I’ll be writing a series of posts for theglobalbassexperience.com about the music of the Jamaican dancehall and soundsystems (outdoor PAs set up to attract dancers). This whole world of music is most often called Reggae music now as a catch-all term, but prior to the dominance of Reggae on the soundsystems there were many other genres before it. In the process of writing these posts on Jamaican music I hope to bring focus to the fact that it is the foundation of and a main influence on much of the recorded dance music in the world, and it has a great deal of connection with bass music in all of its forms.
I’ll be featuring music from back in the 50s when Jamaican businessmen started building the first few studios on the island to record their own Mento, pop tunes and versions of American Jump Blues and Rhythm and Blues ballads. These few Jamaican studios kept recording music as the Rhythm and Blues covers and mimics gradually evolved into a new form that reflected the rhythms of Jamaica and the Caribbean. The initial Jamaican form to follow Jamaican Rhythm and Blues—also called “Blue Beat”—era was Ska, which by ’66 became Rocksteady, which then became Reggae in ’68. I shouldn’t say “became” because the genres did overlap for periods and there were certainly times when a soundsystem might be playing some Ska and some Rocksteady. But with the tight-knit and lightning fast culture of record producers, record distributors, studio musicians, soundsystem owners and dancers, music trends moved quickly and producers and soundsystems that didn’t quickly adapt to new forms were quickly left behind. So since the late 50s, generally every two years or so has seen a transition in Jamaican popular music, resulting in a web-like narrative with many recurring characters.
The best way for me to take you on a journey through the rich, complex history of Jamaican music is by selecting and presenting vintage recordings from Jamaican studios instead of giving an overload of information or names of musicians and producers. This way once introduced to a song, type of sound, or producer that you like, I’ll leave it to you to take it from there using your own ability to use the internet or look up names in books and in the shelves at record stores. I decided to separate the giant entirety of Jamaican recorded music from the 50s till the early 80s by recording studio, because this is actually pretty easy considering only about 10 or 20 studios did most of the music. I could have divided the music up by focusing on producer, but I thought this would be more difficult, though I likely will do a series of posts in the future on some of my favorite producers specifically. I hope by moving through the music by studio and chronologically, that by the end of the series, the identities of certain producers and bands will start to become apparent, and the various genres of Jamaican popular music will become somewhat familiar to you.
So this is part 1 of 10. Enjoy!
#1 Ken Khouri’s Federal Studio
Federal eventually became Tuff Gong in the late 70s, Bob Marley’s studio which will get its own separate post.
“It was the island’s first domestic recording studio and where the pioneers of reggae, such as Sir Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, Duke Reid and Prince Buster, recorded the earliest examples of popular Jamaican music.”Federal Records is a cornerstone in the history of the Jamaican music industry.The name of the studio’s founder, Ken Khouri, is not well known outside of Jamaica, but his contribution to Jamaican music is immeasurable and he is a well-respected figure in his homeland. He left behind many important recordings that should be passed down from generation to generation. “- Dub Store Sound Inc.
Federal Records Console
To start the music, below is a Mento song (Calypso influenced Jamaican Folk/Pop form) from Federal’s Kalypso imprint.
Laurel Aitken was one of the first stars of Jamaican music. Here is a Mento recorded in 1960.
Jamaican Rhythm and Blues/Blue Beat
Transitioning from Mento into Jamaican Rhythm and Blues with Mr. Aitken, this period of music is often called Blue Beat. Hear the transition to a boogie feel, a Jamaican take on the US rhythmic trend.
Below is another Jamaican boogie, but this track has an overstated upbeat feel that presages Ska.
“Featuring guitarist Ernest Ranglin and the backing of Cluett Johnson’s studio band Clue J and the Blues Blasters; recording several tracks for Coxsone Dodd at Federal Studios, including the Theophilus Beckford hit “Easy Snapping” (recorded in 1956 and released in 1959)”
Now on to Ska with the Skatalites, the most iconic Ska group, recorded at Federal. This was right around the time Coxsone Dodd was building Studio One, which would become their most famous base to record from.
Below is another example of Ska music from Eric “Monty” Morris with backing from Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, a band that played a polished, uptown version of Ska music, Jazz and Mento. A lot of quality Boogie and Ska was released on the Kentone label, another one of Federal’s imprints.
Here is another tune from Mr. Morris.
I will next feature some fabulous Jazz with a Jamaican twist from Ernest Ranglin, a guitarist well versed in Jazz, but also responsible for developing the sound of Ska, with a percussive upbeat rhythmic approach to the guitar chords. The word Ska is a onamatapaeic for the insistent upbeat sound of the music. This was recorded in ’65 and I chose to include it because it shows that the eras of Jamaican Jazz, Mento, Boogie/RnB, and Ska were not so distinct that albums only represented a given style during a given year.
Moving from the Ska era (1963 to 1966) to the Rocksteady era, the rhythm once again changed in Jamaican popular music, this time slowing down and adopting a smooth soul feel. US styled vocal harmony trios became popular during this era. Below is music released on Federal’s Merritone imprint which released Ska and then Rocksteady with the backing band Lynn Tait and the Jets. Mr. Tait’s ultratight percussive guitar sound characterizes Rocksteady music.
Johnny Nash at Console at Federal Records
Below is the cover of the album that the above single was released on.
“A fundamental album released in 1966 that determined the way Rocksteady was going to journey.
In 1966, Rude Boys were at the peak of the fame with their notorious behaviors, while Ska gradually started to slow down its tempo. This album paved the way for a newborn music, Rocksteady, with rather slower and tighter rhythm approach. This album should be considered as one of the ten most important albums in Reggae history.
The descent from Ska, which had its derivation from Jazz or Rhythm and Blues, to Rocksteady, with its various potential elements which would be passed to the next decade of Reggae, has been allegedly created in this album with Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt and his band The Jets as the backing band. Entitled “Take It Easy With The Rock Steady Beat!”, most of the tunes featured in this album were written for praising dance hall as if he’d have known this genre was going to rule the dance floors. Among the tunes in this album, “This Music Got Soul” was the coolest of all and called out the dawn of the Rocksteady era. This tune had a huge influence on the future developments of Reggae music”- From Dub Store Sound Inc.
This is a trio called The Tartans.
Here are the Paragons, featuring a young John Holt.
Here are some more Rocksteady cuts featuring Lynn Tait and the Jets.
Now at this point in this post we have reached the era of Reggae. Initially, compared to Rocksteady, Reggae was a faster funkier form ingesting elements of Funk, Rock and Nyahbingi drumming of Rastafarianism. The bassline had grown independent from the repetitive rhythm instruments. From this period on Reggae would transition through many sub-genres that I won’t outline here. Instead I will feature an overview.
This is early Reggae from 1969 from the album Boss Reggae by Ernest Ranglin.
From 1972, here is Ken Boothe’s Boothe Unlimited.
From 1974, here is the hit “Ram Goat Liver” by Pluto Shervington.
Here’s the follow-up.
This is from the Dub album Derrick Harriott Presents Scrub-A-Dub Reggae mixed at Federal in 1974 by Brother George. Derrick Harriott’s label imprint was Crystal and his backing musicians were called the Chrystalites.
One of my favorite singers from the mid−70s is Johnny Clarke. Here is a track from his album Moving Out recorded and mixed at King Tubby’s and Federal. Since Tubby’s was just a mixing and voicing studio at this point in time, the rhythms then were recorded at Federal Records. Bunny Lee produced the track with his session band the Aggrovators, one of my favorite bands, playing Bunny Lee’s signature “flyers” rhythm on the drums, which you’ll notice has a prominent opening hi-hat accompanying the rhythm guitar.
Here is another tune from the album Moving Out which was reissued as Rock with Me Baby
This is a production from musician/producer Lloyd Charmers, who plays keys on this track, guitarist Willie Lindo’s “Here I am Baby”.
Another tune…this one is nice, dreadful, a little creepy and jazzy.
This is from Delroy Wilson’s 1976 album Sarge.
From 1977, this is the Meditations, produced by Dobby Dobson.
From 1979, this is Derrick Harriot from Reggae Disco Rockers.
At a certain point in the early 80′s Federal was bought by Bob Marley and turned into the still functioning and famous Tuff Gong International Studios. I will cover Tuff Gong’s sound in a separate post. The sound of the studio changed completely and the influence of the great engineer Errol Brown shaped the records recorded there into a completely different form from that of Federal. I bet it felt nice for Bob to buy one of the first studios that he recorded in back as a young boy.