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These early mento recordings did not sell particularly well in the face of regional competition from Cuba and Trinidad. The biggest hit of the era, Alerth Bedasse’s “Night Food,” caught the attention of the colonial government (Jamaica was ruled by Great Britain for three centuries until its independence in 1962) due to its provocative lyrics about a young man who is confused when an older woman invites him to sample the warm sweet night food, even though the room they are in is pitch black and he has no utensils. Trade and Industry minister Willis O. Isaacs personally attacked the song in an address to parliament, raising concerns about censorship, further discouraging investment in domestic recording.
But the 1950s would be a time of economic and political change in Jamaica. Global demand for aluminum was growing; the miracle metal was being used in everything from airplanes to TV dinner trays. By the end of the decade Jamaica would be the world’s leading producer of aluminum’s raw material of bauxite. Less labor intensive than farming, bauxite mining created a labor surplus and young Jamaicans poured in from the countryside in search of better opportunities.
Jamaicans began leaving the island to work on sugar and cotton plantations in the United States, replacing southern blacks who had left during the Great Migration. An estimated 174,000 Jamaicans also moved to the United Kingdom between 1953 and 1962, after which the British government abruptly cut off immigration from the newly independent state. Millions of pounds in remittances were sent to Jamaica every year.
Limited transportation and infrastructure had long handcuffed the country’s tourist industry. But after World War II, commercial travel and newly built hotels helped spur three decades of consistent economic growth. Jamaican GNP nearly doubled between 1952 and 1962. The years between 1940 and 1960 saw significant reductions in illiteracy and infant mortality, and a 10-year jump in life expectancy.
Jamaica was in the process of becoming urban and modern, and the young people who found themselves in the capital of Kingston were no longer interested in the “country” music of their past. Retailers began setting up speakers in front of their business in hopes of luring customers inside. Entrepreneurs such as hardware store owner Thomas Chin started renting out mobile sound systems for parties.
By the mid-1950s the sound system was the center of Kingston nightlife. Hotels and tourist clubs did not welcome locals, and state radio catered to a conservative affluent audience, so the sound-system dance was the place most Jamaicans went to show off their wares and hear new tunes. An underground economy grew around the dances: Organizers charged admission, DJs received a fee, and food and alcohol vendors lined the streets around the venue.
Competition between DJs was intense, and customer feedback immediate. The hottest music in 1950s Kingston was American jazz and rhythm and blues. DJs paid a premium for records by artists such as Rosco Gordon and Fats Domino. Records were imported or bought off boat workers coming from the United States. Many DJs actually got their start working as migrant laborers in the United States, using the money they earned to collect equipment and records. A new breed of music entrepreneurs was just beginning to build the infrastructure needed for Jamaican music to flourish.
While popular music was withering in Cuba, it was beginning to bloom in Jamaica. The growth of Jamaican tourism, in part spurred on by the collapse of Cuban tourism, created plenty of opportunities for musicians. Given the high rates of youth unemployment, joining a hotel band was a good career option.
The island was also beginning to discover its own great pop singers. Vere Johns, a Jamaican journalist and well-traveled entrepreneur, began hosting a talent show on RJR radio, broadcast from the Palace Theater. Singers battled it out over pop and R&B songs, and the crowd, composed of Jamaicans from all classes (due to the availability of cheap seats), would pick the winner through their cheers. The show launched the careers of many important artists, including the eventual king of ska Derrick Morgan, who went on to record Jamaica’s first international hit record; Millie Small, and even the band from which The Legend himself, Bob Marley, would emerge, The Wailers.
Mobile DJs, always looking to stay ahead of the competition, began recording their own music. At first they tried to mirror the rhythm and blues records—particularly the jerking piano boogies of artists like Rosco Gordon and Professor Longhair—that were so popular at sound system dances. Soundman Clement “Coxsome” Dodd originally recorded Theo Beckford’s classic “Easy Snappin’ ” in 1956 as a “sound system special”—a song you’d only hear live at the dance. Coxsome didn’t release the record for sale until 1959, at which point it instantly topped the Jamaican charts.
Exclusive recording contracts and publishing rights were nonexistent at the time, leaving plenty of artists disgruntled about never getting their due or proper compensation. But the anarchistic sound wars produced some of the most important recordings in Jamaican musical history.
One of the transformational figures in 1960s Jamaican music was Cecil Bustamente Campbell, better known as Prince Buster. An accomplished boxer and unflappable tough guy, Buster caught the attention of Coxsome, working not only as a strongman for the DJ turned producer, but also as a curator, who with one listen could name the artist and title of rival DJ’s selection.
Around this time many unemployed youth had begun hanging out in a Trenchtown yard with a group of mystics known as Rastafarians. Many musicians who played on early ska records began bringing their horns to the yard to jam with the rasta drummers, who performed layered, syncopated rhythms in a West African style. While a Muslim, Buster appreciated the new possibilities brought on by the inclusion of African drumming, and in 1960, while recording the vocal group The Folkes Brothers, he invited rasta drum guru Count Ossie to join the session. The resulting record, “Oh Carolina” was an immediate hit and a turning point in Jamaican music
Ska began sounding less and less like Jamaican imitations of music from New Orleans and more like something altogether unique. The rigid, offbeat “ska-ska” of the guitar and piano that gave the music its name became looser, and the bass abandoned its supporting role to become the prime mover behind the sound systems’ massive walls of speakers. Jamaica was a new nation, with a unique identity and its own new popular music.
As the Kingston music scene grew, musicians from throughout the Caribbean found their way to Jamaica. Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt advocated for the exploration of different tempos and began incorporating counter lines common to calypso music. The bouncing bass, slower tempo, and bubbling guitar line heard on Hopeton Lewis’ 1966 hit “Take It Easy” would usher in the beginning of rocksteady. This music, with its layered guitars (one chunking out chords, while another provided dancing, muted melodies), its free, earthshaking bass, and popping, syncopated drums, laid the foundation for reggae.