When Jamaica gained independence in 1962, its musicians reacted by inventing a rhythm style so unique and addictive, it helped an entire population find its voice. As the music evolved, so did its drumming. But the elemental Jamaican pulse remains at its core to this day.
In this exclusive interview, MD editorial director Adam Budofsky talks to Jamaican drumming expert and 2012 MD Pro Panelist Gil Sharone about the history and techniques of the classic styles ska, rocksteady, and reggae. What emerges is a drumming language full of excitement, mad invention, high style—and untold challenges.
MD: When does what we would recognize as modern Jamaican music begin?
Gil: In the early ’60s, starting with ska. Before ska was established, the early Jamaican musicians were playing a lot of different styles. [Skatalites drummer] Lloyd Knibb would talk about how he played in bands in hotels and they were doing bossa novas, sambas, mambos, boleros, calypso, swing, and boogie-woogie tunes. All of these styles influenced ska.
Another hugely important influence on modern Jamaican music was the sound system. Guys would play records with enormous speaker systems on their trucks or in front of a store and battle about who had the best music. The three main producers who dominated the scene were Prince Buster, Duke Reid, and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. They’d have people go to the States to get vinyl of all the happening stuff, and as soon as they brought the records back to Jamaica, they scraped off the labels so nobody could look at the turntable to see what it was. Whoever got the best reaction was the king of the sound systems.
MD: When do we first hear the recognizable elements of reggae?
Gil: The very tail end of the ’60s into the ’70s is when you really start to hear the transition of rocksteady into a more defined sound and feel that people know as reggae.
MD: In music it’s usually tough to say who undeniably did this thing or the other for the first time. What about with ska?
Gil: Everybody will agree that Lloyd Knibb invented the ska beat in the early ’60s. Coxsone and Lloyd were in the studio, and Coxsone was looking for a signature Jamaican sound, so he told Lloyd, “Switch the beat around,” specifically in an attempt to discover a new feel to call their own. So Lloyd started playing around and came up with the signature hi-hat feel of the ska beat against the 2-and-4 backbeat. Some refer to the ska beat as the reverse or inverted shuffle, because of how the new hi-hat pattern felt. As soon as Lloyd put that stamp on the ska beat, it became the new sound of Jamaica.
MD: Besides the emphasis of the beat, we’re also talking about the introduction of the snare or rimclick and the bass drum hitting at the same time, right?
Gil: Well, the 2-and-4 cross-stick in unison with the bass drum was played with the Jamaican boogie shuffle even before ska. The difference from the American feel was that the kick was played on all four quarter notes and the Jamaican boogie was focusing on the 2 and 4, which gave it a different feel. That groove, with a walking bass line and upbeats, or “skanks,” played by the guitar, piano, and even horns, was the sound of the ska rhythm section. The upbeats are a huge staple of these Jamaican styles.
MD: On your DVD, Wicked Beats, you describe how the evolution of Jamaican music was tied to cultural changes.
Gil: It definitely was. The music reflected what was going on socially and politically in Jamaica. For example, ska started right at the time of Jamaica’s independence. It was a very happy time, and the music reflected that—it was upbeat, dancey. Reggae had more serious tones and reflected on issues like poverty, civil rights, racism, and spirituality. Reggae is very happy “irie” music as well, but you can see how the music directly reflects what the people were going through.
MD: What’s clear from your performances on the DVD is that along with the tempo being faster than later drumming styles, it’s more appropriate to play busier.
Gil: Yeah, with ska there are different fills, embellishments, variations that can seem busier, but what’s tasteful about it is that the groove never stops. Even if I drop into four bars of [the pre-Jamaican African drum style] Burru inside a ska beat, or I’m riding the bell of the hi-hat, or I’m playing off what the soloist is doing, there’s still that emphasis on the beat. As soon as you turn it into a drum solo that’s not dancey, you’re doing it wrong.
The later styles have plenty of complex patterns, they’re just more subtle. I’ve seen so many people struggle with playing a basic one-drop, let alone with adding all the nuances you can throw in. There’s a bunch of standard reggae beats that I’ve seen challenge advanced players in other styles. If you listen to half the stuff Carlton Barrett plays with the Wailers, there’s a lot going on in his parts.
MD: After ska came rocksteady, which turned the tempo down a bit.
Gil: Right. Like we talked about, the music reflected the culture. In 1965, the musicians and the fans were feeling like they needed to add a slower, cooler feel to the dances to balance the up-tempo ska feel. Rocksteady did exactly that and also introduced the beat known as the one-drop.
MD: Can you define that?
Gil: Just like jazz has the swing pattern and Latin has the clave, one-drop is the essential basic underlying rhythm for rocksteady and reggae. Basically rocksteady was the ska beat slowed down, with a closed hi-hat and straight time. Now slow that down even more, and that’s the reggae one-drop. There are a ton of busier hi-hat patterns and snare and bass drum variations. But the stripped-down one-drop of playing 8th notes—“One and TWO and three and FOUR and,” with 2 and 4 in unison on the kick and cross-stick—that’s the pulse that defines that music.
MD: Some people count it in half time.
Gil: Yes, some people do. People from the Caribbean hear the beats dropping on 2 and 4, though. They don’t say, “Reggae is slow, so it changes to beat 3.” But some people naturally feel the drops on beat 3, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve even taught students that for the faster tempos, feel the drops on 2 and 4, and for the slower tempos feel them on 3, to help develop a heavier feel.
MD: For drummers who didn’t grow up playing Jamaican music, it’s not necessarily an easy thing to get your mind or body to drop the snare and bass drum together on the 2 and 4.
Gil: Very true. It’s such a simple beat when you look at it on paper, but how you make it feel is where people struggle. I didn’t learn these beats from reading them. I felt them. That’s why I always say that before you even attempt to play it on the kit, you should just get to know the music. Learn how the beat makes you feel when you hear it as a listener. Internalize the pulse. I say the same thing when teaching odd time signatures.
There are some drummers whose idol is Neil Peart, and when they hear Elvin Jones for the first time, they don’t like it or get it. But then later they’re like, “Jazz is my life.” Sometimes you need to just stick with something until it hits you, and you start to appreciate and feel it differently.
MD: When does the three-over-two rhythm in the hi-hat start to happen, like what you hear Carlton Barrett doing on the Bob Marley stuff?
Gil: Three over two wasn’t really in ska, though I’ll actually play that pulse on the hi-hat as a variation. There are some of those examples in Wicked Beats. But Carly really made that sound a staple of reggae in the early ’70s. Those rhythms are standard African pulses. When Santa Davis talks about Carly or polyrhythmic feels on the hi-hat, he says, “That’s Africa.” Carly definitely made that feel his own and influenced everyone who’s ever played that beat after him.
MD: On the ska material, you play all over the surface of the snare. Same with the cymbals.
Gil: Yeah, that’s to achieve a certain sound. You get a distinct sound when you hit a drum in certain places. I can play on the edge of the snare to get a certain crack and ring, or I can hit it dead center without a rimshot to get a different sound. Touch is important too. The more familiar you are with the music, the easier it is to make it sound and feel right. In terms of the cymbals, one thing a lot of people don’t notice is how busy my left foot is on the hi-hat. It’s like the silent ninja. I’m moving things around on 2 and 4, or opening it on “e” or “&,” even while I’m playing the hat on different surfaces. And you have to do that while keeping the bass drum consistent and the music dancing. So there’s definitely a lot of independence and coordination involved. Balance too.
MD: How would you suggest practicing this type of playing?
Gil: If you talk to the Jamaican legends, they didn’t practice all these independence exercises—it’s just natural. So one thing I tell people is, don’t try to break this down as an exercise. Just listen and absorb the music. You want to make it organic, not forced. When you hear Carly play, listen to how he orchestrates his parts around the kit— where he opens the hi-hat, where he does a roll, where he hits a cowbell. It’s all very musical; he’s not putting accents there just to do it. Like I said earlier, there can be a lot going on with these patterns. They’re just played so tight and with such a hypnotic feel that most people don’t notice what’s really going on.
MD: The independence doesn’t hit you over the head when you listen to the music.
Gil: Exactly, because it’s not about that. Most reggae drummers won’t talk technique with you. They’ll talk more about the spirit of the music. They’ll get deep about its history and its roots and what it means to them.
MD: How specifically does tempo define the styles?
Gil: Most Jamaicans will tell you that tempo is the first thing that differentiates the styles. But there is some crossover. There are up-tempo tunes that have more of a reggae feel than a ska feel, which can be determined not just by what the drums are doing but by what the bass and guitar are doing. But generally ska is up-tempo, rocksteady is slower, and reggae is the slowest.
MD: So what happens in the drums as the music changes to reggae?
Gil: Right off the bat, the tempos slow down, there’s a lot more space in the music, and there’s a different kind of tightness that ska and rocksteady don’t really have. And the drums themselves sounded different, especially in the ’70s. The reggae kits weren’t like the jazz setups of the ’60s.
There was also a more militant feel to reggae that ska and rocksteady didn’t have. The steppers and rockers feels came into play as well. The steppers pattern is when you’re marching the bass drum on all four beats in a bar and hitting the snare with either a cross-stick or a backbeat. You can have a real militant steppers, like what Carly plays on Bob Marley’s “Exodus,” or a more swung steppers, like he plays on “Jammin’.” Both songs still have a rootsreggae feel.
MD: In the mid ’70s, the rockers style comes in.
Gil: Yeah, Sly & Robbie pioneered the rockers style, which in a real sense fused the rock influence with reggae and gave the music a whole new power. The overall vibe of the rockers pattern sounds like a basic rock beat, with the kick on 1 and 3 and a snare backbeat on 2 and 4. The difference is how it’s played. Reggae has a tightness and power that you don’t hear in most rock beats.
MD: What about the concept of pushing ahead or pulling behind the beat? Does that apply?
Gil: There’s no rule of thumb. It’s all about what the bass is doing and the overall vibe of the song. I’ll know as soon as I hear a song how I’ll drive the pulse. Most reggae bass players that are aware of touch, tone, and feel play real behind, so you can lock with that however sounds best. As long as you’re making the song sound how it’s supposed to sound, that’s the goal. If you’re rushing and the bass player is laid back, that might not vibe well with people on the dance floor or with the rest of the band.
MD: What would you tell drummers who want to stretch the format of these styles? What do they need to keep in their playing to still be authentic?
Gil: The feel. If the feel is there, then you’re able to establish a foundation that you can build off. When I play with the Western Standard Time ska big band, even though it’s a very traditional project, I’m fusing a massive jazz influence in my fills and setups, but I can still call it ska and Burru because I’m keeping the characteristics and the feel authentic. I’m not bastardizing the style in a way that it’s not authentic anymore. I respect the music.
So for any drummer who’s just getting into it now, if you want to move forward, you’ve got to go backwards first. Just like jazz, learn where it came from, what it feels like, the essence. Then you can branch out and create a totally different thing, just like the bands of the 2 Tone and third-wave ska movements did. They listened to the original styles and fused them with their own influences while keeping the roots based in a Jamaican feel. Having passion for the music and doing your homework goes a long way.
To see Gil Sharone demonstrate the musical examples he talks about in this piece—with the help of reggae legend Santa Davis, Adrian Young of No Doubt, and the late Lloyd Knibb—watch his DVD, Wicked Beats: Jamaican Ska, Rocksteady & Reggae Drumming. And to hear Gil and drummer Korey Horn driving the Western Standard Time ska big band, check out the album Big Band Tribute to the Skatalites.