Jamaican music has had wide influence on the music world. But looking at the origins of both Ska and reggae one would have to conclude that reggae’s precursor, ska, was heavily influenced by the American blues and jazz of the late 40s and 50s. Take that kind of innovative instrumental work and marry it to a calypso beat and you have the musical foundation for what came to simply be called ‘Ska.”
Jazz and blues inspired Jamaican artists to blend their own brand of music and like other Jamaican music the resulting style was closely relevant lyrically to the social and political context of the time. Dancehall audiences caught on and made ska a lifestyle along with its companion genre, rocksteady. Early on UK bands collaborated with ska artists. Bob Marley is often labeled both Ska and reggae—he worked in both genres. Ska was not widely received in the U.S. until its so-called renaissance in the late 90s. U.S. ska bands that earned some notoriety include Westbound Train and Less Than Jake.
Reggae grew from the ska/rocksteady tradition and is best characterized by a bit slower tempo and spare melodies and repetitious beats. Of course the genre is widely associated with the laid-back Rastafarian lifestyle of the 70s and 80s. The ‘roots” style, in contrast to the more mainstream reggae, is indicative to the Rasta lifestyle and religion.
Early reggae star Bob Marley is one of the most world-recognized reggae artists. Marley’s contemporary, Jimmy Cliff, was arguably the least well known of the reggae pioneers, even though he is credited with reggae’s worldwide introduction via his movie The Harder They Come in the early 70s.
Instruments such as drums, bongos, and claves figure prominently in reggae rhythm and key artists have branded their music with particular beats. Melodically, jazz instruments that influenced ska have remained an integral part of reggae’s backbone: guitar, trumpet and sax, and keyboards.
Modern reggae continues to infiltrate some mainstream music in both the UK and the U.S. Bands and artists such as Jamaican Sean Paul and the UK band UB40 have marketed reggae successfully to a crossover audience. Outside the mainstream, though, reggae purists have a wide range of well-known artists and bands from which to choose, including Eek-a-Mouse, Maxi Priest, and Reggae Cowboys.