How Reggae Defeated Mambo

When communism squelched popular music in Cuba, Jamaica took over as cultural capital of the Caribbean


Havana in the 1950s was Las Vegas with beaches. Affluent North Americans escaped to Cuba to indulge in cigars, sex, rum, and affordable luxury. Leading hotels and casinos boasted of dance halls and large orchestras. Modeled after popular New York orchestral combos, these tourism-generated bands infused popular music from the United States with the instruments and rhythms of Cuba, Africa, and the Caribbean. 

The result was explosive. The mambo quickly busted out of the glitzy cabarets and into the buzzing streets of Havana. Small, private social clubs, of the type immortalized in the 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, began springing up on every street corner. Organized by neighborhood, by occupation, and by social status, these clubs helped nurture a strong community-based sense of the new Cuban music.

Like so much Cuban-American culture before the two countries became bitter adversaries, Havana's mambo craze leapt back across the Florida Straits to a willing United States. New York Jazz musicians began incorporating Cuban elements into their music. Pop singers such as Nat "King" Cole began recording with musicians in Cuba and singing in Spanish. Cuban artists such as Beny Moré and Celia Cruz found themselves at the fore of a new, syncretic movement in pan-American popular music. 

And decades before cultural observers would enthuse over the "crossover" appeal of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Yankee audiences threw their arms around Cuban percussionist Desi Arnaz, whose mambo band-leader character Ricky Ricardo co-anchored the most popular show on American television, I Love Lucy. 

At the height of '50s mambo fever, you would have been laughed out of the room had you predicted that comparatively tiny and impoverished Jamaica would soon become a dominant force in global music, while the Caribbean's longstanding cultural capital of Havana fell into irrelevance and decay. But the rise of communism and its attendant cultural protectionism soon choked off mambo and Cuban creativity at the source, while Jamaica's economic boom and unfettered recording industry uncorked a revolutionary new music called reggae.

The glossy exterior of Havana's nightlife concealed something much darker. Dictator Fulgencio Batista demonstrated little regard for the constitution he had created more than a decade earlier. Racial and social divides ran deep, free speech and assembly were severely curtailed, and the wealth brought in by the booming tourist trade was seen as benefitting only the well connected. 

On July 23, 1953, a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks in Havana. While easily thwarted, the attack marked the beginning of what would be the Cuban Revolution. After a brief prison stint, the bearded revolutionary fled to Mexico, then returned in December of 1956 with Argentinean physician and military strategist Che Guevara and 80 men. Taking to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and shoring up support from rural workers and farmers, Castro and company began what would be a two-year war against the Batista regime. On New Year's Day 1959, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and Fidel Castro began his long victory march to Havana.

Initially, many musicians were optimistic about the new Cuba. At last they would be able to explore their craft free from the constraints of the market. Class and race would no longer divide people, and artists would now be able to freely connect with all Cubans instead of merely catering to visiting Americans. Most non-headlining musicians saw an initial increase in income, and composers were afforded the security of a regular salary. Cultural education programs strove to valorize domestic music and raise the musical literacy of all Cubans.

But this new musical economy was unsustainable. The casinos were looted and shuttered within days of the revolution. Hotels were commandeered, and tourists stopped coming. With the engine of the economy cut, more and more clubs found it impossible to stay open. By January 1960, the government had taken over most performance venues. And by the summer of 1960, Cuba's numerous radio and television networks were nationalized. 

A musician wishing to be heard in Cuba now required government approval. Opportunities to perform abroad were limited to state-sponsored tours, and formal approval was required even to travel anywhere on the island. Cuban musicians, who once roamed as far as their talents could take them, now found their ability to share their works dependent upon the state's assessment of their loyalty to the Revolution. And it was not only professional musicians who were silenced: The Social Clubs, so vital to the musical soul of the island, were declared un-egalitarian and abolished.

By 1961, all production facilities had been nationalized. State approval was required for any new recording. Censorship and bureaucratic red tape frustrated artists. Reduced tourism and trade cut Cuba off from its most lucrative markets, and the lack of profit motive meant that no one stood to make money by pushing new music or reissuing perennially popular recordings. Meanwhile, the deteriorating economy (exacerbated by the U.S. embargo) made money still more scarce. By 1966, Cuba, which used to press millions of records a year, only managed to eke out 184,000.

As his country moved much closer to the Soviet Union, Castro soon adopted Moscow's model of arts production. To be a musician in socialist Cuba, one had to audition for a panel of conservatory-trained professionals who assigned the would-be performer a letter grade of A, B, or C. Given the background of the panel, it was only natural that those most proficient in classical European styles were assigned to the highest class, while those proficient in folk or popular styles would be diverted into lesser pools. 

Popular styles of music such as jazz and early rock 'n' roll were tolerated in the early days of the Revolution, but later years saw them labeled as imperialist, and effectively banned. (Even the Beatles were banned for several years on grounds of cultural imperialism.) Artists attempting the Cuban tradition of incorporating new rhythms and instruments into their styles were blacklisted from state radio and TV. 

In 1968, a prohibitionist "Dry Law" closed Cuban clubs, leaving 40 percent of Cuban club musicians with no place to perform. In 1970, most were forced into the sugar fields as part of the communist state's zafra de los 10 milliones, a desperate plot to save the Cuban economy with a massive, one-time sugar haul. Musicians had their instruments ripped from their hands and replaced with machetes. In just one decade, Havana went from being the wellspring of popular pan-American music to a desert of rigid, top-down culture. 

The colonial island 90 miles south of Cuba had a much more modest musical pedigree at the time of the mambo boom. The first popular music documented in Jamaica was mento. Played on homemade string, wind, and percussion instruments in rural parts of the country as early as the 19th century, mento featured an even, playful gait and cheeky lyrics about daily life. Sounding similar to Trinidadian calypsos, mento did not start appearing on record until the 1950s, when entrepreneurs such as Ken Khouri and Ivan Chin sought to jump-start a domestic recording industry. 

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.

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.