Add to bookbag
Author: Alan Waters
Title: Reggae music in Africa
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Reggae music in Africa
Alan Waters

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 3, 6, 7, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Alan Waters is a graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a freelance musician. He lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.

Reggae Music in Africa


The following report is intended as a preliminary discussion of the incorporation of reggae music within the popular musical life of the African continent. This will be in preparation for our viewing and analysis of excerpts from two different videotaped performances of reggae music in Africa: Nana Tuffour and the Sikadwa Band Live at the Adehyeman Gardens, Kumasi, [1] and Lucky Dube Live in Concert. [2] The first videotape documents a nightclub performance by the Ghanaian highlife singer Nana Tuffour and his band during which they merge reggae rhythms with their overall 'burgher' highlife style. This is an example of what Ghanaian musicians refer to as "highlife reggae." The second shows a concert by Lucky Dube of South Africa, in a large concert hall in Johannesburg, with his twelve-piece band both sounding and appearing squarely in the tradition of such classic Jamaican reggae bands as Chalice, Aswad, Black Uhuru, or Third World. My purpose in contrasting these two representations of reggae music from Africa is to test a distinction between two approaches to understanding the place of reggae within contemporary African musical life: (1) as a syncretic, reconstituted rhythmic principle that has influenced regional and local styles of music in many parts of the continent, and (2) as an imported musical idiom embodying—in image and sound—a political consciousness and a cultural identity. The contrast between these two videotapes, stated somewhat crudely, is that first example is an instance of "Africanized reggae," whereas the second example depicts "reggae-ized" African performers and audience.

Since its burgeoning from within the Jamaican music scene during the 1960s, reggae music has become an international idiom with broad, pan-diasporic appeal. It has moved and developed through a succession of styles and phases, and it continues to do so. It has generated a series of star performers who achieve both widespread popular recognition as well as critical attention within the music industry. Reggae stands apart from other styles of third world music in having travelled the farthest from its place of origin and in having accrued an aura of being the quintessential African/third world/black musical form. For millions of consumers and listeners all over the world, this hybrid Caribbean musical style that began as a mélange of jazz, rhythm-and-blues, mento, soul, calypso, and Rastafarian music, and which first emerged from within the cultural setting of the urban underclass of Kingston, Jamaica, [3] has taken on the status of African music par excellence.

It's important to remember that Jamaican reggae is popular throughout Africa for basically the same reason that it is popular throughout the world: it has a beautiful rhythm with a sound and feeling all its own, and it's a music that moves people in body and spirit in an immediate, powerful way that is special to itself. [4] This is the shared, experiential ground for both researcher and subject matter in this inquiry. It's also important to see the cross-continental embrace of reggae within the context of an ongoing, historical network of Afro-Atlantic musical exchanges and recyclings as studied by Collins, [5] Roberts, [6] and Christopher Waterman. [7] But it is impossible not to notice that reggae finds an especially strong resonance among Africans and throughout Africa. E. T. Mensah and his Tempos Band returned to Ghana from their 1969 tour of England with a kind of reggae beat that they'd picked up there. [8] During the 1970s, when the songs of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley reached Africa, musicians were profoundly affected. Thomas Mapfumo said that when he first heard Marley's music he threw away all his other records. [9] In 1978 Sonny Okosun catalyzed the increasing enthusiasm for this style in West Africa with his reggae song "Fire in Soweto." Bands and performing artists at all levels of the African music industry began incorporating the reggae rhythm into their repertoires. John Nunley mentions that during the late 1970s Jamaican music was a conspicuous part of the urban soundscape in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and that reggae could "be heard on record players and radios in all the local discotheques, bars, and homes." [10] The performance by Marley and the Wailers at the Zimbabwe independence ceremonies in April of 1980 gave tremendous prominence and stature to reggae music across the continent. [11] Peter Manuel cites a 1987 field report by Andrew Kaye that claimed that the average Ghanaian music store would be likely to devote a large portion of its stock to reggae. [12] Ko Nimo, the Ghanaian folklorist and palmwine guitarist, says that while he prefers reggae to the other foreign, imported styles of music that have gained recent popularity in West Africa, [13] it is still necessary to divert young people's attention from imported music towards a fuller appreciation of their own local and cultural music. [14] It is difficult to understand Akin Euba's assessment (from 1987) that, in Nigeria, he can't think of any bands concentrating on reggae, and that it's doubtful that reggae will become an important or dominant feature of the popular music scene there. [15] For some time the popular press and music magazines have been carrying articles with titles like "Reggae, The Deliverance of Nigeria" [16] or "The African Reggae Phenomenon" [17] or "Reggae Magic." [18] One purpose of clarifying an interpretive framework for considering African reggae is to isolate meanings within this musical and cultural process that lie deeper than fads, trends, or marketing strategies.

The appeal of reggae, undeniably, is in its rhythm. It is safe to say, if asked for a definition, that reggae is essentially a certain type of rhythm. Rex Nettleford, quoting Mr. Frederick Cassidy, states: "Reggae is a type of music that emerged in the mid-sixties, based ... on a heavy four-beat rhythm using bass, electric guitar and drum, ... and acting as accompaniment to emotional songs expressing rejection of established ... culture." [19] The minimal instrumentation necessary to create a reggae rhythm is a bass guitar, a drumset, and a six-stringed rhythm guitar. Nearly all reggae bands will additionally use some combination of electric keyboards, a second guitar, an assortment of Latin and/or Rastafarian percussion instruments, and very possibly a section of brass or woodwind horns. But these three instruments—guitar, bass, and drums—are indispensable. And interestingly, there is evidence to this effect in the format and presentation of the music itself. The "B Side" of many, if not most, reggae recordings produced in Jamaica will typically repeat the song that is on "Side A," except in an alternate version that is stripped down to primarily the bass and drum tracks, with perhaps some very small component of rhythm guitar or keyboards. Furthermore, in live performances reggae songs are frequently arranged and presented so that at the climax, instead of a crescendo or some spectacular outburst of virtuosic instrumental soloing, nearly all the instruments stop playing to let just the bass and drums and maybe one other rhythm instrument carry the music on their own. It is commonly recognized that jthese characteristics of the reggae idiom are directly related to multi-track recording techniques that allow for the maximum separation and manipulation of the sounds of each individual instrument, as well as the need to supply deejays and "toasters" (i.e., rappers) with sparse, skeletal, instrumental versions of familiar songs that can serve as the backdrop for vocal improvisations. I am adding to these observations the idea that these idiomatic characteristics of the reggae format also furnish moments of self-definition in which the music reduces itself to its bare essence, and in a sense, explains itself. The familiar cry of the lead vocalist in the middle of a song, "Rhythm, come forward!," announces the reggae aesthetic of subtraction and marks that segment of the performance during which the key elements of the music are displayed individually. This is usually what music critics and journalists have in mind when they describe reggae music as being minimalist.

How, then, is a reggae rhythm constructed using the bass, the drums, and the guitar? And how are we to link the rhythmic organization at the heart of reggae to the effects that the music has on listeners and dancers? And exactly what is it about the reggae rhythm that accounts for its deep and widespread penetration of African musical life? It should be noted that there is no single, definitive reggae rhythm. As with other genres of music that are historically based in the dispersal of African culture throughout the Americas—samba, blues, jazz, salsa, merengue—the reggae rhythm seems to be first and foremost a fundamental pulse that is susceptible to endless alteration and modification. It is virtually always recognizable and distinguishable when it is heard, and some casual listeners might say, "Oh, all those reggae songs sound the same." But close listening reveals countless variations on a central pulse or feeling which we refer to when we say such-and-such is a reggae song. And, in fact, the evolution of reggae music from the late fifties to the present is most frequently described in terms of successive rhythmic shifts and reconfigurations—ska, to rocksteady, to roots reggae, to rockers and steppers, to yard style and dancehall, etc.—in which each phase retains and elaborates the core reggae pulse.

I will outline the workings of the "one drop" rhythm which, for reggae musicians, has remained paradigmatic for the genre as a whole. This rhythm dominated the music during the 1970s and can be heard in the vast majority of songs from the classic Bob Marley recordings (e.g., Catch a Fire, 1972, Burnin', 1973, Natty Dread, 1974, Rastaman Vibration, 1976, Exodus, 1977, etc.), as well as in the music of Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others whose sound defined this era in reggae. The one-drop rhythm—especially as utilized by Carlton Barret and Aston "Family Man" Barret, the drummer and bassist in the Wailers— takes us directly to the point at which Jamaican music interpenetrates with African culture and musical life. Their combined roles in the rhythm section of Bob Marley's band, constantly honing and shifting and restating the basic movement of the one-drop rhythmic pattern, contributed enormously to the urgency and pathos of Marley's music. [20] Their interpretation of the one-drop rhythm became virtually definitive of reggae rhythm in Africa, as well as elsewhere.

The one-drop rhythm, always in 4/4 or common time, is comprised of a set of interlocking and overlapping parts executed by the bass guitar, the drums, and the rhythm guitar. The drummer produces a regular, repeating, and often intricate pattern combining eighth notes and sixteenth notes on the tightly closed hi-hat cymbals. The timbre of this piece of the drumset is clipped, metallic, and sharp; when amplified and played aggressively, it becomes even more so. The hi-hat contributes a relentless, rapidly moving, metronomic, staccato voice to the reggae ensemble. Striking the low-toned bass drum (with the foot) and the high-pitched snare drum together, the drummer marks the second and fourth beat of each measure. This produces the deep, somber, slow moving thump that is so characteristic of the sound of a reggae band. This emphasis on the second and fourth beat also determines how the music grips the dancers. The concurrence of the bass drum and the snare drum on these beats is the most important dimension of reggae drumming. Several things should be mentioned about it. First, there is an overwhelming preference within the reggae idiom for the sound of a snare drum played with the side-stick technique. This technique involves laying the drum stick across the head and slapping it down and onto the metal rim of the drum. In other words, rather than striking the drum head directly and activating the sound of the drum's hollow chamber, choosing the side-stick technique effectively converts the snare drum into an idiophone (i.e., a self-vibrating sound device) that gives off a small clicking sound, the result of wood striking metal, as opposed to the larger, more crashing and more conventional sound of striking the drumhead straight on with the stick. This technique comes to reggae from other Latin American and Caribbean styles of music, such as bosa nova and the beguine. It alludes to the clave patterns played with wooden sticks that hold together the multi-layered rhythms of Cuban and Puerto Rican music. And most importantly, it invokes the time-keeping role assigned to an array of metallic and wooden percussion instruments throughout much of the traditional music of West and Central Africa. The fact that the clicking of the side-stick coincides with the thumping of the bass drum—in many recordings the former seems to be buried within the sound of the latter—is also important because it amounts to a marriage of percussive sounds with nearly opposite timbres, and it also contributes to the sense of the simplicity of the reggae rhythm. The name "one-drop rhythm" refers to the wooden sound of the side-stick and the big thumping sound of the foot drum, simultaneously coming down on the second and fourth beat of each measure. One last point about the role of the drums in reggae rhythm is that the drummer will occasionally embellish the main pattern with additional notes on the snare drum—still using the side-stick technique—and thereby create the sense of a "talking" or improvisational component to the drum part of any given song. This intermittent chattering of the side-stick adds considerable excitement to the texture of the rhythm and is felt by listeners and dancers to be a kind of fragmented reference to those whole, unbroken clave patterns, referred to above, that anchor the music of African and Afro-Latin drum choirs.

The function and sound of the bass guitar in reggae are distinguishing traits of this style of music. The first noticeable thing about the bass guitar is that it is very loud. It will typically execute a simple phrase, using very few notes, but it will do so at such a low register and with such massive volume that the overall sound of the entire band is infused with a deep rumbling, and sometimes menacing, quality. Words like "fat" and "big" and "round" are frequently used by musicians and music producers to describe how the bass guitar should sound in reggae music. The bass phrase is stated repetitively, and it changes with the chord changes that accompany the melody of the song. And here, in the relation between the bass part of a given song and its melody, we find another distinctive peculiarity of reggae bass playing: the primary contribution of the bass guitar to the fabric of a reggae song is a counter-melody, [21] or in many cases, mere fragments or insinuations of a counter-melody. This explains the often extremely oblique connection between the primary melody of a reggae song, to which the lyrics are attached, and the cryptic, brooding phrases that emanate from the bass guitar. Again, fragmentation, working with fragments, and building smooth, unified wholes from fragments become organizing principles central to the structure of the reggae rhythm. The role of the bass guitar involves little, if any, improvisation. The "bass line," as the continuous restatement of the bass guitar's simple phrase is called, is woven throughout the song with the hi-hat/bass drum/snare drum amalgam supplied by the drumset. And the combined work of these two instruments, melded together in a systematic rhythmic flow that moves at a medium tempo, forms the foundation of the reggae sound. This is why one says that the reggae genre "features" the rhythm section, and it accounts for how Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, the superb bass and drum team from Jamaica, could rise to be pre-eminent stars within the genre without being in the role of "front man," singer, soloist, or band leader.

The third essential ingredient of the reggae rhythm comes from the electric, six-stringed guitar. Its job is to articulate the chord changes of the song on the afterbeat, or the "and," of beats one, two, three and four. This is the percussive, nearly mechanical "skanking" sound that precisely and relentlessly chops up each bar of the music as the song unfolds. The rhythmic contribution of the guitar, taken by itself, could hardly be simpler; but when inserted into the fluid and interactive movement of the bass/drums combination, it has the effect of constantly dissecting the rhythm and of giving the music its characteristic up-and-down, bouncy feeling. Reggae guitarists frequently adjust the tone of their instruments to sound harsh and metallic—intersecting with the timbre of the rapidly executed hi-hat pattern. The sound of the guitar tends to be electronically enhanced with echo and reverb so that each percussive strike of a chord gets a delayed rhythmic after-life, so to speak, and engages the other rhythms of the band at multiple points along the way. At times the sonic atmosphere of reggae music seems to be saturated with echo, and this, in part, gives it its ethereal, haunting quality. Critics frequently use words like "shimmering" [22] to describe this nuance. The guitar's function in reggae is almost entirely rhythmic, as opposed to its role in such styles as jazz, flamenco, or blues, which involve a much greater degree of improvisational soloing, melodic and harmonic variation, and individual self-expression. Simplicity, precision, and discipline are the aims of the reggae guitarist in meshing with the rest of the ensemble.

This, then, is the organization of a reggae rhythm. In performance and recording this framework is virtually always filled out and elaborated with a combination of percussion instruments, keyboards, horns, secondary guitars, and occasional accessory instruments. Significantly, a strongly improvisational element enters the music with the use of Rastafarian percussion and drums. [23] Although reggae performances frequently omit this Nyabingi component of the music, the particular rhythms associated with this distinctively African-Jamaican tradition are usually supplied, or at least implied, by the modern instruments of the ensemble.

The reggae rhythm is a particular species of complex rhythm. [24] It also has certain features that simplify it. I am tempted to coin a phrase such as "simple complex rhythm" to designate this. It is complex because its layered patterns and phrases cross one another in ways that engage listeners and dancers as the tensions created by those crossings are mediated. [25] The unique tension carefully and systematically sustained by the rhythm section of a reggae band is generically "African," without belonging to one particular place on the continent. Beneath the verbal meaning of a reggae song's lyrics, a treatment of rhythmic tension takes place among the instruments: the drum-set part itself involves a number of different phrasings, tempi, and emphases; this complex is then intersected and given a new dimension by the bass line; the guitar aggressively states the afterbeat, four to the bar, imposing a strict rhythmic silhouette over all of this. The continuous one-drop given by the drums, locked in with the up-and-down movement of the guitar have a simplifying effect. The form and arrangement of reggae songs also have a simplifying effect. Their forms are derived chiefly from North American pop, soul, and rhythm-and-blues models. Reggae music becomes aesthetically effective when the component parts of the rhythm are executed forcefully, accurately, and cleanly, and when the resultant rhythmic tension achieves a delicate balance within an atmosphere of both heightened seriousness and pleasure. The meaning of the reggae rhythm lies in the creation and management of rhythmic tension. This constant orientation toward rhythmic tension is behind the deep aesthetic affinity between reggae music and African cultures; it enables reggae to serve as a kind of container into which musicians from vastly different styles and traditions throughout Africa can put their own indigenous music. This is why so many Africans embrace it as their own. This is why countless local bands in different regions throughout the continent include reggae songs and use reggae rhythms in their performances. The structure of the rhythm, the techniques used by the players, the choice of timbres and textures throughout the idiom—these factors combine to focus the attention of all participants in the reggae event on the experience of relating and balancing rhythmic tension per se.

Reggae is modern. It is Western. It is African. It is highly amplified and electrical. It is geared toward the urban dancehall environment, and it relies on powerful sound systems. It comes to Africa from elsewhere, but it is immediately familiar and meaningful, and needs no translation. Musicians from many places in Africa say that they have music within their own culture to which the reggae rhythm is very similar, if not identical. In adopting reggae they describe themselves as taking possession of something that is already theirs. The themes of African unity, repatriation, and universalism are configured as much in the make-up of the reggae rhythm as in the lyrics of the songs. Videotaped performances of reggae in and from Africa, such as those of Nana Tuffour and Lucky Dube, are valuable because they are representations of Africans taking possession of what is theirs. And this is recurring in many types of performance situations and in recording studios, in the production of audio and video recordings, as well as in the recordings themselves as they are used and consumed, both within Africa and outside of Africa. The reception of reggae in Africa, its incorporation into the musical life of Africans, and its re-exportation to the world music market at large present opportunities to observe the self-conscious formation of an African-centered aesthetic. I suggest that we here at the conference on "Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa" view excerpts from these videotaped performances as a start for gathering evidence for an interpretation of this historical moment of cultural self-definition.

1. Central City Video, Division of Nakwas Video Enterprise, Accra, Ghana, 1993.

2. Shanachie Entertainment Corp., Newton, New Jersey, U.S.A., 1993.

3. Mervyn C. Alleyne, Roots of Jamaican Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1989), pp. 106ff.; Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1987), pp. 121ff.; Dick Hebdige, Cut'n'Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music (New York: Methuen, 1987); Adam Kuper, Changing Jamaica (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976), chapt. 13, "Kingston and its Slums"; Colin C. Clarke, Kingston, Jamaica: Urban Development and Social Change, 1692-1962 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), pp. 88-139, and plates nos. 21-32; Orlando Patterson, "Ecumenical America: Global Culture and the American Cosmos," World Policy Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1994, esp. pp. 106-109, entitled "Out of Jamaica."

4. "Reggae music is one of the greatest musics, you know ... You love yourself when you dance reggae music. You proud of yourself, that you come like you born again! A feeling come in the music you baptised ... Why reggae music is so nice is because it's a proud music. It can be a very, very proud music." Bob Marley, quoted in "Bob Marley: Legend of Our Time," Africa Music, No. 21, May/June, 1984, p. 21.

5. John Collins, "Jazz Feedback to Africa," American Music, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer, 1987; "Ghanaian Highlife," African Arts, Vol. X, No. 1, Oct. 1976; John Collins and Paul Richards, "Popular Music in West Africa (1981)," in World Music, Politics and Social Change: Papers from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, ed. Simon Frith (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989).

6. John Storm Roberts, Black Music of Two Worlds (New York: Praeger, 1972).

7. Christopher Waterman, Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of An African Popular Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 31ff.

8. John Collins, E. T. Mensah: The King of Highlife (London: Off the Record Press, 1986), pp. 37ff. See also, Collins, Musicmakers of West Africa (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1985), pp. 11-12.

9. Quoted in Ian Anderson, "Zimbabwe Gold," Folk Roots, Vol. 7, No. 4, October, 1985, p. 31.

10. John Nunley, Moving with the Face of the Devil: Art and Politics in Urban West Africa (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 173.

11. See Timothy White, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (New York: Holt, Rinhart and Winston, 1983), pp. 1-3; Stephen Davis, Bob Marley (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1985), pp. 207ff; Campbell, p. 144ff.

12. Peter Manuel, Popular Music of the Non-Western World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 93; Andrew Kaye, A Field Methods Report-In-Progress: Ko Nimo and the Problem of Ghana's Contemporary Musical Culture (Manuscript, 1987).

13. Quoted in Collins, Musicmakers of West Africa, p. 97.

14. "Africa Comeback: The popular Music of West Africa," (video) directed by Geoffrey Haydon and Dennis Marks, Channel Four Television Co., England, 1984.

15. Akin Euba, "Jùjú, Highlife and Afro-Beat: An Introduction to the Popular Music of Nigeria" (1987), Essays on Music in Africa, (Bayreuth: IWAIEWA-Haus, 1988), pp. 132-33.

16. by Roger Stephans, The Beat, Vol. 10, No. 5, 1991, pp. 34ff.

17. by Tom Cheyney, The Beat, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1991, p. 24.

18. by Brian Ward, New African Life, April, 1990, No. 2, p. 14.

19. Rex Nettleford, Caribbean Cultural Identity: The Case of Jamaica (Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies and UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1978), p. 22.

20. In presenting this report to the conference, as an audible example of Marley's very familiar and popular sound, and as an instance of the musical item that we're tracking when we talk about reggae music reaching Africa, we listened to an excerpt from the song "Zion Train" from the Wailers' Uprising LP (1980).

21. The idea of the counter-melodic role of the bass guitar came to me from reggae bassist Theodus E. Briggs ("Sparks") in conversation, Chicago, January, 1993.

22. E.g., "As with most African reggae, there's a shimmering quality to the music of South Africa's Lucky Dube." Alona Wartiofsky, 'Lucky Dube's Kinetic Reggae,' Washington Post, June 6, 1989, p. B7.

23. See Robert Santelli, "Reggae Percussionist: Skully Simms, Bongo Herman, and Alvin Haughton," Modern Percussionist, Vol. III, March-May, 1987, pp. 14ff.

24. Richard A. Waterman, " 'Hot' Rhythm in Negro Music," Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1948; also, "African Influence on the Music of the Americas," in Acculturation in the Americas, ed. Sol Tax (New York: Cooper Square, 1967), pp. 207-218; A. M. Jones, "African Rhythm," Africa, Vol. XXIV, 1954, pp. 26-47; E. M. Hornbostel, "African Negro Music," Africa, Vol. 1, No. 1, Jan., 1928, pp. 30-62; John Miller Chernoff, "The Rhythmic Medium in African Music," New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 1093-1102.

25. John M. Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 49ff, 52-53, 123; Alan Waters, "A Critical Reading of Chernoff's African Rhythm and African Sensibility," paper presented at the Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, Jan. 29, 1992.

passages |