Mento comes from the music of African slaves brought to the Caribbean island nation. Centuries later, it got mixed with popular genres coming from the US. The new term “reggae” got into use after the 1968 release of the single “Do the Reggay” by the band Toots and the Maytals. According to perhaps the best known reggae star in the world, Bob Marley, the word reggae comes from the Latin “regi”, the dative case version of “rex”, thus meaning “to the king”. In Marley’s opinion, this is because reggae was “the king of music”: However, the term reggae or rege-rege was used in Jamaican English for ragged clothing, or for a quarrel, an argument before. Yet another theory is that it’s derived from the Jamaican patois word “streggae”, meaning a promiscuous woman. However, what is clear is that reggae was heavily tied to the newly-founded, Afro-Centered Rastafarian religion that emerged in the 1930’s in Jamaica.
By the 1970’s, the new Caribbean genre saw considerable commercial success in other parts of the world as well, such as the US, UK, and some African countries, mainly South Africa. Bob Marley’s rose to fame helped to popularize the genre immensely. His first international hit single was the 1974 classic “No Woman, No Cry”. Soon after, Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America, and even Spain, developed their own local style of reggae in their native language.
Today, reggae is still one of the more listened-to genres of popular music, especially (evidently) in Jamaica, but in other Caribbean countries as well.
Reggae is a very rhythmic-centered genre. A specific type of drum set, the so-called “snare drum” is used, tuned up to the maximum. Three types of drum beats can be heard in reggae songs: one drop, rockets, or steppers. The most common of these three is one drop, which is a 4-beat, quarter-note pattern. On every third beat there's both a snare and bass drum hit, while the first is left empty.
Besides drums, acoustic guitars, bass, keyboards, and horns are heavily featured on reggae instrumentals. The guitar usually plays on the off beat of the rhythm. The vocals are less prominent in reggae than in other popular genres, like pop or rock. Vocal harmonies, when multiple singers sing a slightly different version of a melody, creating a new sound, are often used by reggae bands. You can also hear singing techniques like tremolo or vibrato on the tracks; as well as occasional “toasting”, a tradition carried over from dancehall music when the singer (originally the DJ in dancehall) yells out a few lines over the instrumental.
Common themes in reggae are love, the Rastafarian religion, the struggle of Black people, social injustice, smoking marijuana, and having a laid-back, carefree time.
Impressively, the band who recorded the first song to feature a variation of the word reggae in the title in 1968, The Toots and the Maytals is still performing, under the new name “The Maytals”. Another long-time reggae band is Black Uhuru, with such songs as “Sinsemilla” (1980), and “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” (1979).
The legendary Bob Marley passed away in 1981. His son, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley also became a successful reggae singer, and has put out such hits as “Welcome to Jamrock” (2005) and “Medication” (2017) featuring his brother Stephen Marley. Jimmy Cliff’s biggest hits to date are “I Can See Clearly Now” (1993), “The Harder They Come” (1972), and “Rebel in Me” (1987). Bruno Mars is known to put out songs in a whole slew of genres. In 2010, his reggae-pop track “The Lazy Song” became a massive hit.