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While the political wars between the island’s two union-based parties (the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party) was threatening the stability of the fledgling nation, Jamaican music continued to evolve and respond to the times. Musicians and producers—particularly Rastafarians who had a long tradition of political cynicism—turned out anthems criticizing the political turmoil and violence. People began using the word reggae to describe the scruffy, loose music of the late ’60s produced by a new generation of artists ready to challenge the old sound-system guard. The 1970s would see the audience for Jamaican reggae music explode, changing popular music around the globe.
The man who brought Jamaican music to the world was Chris Blackwell, a British citizen whose ties to Jamaica dated back to the 17th century. Blackwell had been recording Jamaican music as early as 1958, and was one of the most prominent record distributors in the burgeoning days of the sound system. As a producer, Blackwell would score his first international hit with Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” a record that not only sold well within the U.K.’s West Indies community, but found crossover success, with Small even sharing a TV spot with The Beatles.
Blackwell felt that the world was ready for a global reggae mega-star, and saw potential in The Wailers, particularly their charismatic frontman Bob Marley. Jamaican music had been on the verge of breaking internationally for a few years, but Blackwell realized that the popular audience for the music would not be found in the black community, but rather the white counterculture.
By adding a few distorted guitars and marketing the Wailers as a rock band, Blackwell thought his hand-picked group could cross over to international superstardom. The Wailers 1973 Catch A Fire was indeed an instant classic, introducing much of the world to the music that had been shaking Jamaica for the past decade. By the mid-’70s reggae had a firm foothold in the U.S. and the U.K. as both a high-valued import product and a style worth mining by acts like The Clash and even The Rolling Stones.
What accounts for the major divergence between Cuban and Jamaican popular music in the 1960s and beyond? Control. The socialist government of Cuba set out to preserve and promote culture through top-down programs that stifled competition and expression, providing little incentive to cater to anyone other than those in power. In Jamaica, popular opinion drove the sound systems and fierce competition between musicians and producers led to a tremendous period of innovation. Cuba created an orderly system for music education that produced little of lasting value; Jamaica’s disordered economic growth produced a global phenomenon whose reverberations are still being felt.
While sound system dances, like Jamaican life itself, were not free from police harassment, the culture continued and was never banned outright the way Cuban social clubs were. Travel restrictions, bans, and embargos cut Cuban musicians off from their regional audience and the Cuban diaspora, and even the most popular Latin American musical genre of the ’60s and ’70s—salsa—excluded the country whose tresillo rhythm (three notes in a long-long-short pattern) provided its backbone. Jamaica, on the other hand, maintained steady lines of regional and international trade, consistently seeding the island with new music and equipment, while building a strong market abroad.
In December 2012 Raul Castro, ruling the island after his ailing brother Fidel, announced that reggaeton—the Spanish language rap style set to Jamaican dance hall beats that has come to dominate Latin America in recent years—would be banned from the public places. Once again the Cuban people are being protected from popular music deemed to be imperialist and debasing.
But as the example of Jamaica reveals, music cultures can thrive in competitive environments. And personal and economic freedom can strengthen local culture rather than debase it, creating music so unique and infectious that imitators will spring up on the other side of the globe.