A Brief History of Jamaican Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A Brief History of Jamaican Folk Music and its influence on the world.


Jamaican folk music is a mixture of several cultures that came together to create a unique musical form. The earliest folk music in Jamaica was brought over by the Spanish and the British. This music was then mixed with the music of the African slaves to create a new type of music.

African influences

The music of Jamaica includes a wide variety of genres and styles, ranging from folk and R&B to ska and dub. Reggae is the best-known form of Jamaican music, but the island’s musical traditions encompass much more than that. Here’s a brief overview of the history and evolution of Jamaican folk music.

Jamaica’s musical traditions can be traced back to the island’s African roots. Many of the earliest Jamaican musicians were slaves who were brought to the island by Spanish colonists in the 1600s. These slaves were forced to work on plantations, and they often used music as a way to express their frustrations and sadness. Over time, African musical traditions began to mix with other genres, including European folk music and Latin American rhythms.

One of the most important early Jamaican musicians was mentor figuregriot singer Nanny Maroon. Maroon was an enslaved woman who escaped from her captors and fled into the mountains of Jamaica. There, she established a community of runaway slaves (called Maroons) and taught them about African history and culture through folk songs. These songs contained important messages about freedom and resistance, which helped inspire other enslaved Jamaicans to fight for their own liberation.

Jamaican folk music continued to evolve in the twentieth century, as new sounds and styles emerged. Ska, rocksteady, and reggae are all genres that developed out of Jamaican folk music, and they have gone on to enjoy massive international success. Today, Jamaican musicians are still creating new fusion genres by blending traditional folk sounds with modern pop sensibilities.

European influences

Jamaican folk music has been influenced by a variety of cultures over the years. European colonizers brought over many of their own musical traditions, which Jamaicans eventually blended with their own. This resulted in the creation of many new genres, such as reggae, ska, and dub.

Africans were also brought to Jamaica as slaves, and they too brought their own musical traditions with them. These influences can be heard in the use of percussion and call-and-response vocals in Jamaican music.

Jamaican music has also been influenced by American popular music, such as jazz, R&B, and rock & roll. Jamaican musicians have often borrowed from these genres and incorporated them into their own unique sound.


The development of Jamaican folk music is a result of the interaction between the different cultures that have come together on the island. African, European, and Asian influences can all be heard in Jamaican music. The music has also been influenced by the island’s history, as well as the religion and politics of Jamaica.


Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s. Ska combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the off beat. Ska developed in Theodore flats which was an inner-city housing estate in West Kingston in the late 1950s.


Reggae is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1960s. The term also denotes the modern popular music of Jamaica and its diaspora. A 1968 single by Toots and the Maytals, “Do the Reggay” was the first popular song to use the word “reggae,” effectively naming the genre and introducing it to a global audience. While sometimes used in a broad sense to refer to most types of Jamaican music, the term reggae more properly denotes a particular music style that originated following on the development of ska and rocksteady. Reggae is based on a rhythmic style characterized by regular chops on the off-beat, known as the skank.

The earliest form of reggae was played by Jamaican sound systems such as Sir Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat sound system, beginning in the 1950s. At this time, ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was also gaining popularity in the UK. Ska dancing involves bending at the waist and snapping one’s fingers while moving forward on one’s toes in sync with the music. Reggae began to take shape when Jamaican musicians began adding R&B, mento (an Afro-Jamaican folk music), and jazz elements to their ska tunes, which created a new style called rocksteady. Rocksteady evolved into reggae when DJs began adding drum and bass tracks to their records.

Reggae has been greatly influenced by African-American R&B, funk, and soul music; as well as by British Invasion bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. It has also been influenced by India’s filmi music, particularly those films featuring superstar Amitabh Bachchan from Bollywood films of 1970s–1980s such as Zanjeer (1973), Coolie (1983), Mard (1985), Agneepath (1990), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) Sholay (1975)and Hera Pheri (1976).

Contemporary Jamaican Folk Music

Jamaican folk music is a mixture of many different influences from Africa, Europe and the Americas. The music is very diverse, but it is united by a common thread of African heritage. The music has been shaped by the experiences of the Jamaican people, and it is a reflection of their history and culture.


Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that mingles African rhythms with the sounds of European colonizers. It’s thought to be the precursor to ska and reggae, and it’s still popular on the island today.

Mento songs are often playful and topical, with lyrics that might discuss working in the fields or gossiping about neighbors. The music is Stern, energetic and often features improvised instruments like washboards, percussion sticks and bottles.

Mento bands usually consist of a handful of musicians playing guitars, banjos, harmonicas and triangles. The music is meant to be danced to, so lively tempos and catchy melodies are essential.

Mento has been popular in Jamaica since the early 20th century, when it was first recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax. In the 1950s, mento began to lose ground to American rhythm and blues, but it made a comeback in the 1960s when artists like Harry Belafonte had hits with mento-inspired songs like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).”


Dancehall is a popular form of Jamaican folk music that developed in the late 1970s. It is characterized by a strong beat and vocals that are often sexually explicit. The style became popular in the United States and Europe in the 1990s, but its roots are in Jamaica.

Dancehall began to develop in the late 1970s, when Jamaican musicians began to experiment with electronic equipment. They created a new style of music that was influenced by American disco and funk. The new style was called “rapso” or “rapture,” and it was soon adopted by Jamaican DJ Kool Herc.

Dancehall is a direct descendant of ska, an early form of Jamaican popular music that developed in the 1960s. Ska was a combination of African rhythm and blues, with a heavy emphasis on the “off-beat.” Ska quickly became popular in Jamaica, and it soon spread to England, where it influenced the development of punk rock.

Another important influence on dancehall was reggae, another form of Jamaican popular music that developed in the 1970s. Reggae is characterized by a slow, relaxed beat and lyrics that are often political or spiritual in nature. Reggae became internationally popular in the 1970s with the release of Bob Marley’s album “Exodus.”

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