“Reggae” comes from the term “rege-rege” which means “rags” or “ragged clothes”, and this gives you your first clue into the story behind reggae music. When it started out in Jamaica around the late 1960s, reggae music was considered a rag-tag, hodge-podge of other musical styles, namely Jamaican Mento and contemporary Jamaican Ska music, along with American jazz and rhythm & blues, something like what was coming out of New Orleans at the time. Most listeners didn’t even distinguish reggae from Jamaican dancehall music or the slowed down version of ska music known as Rocksteady, until possibly when the band Toots and the Maytals came along. There songs served as a sort of public notice that a new style of music had been born and was staking its claim on the musical frontier.
Besides its sound, reggae music is frequently associated with the common themes in its lyrics. The earliest reggae lyrics spoke mostly of love, specifically romantic love between a man and a woman. But as the music and the musicians making it made their way into the 1970s, reggae started taking on a heavy Rastafarian influence. Now the love being sung about was not just romantic love, but cosmic, spiritual love, the love of one’s fellow man, and of God, or “Jah”. And when reggae singers weren’t singing about love, they were singing about rebellion and revolution against the forces impeding that love, like the extreme violence, poverty, racism, and government oppression they were witnessing or experiencing on a regular basis.
When reggae music reached more popular international acclaim was after singer Jimmy Cliff released a movie called “The Harder They Come” with a powerful socio-political storyline and an equally strong reggae soundtrack. This sudden global attention and interest in the music paved the way for possibly reggae’s biggest superstar, Bob Marley, to become a worldwide legend, and the name most associated with the genre. Today reggae music has spurred the innovation of a whole new range of musical styles, like modern Jamaican Dub, and been infused into many other popular genres, like hip-hop and rap. Yet still you can find bands in every corner of the world playing that authentic, roots reggae like it was when it started out in Jamaica over 50 years ago.