new sound. The drums drew inspiration from traditional Jamaican drumming and marching styles. To create the ska beat, Prince Buster reimagined the R&B shuffle beat, highlighting the offbeats with the help of the guitar. Prince Buster attributed the origin of ska to American rhythm and blues, specifically pointing to Willis Jackson’s song “Later for the Gator.”

Recording Studios and Independence

The first ska recordings were produced at renowned facilities like Federal Records, Studio One, and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica. Producers such as Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga played pivotal roles in shaping the ska sound. The emergence of ska coincided with Jamaica’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, leading to celebratory songs like Derrick Morgan’s “Forward March” and the Skatalites’ “Freedom Sound.”

Ska’s Influence and Interpretations

Jamaica’s delayed ratification of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works led to a unique phenomenon. The country did not initially honour international music copyright protection, resulting in numerous cover songs and reinterpretations. An exemplary case is Millie Small’s rendition of the R&B/shuffle classic “My Boy Lollypop,” originally recorded in New York in 1956 by 14-year-old Barbie Gaye. Small’s version, rhythmically akin to the original, became Jamaica’s first commercially successful international hit upon its release in 1964, selling over seven million copies and earning a place as one of the best-selling reggae/ska songs of all time. Many Jamaican artists followed suit, recording instrumental ska versions of popular American and British songs, covering everything from Beatles hits and Motown classics to movie theme songs.

The Transition to Rocksteady and Reggae

Jamaican music’s journey did not stop at ska. As music trends in the United States changed in the mid-1960s, transitioning into slower and smoother soul music, ska adapted its sound accordingly and evolved into rocksteady. However, Rocksteady’s heyday was relatively brief, peaking in 1967. By 1968, another transformation was underway, giving rise to the internationally acclaimed genre of reggae.

In conclusion, the evolution of Jamaican music from the post-World War 2 era to the birth of reggae is a captivating journey filled with cultural influences, local innovations, and the indomitable spirit of Jamaican musicians. From imitating American styles to crafting their own unique sound, Jamaican artists have left an indelible mark on the global music landscape. This evolution stands as a testament to the power of music to transcend boundaries and create something entirely new and extraordinary.