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Jamaica - Music


   Close your eyes practically anywhere in Jamaica and you'll hear music. Radios blare on the street, buses pump out non-stop dancehall and every Saturday night the bass of countless sound-system parties wafts through the air. Music is a serious business here, generating an average of a hundred record releases per week and influencing every aspect of Jamaican culture from dress to speech to attitude. Reggae and DJ-based dancehall dominate, but Jamaicans are catholic in their musical tastes: soul, hip-hop, jazz, rock 'n'roll, gospel and the ubiquitous country and western are popular.

   Jamaica's music scene first came to international attention with ska , the staccato, guitar-and-trumpet-led sound heard in Millie Small's smash hit My Boy Lollipop and Desmond Dekker and the Aces' 007 (Shanty Town) . By the mid 1960s, ska had given way to the slowed-down and more melodic rocksteady sound. Rocksteady didn't carry the swing for very long, though, and by the late 1960s it had been superseded by the tighter guitars, heavier bass and sinuous rhythm of reggae. Bob Marley's lyrics, drawn from the tenets of Rastafari, emphasized repatriation, black history, black pride and self-determination. Reggae became full-fledged protest music - anathema to the establishment, which banned it wherever possible.

   The 1970s stand out as the classic period of roots reggae. But while Burning Spear was singing Marcus Garvey and Slavery Days, the era also offered a sweeter side: the angelic crooning of more mainstream artists like Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaccs found an eager audience, their style becoming known as lovers' rock . As the 1970s wore on, studio technology became more sophisticated and producers began manipulating their equipment to produce dub - some of the most arresting and penetrating music ever to emerge from Jamaica. With a remarkable level of inventiveness and often limited means, dub pioneers King Tubby, Prince Jammy and Scientist brought reggae back to basics, stripping down songs so that only bass, drums and inflections of tone remained. Snippets of the original vocals were then mixed in alongside sound effects (dog barks, gunshots). Before long, scores of DJs clamoured to produce dub voice-overs. The craft was mastered by U-Roy , who released talk-based singles to great success throughout the 1970s.

   As the violent elections of 1976 and 1980 saw the pressure in Kingston building up, the sound systems multiplied and the DJs "chatted" on the mike about the times, analysing the position of the ghetto youth in Jamaica. But reggae struggled to find direction and purpose after the death in 1981 of Bob Marley; his legacy of cultural consciousness began to seem less relevant to the ghetto world of cocaine-running and political warfare.

   Meanwhile the lewd approach and overtly sexual lyrics - or "slackness" - of DJs such as Yellowman became hugely popular, leading to the rise of ragga (from "ragamuffin", meaning a rough-and-ready ghetto-dweller), a two-chord barrage of raw drum and bass and shouted patois lyrics. Also known as dancehall , it is now the most popular musical form in contemporary Jamaica; names to look for include Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Lady Saw, Elephant Man and Spragga Benz.

   Dancehall, though, isn't to everyone's taste, and the battle between cultural and slackness artists continues. The culturally conscious lyrics and staunch Rastafarian stance of the late Garnet Silk, who burst on the scene in the mid-1990s, led the way for artists such as Capleton, Sizzla and Luciano, while singers such as Beres Hammond and Sanchez continue to release wonderful reggae tunes

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