South Of The Border


by Norbert Goldberg

The Caribbean Islands have long been a source of diverse and interesting music coupled with exciting rhythms. Although the Latin sounds of Cuba and Puerto Rico have been recognized for some time, the music of the English-speaking island of Jamaica has only recently gained in popularity. Even though they all share an African heritage, the difference in English and Spanish cultures has greatly influenced the music of these islands. This is particularly true with the Jamaican reggae, whose rhythm is quite different from its Latin neighbors.

Although the basic reggae beat is technically simple, it is the feel that requires special attention. For that reason it is recommended that you listen to some reggae records by Bob Marley And The Wailers, Peter Tosh, or Jimmy Cliff, in order to hear what else is going on around the beat, and to understand what the music is all about. For instance, the constant stress on the “and” of each beat by the guitar or organ is one of the main characteristics of reggae. The bass usually plays a repeated pattern mostly based on sixteenth note rhythms — that, combined with a strong bass drum accent on 2 and 4 typifies the essence of the hypnotic reggae rhythm.

Here’s an example of a basic reggae beat:
South Of The Border 1

Although the above beat may sound simplistic when played by itself, it takes on a beautiful character when accompanied by the other instruments.

There are a few variations of the hi-hat rhythm which change the overall feel and are best suited for certain tempos. These rhythms can be embellished by adding accents or by opening the hi-hat at certain points, as is demonstrated in some examples below.
South Of The Border 2

Play each of the hi-hat rhythms on top of the basic beat concentrating on evenness and keeping good time. Since there is little activity with the bass and snare drum, it is particularly important to keep the hi-hat steady in order to keep the pulse going.

The snare hand functions at times much like a jazz drummer’s, placing accents and syncopations within the beat established by the hi-hat and bass drum. As always, the drummer should use his discretion as to when and how much to play. Below are some suggestions for the snare. You can also substitute different hi-hat rhythms.
South Of The Border 3

Aside from playing on 2 and 4, the bass drum can play on every beat, with a slight stress on the 2 and 4. A fairly new development in the reggae beat has the bass drum playing straight eighth notes which creates a double-time effect. Some Jamaican drummers also play syncopated accents and fills with the bass, achieving some very interesting results. Here are some more beats which incorporate most of the elements and variations I have discussed. Remember, reggae is a SLOW rhythm, so keep this into account when practicing these beats.
South Of The Border 4

Reggae fills usually span the last two beats in a measure with eighth or sixteenth note triplets which often include short rolls or ruffs. Straight sixteenth note fills are usually the case for the livelier “double-time” reggae. Naturally, there are exceptions, but because of the slow tempo the general trend is for sixteenth note fills. Ex.
South Of The Border 5

It is also common to finish a fill with a cymbal crash on the fourth beat or the “and” of the fourth before the downbeat. This type of fill is often used as an introduction to a song. Ex.
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Because each reggae beat is suited to a song, there is not much deviation or changing of beats. Percussion instruments such as tambourine, cowbell, and woodblocks are often used, providing added color. Although I have suggested some fairly intricate variations, the reggae rhythm is basically simple and repetitious, and it’s effectiveness lies in just that fact.