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What Came Before Reggae Music?

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Who Brought Reggae to the World | Image Source : clubvillamar.frWhat Came Before Reggae Music?

by Venesha Johnson | Associate Writer

Our musical legacy is as vibrant and diverse as our people. When you think of Jamaica, what comes to mind? Undoubtedly, our music is among the top five things that spring to my mind.

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From the infectious beats of mento to the soul-stirring and thought-provoking lyrics of reggae, our music tells a story that spans generations and geographical borders.

While today, reggae and dancehall are the most popular genres of Jamaican music, you would be surprised at how intricately tied together our different genres of music have been over centuries. So, letโ€™s take a look at the genres that preceded reggae and how they influenced the genre.

Folk Music

This is how our Jamaican music originally started. Its peak popularity was during slavery. However, it remained popular even after the abolition of slavery in 1838. Music is a form of expression, so unsurprisingly, folk lyrics often had themes of freedom and the oppression of black people, matching the climate of that period. It served as the model for the other musical subgenres which emerged from the island.

Though not as widely popular anymore, we still have performances at cultural events like Jamaica Day in schools or Independence festivals, which allows the younger generations to listen and develop an appreciation for the genre. Tourists often get a taste of folk music too, as many hotels add it to their list of entertainment activities.

Reggae, particularly conscious reggae, inherited themes of social commentary and spirituality from Jamaican folk songs, reflecting the struggles and aspirations of our people.


Mento is an early 19th-century musical genre with origins in both European and African predecessors, although reaching its height between the 1940s and 1950s. Even earlier, however, mento originated when slaves entertained their owners with this fusion of quadrille and Afro-Jamaican rhythms, frequently receiving preferential treatment in return.

Mento is believed to have peaked in popularity in the 1950s thanks to its biggest stars, Lord Fly, Count Lasher, Lord Flea, Harold Richardson and the Ticklers.

Mento's rhythmic patterns served as a foundation for reggae, influencing its characteristic offbeat rhythm and syncopation. Melodic motifs from mento often played on acoustic instruments like banjo and guitar, can be heard in early reggae compositions.


Then came ska, bursting onto the scene in the late 1950s with its upbeat tempo and horn-driven melodies. Ska is a synthesis of American and Caribbean music, specifically Jazz and Rhythm and Blues (R&B), as well as Jamaican genres Calypso and Mento. However, ska started gaining popularity in Jamaica and even in European countries in the 1960s.

Ska truly took off when Americans began to prefer Rock & Roll over Jazz and Blues. Because Jamaicans continued to enjoy listening to jazz and blues music, local musicians developed a new genre by taking cues from other genres.

Ska's upbeat tempo and emphasis on off-beat rhythms directly influenced the development of reggae's characteristic rhythm, often referred to as the "one drop" rhythm.

Ska's popularity within Jamaica's sound system culture provided a platform for artists who later transitioned into reggae, such as the Wailers, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh.


As the 1960s unfolded, rocksteady emerged, slowing down the tempo and delving into deeper, more introspective themes. The Reggae genre spawned from the short-lived Rocksteady era, which significantly impacted our music. There were parts of R&B and Mento mixed in with the mostly Ska beat. It was customary to dance to the slower-paced rhythm, which allowed the performers to work with more complex tunes.

The dancer would attempt to maintain as much stability as possible with their feet in Rocksteady. From one foot to the other, they would then gradually switch their weight. They would simultaneously rock the remainder of their body and shake their shoulders in sync with the song. Rocksteady by Hopeton Lewis, published in 1966, inspires the moniker.

Rocksteady slowed down the tempo of ska music, emphasizing a more relaxed and laid-back rhythm, which later became a defining characteristic of reggae.

It introduced new elements, such as stress on bass lines and intricate drumming styles, which became foundational in reggae music. While retaining some of the social commentary from ska, rocksteady introduced themes of love and heartbreak, which continues to be prominent in reggae lyrics.

Interesting isn't it? And this isn't where it ends either. Preceeding reggae are its subgenres like reggae gospel and dancehall, its more energetic cousin. We have contributed much to music as a whole, a fact that rings through even today.

Trying to listen to other genres from Jamaica makes for a fun afternoon, so you should definitely give them a listen. While we love reggae, the music of our people, letโ€™s not forget about the genres that preceded it, as without them, there would be no reggae.

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References & Sources For What Came Before Reggae Music?

  1. How did Mento begin? whatโ€™s the real story behind it? (no date) My Island Jamaica. Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2024).
  2. Origins of mento (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2024).
  3. Shearer, S.-A. (no date) Historical timeline of Jamaican music: Folk...reggae...dancehall, My Island Jamaica. Available at: (Accessed: 24 February 2024).
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