The Arts


Music has been an integral element of Jamaican society for centuries--from use of song on the plantation to mitigate the torturous work, to funeral rituals that combine Christian and African elements in the traditional nine nights. Most of the instruments used in Jamaica have been borrowed or adapted from either European or African traditions, while some Taino influence surely occurred before their cultural annihilation.

Today music remains as important and central to Jamaican culture as ever. From the beach resorts to the rural hills, sound systems blare out on weekends into the early dawn hours, with a wide variety of genres appreciated on the airwaves.


Pronounced "John Canoe," Jonkunnu is a traditional music and skit-like dance performed primarily at Christmas. The Jonkunnu rhythm is played in 2/2 or 4/4 time on the fife, a rattling drum with sticks, bass, and grater. Dancers wear costumes and masks representing characters like Pitchy Patchy, King, Queen, Horse-head, Cow-head, and Belly Woman that act out skits and dance.

The origin of Jonkunnu is revealed in the word's etymology: Jonkunnu is an adaptation of the Ghanaian words dzon'ko (sorcerer) nu (man), derived from secret societies found on the African mainland. Among the costumes found in Jonkunnu are pieced-together sacks similar to those seen in the Abakua, a secret society in neighboring Cuba that also uses dance and drumming.

In Jamaica, Jonkunnu became associated with Christmas time likely because it was the only real holiday for the slaves in the whole year, during which they would tour the plantation with their music, dance, and skits, typically with headgear consisting of ox horns. At the height of the British colonial period, plantation owners actively encouraged Jonkunnu and it took on European elements, including satire of the masters, and Morris dance jigs and polka steps. The importance of Jonkunnu declined as it was replaced by the emergence of "set girls" who would dance about to display their beauty and sexual rivalry. Later, following emancipation, nonconformist missionaries suppressed Jonkunnu and the mayor of Kingston banned the Jonkunnu parade in 1841, leading to riots. In the years leading up to Jamaican independence, as the country's cultural identity was being explored, Jonkunnu gained the support of the government, which still sponsors the folk form in annual carnival and Jamaica Cultural Development Commission events.


The most distinctly African of Jamaica's musical forms, Kumina was brought to Jamaica after emancipation by indentured laborers from Congo and remains a strong tradition in Portland and St. Thomas. Kumina ceremonies are often held for wakes and burials, as well as for births and anniversaries, and involve drumming and dancing.


Jamaica's original folk music, mento is a fusion of African and European musical elements played with a variety of instruments that were borrowed from plantation owners and fashioned by the slaves themselves as the genre developed. A variety of instruments have a place in mento, from stick and hand drums to stringed instruments, flutes, and brass. Mento was one of the most important foundations for ska, which gave birth to reggae.

Ska and Rocksteady

The origins of ska date to the early 1950s, when Jamaicans began to catch on to popular music from the United States that reached the island via the radio and U.S. military personnel stationed here following World War II. Popular American tunes were played by mobile disc jockeys, the predecessors of today's sound systems, before being adopted and adapted by Jamaican musicians. The emphasis on the infectious upbeat was carried over from mento and calypso, with the trademark walking baseline sound borrowed from jazz and rhythm and blues. The birth and popularity of ska coincided with an upbeat mood in Jamaica at the time of independence, and the lyrics of many ska classics celebrate the country's separation from England. Spearheaded by pioneering producers like Prince Buster, Duke Reid, and Clement "Sir Coxone" Dodd, the genre became a hit, especially among Jamaica's masses of working-class people. The genre was popularized and taken international by bands like Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Derrick Morgan, and Desmond Decker.

As ska's popularity began to wane by the late 1960s, the rhythm was slowed down, making way for the syncopated base lines and more sensual tone of rocksteady. A series of hits representative of the genre brought artists like Alton Ellis and Hopeton Lewis to fame with songs like "Girl I've Got a Date" and "Tek it Easy." Made for dancing, rocksteady continued to adapt popular American hits, with rude boy culture and love dominating the lyrics.


Most people know Jamaica by its legendary king, Bob Marley. Marley brought international attention to the island, now popularly known as Jam Rock thanks to the Grammy-winning album of his youngest son Damian, or "Junior Gong." Yet apart from Marley, Jamaica's music has had limited impact beyond the country's expatriate communities in London, Toronto, New York, and Miami. Only recently has dancehall reggae become mainstream internationally, thanks in part to crossover artists like Shaggy and Sean Paul, who took hip-hop charts by storm with his hit, "Gimme the Light." The genre has its roots in ska and rocksteady of the 1950s and 1960s, when radio brought American popular music to Jamaican shores and the country's creative musicians began to adapt American tunes to an indigenous swing.

After a decade of slackness in reggae during the late 1980s and early 1990s, several talented artists have managed to capitalize on a resurgence of conscious music by launching successful careers as "cultural" reggae artists in the one-drop sub-genre, sometimes using original musical tracks, sometimes singing on one of the more popular rhythms of the day or the past. These include I-Wayne, who came out with a huge hit critiquing the prostitution lifestyle with "Can't Satisfy Her" and the conscious tune, "Living in Love" on his 2005 breakout album Lava Ground. Richie Spice pays tribute to his ghetto roots with "Youth Dem Cold," an immensely popular hit. Chuck Fenda's "Gash Dem and Light Dem," released in 2005 and banned on the radio in Jamaica, is still reverberating years later. Luciano, Capleton, Sizzla, and Buju Banton top the pack of contemporary conscious reggae artists, while roots artists like Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, Third World, and Freddie McGregor continue to perform and produce the occasional album. In 2006, Joseph Hill of the seminal reggae group Culture passed away while on tour in Germany, leaving the masses to mourn back home in Jamaica. Another artist of note is Tanya Stephens, whose eloquent lyrics are being appreciated around the globe following the success of her 2006 Rebelution release. More recently, Flames artist Queen Ifrica has taken the conscious reggae world by storm with the release of her album, Montego Bay, and Gramps Morgan, of the seminal reggae band Morgan Heritage, attracted critical acclaim with the release of Two Sides of My Heart Vol. 1.

Dub, a form of remixed reggae that drops out much of the lyrics, was an offshoot of roots reggae pioneered by King Tubby and others, that led to the dub poetry genre, whose best-known artists include Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson. The most accomplished new artist of the dub-poetry genre is DYCR, whose 2005 hit, "Chop Bush," won fans everywhere.

A new wave of conscious reggae artists are coming to the fore. Chronixx, Jah9, Kabaka Pyramid are a few of the rising stars to watch.


Clearly the most popular genre of music in Jamaica today, dancehall refers to the venue in which it is enjoyed. Dancehall music is born of the street, with themes typically reflecting struggle, defiance, girls, and more girls. Bounty Killer, Assasin, Voicemail, Busy Signal, Movado, Vybz Kartel, Tony Matterhorn, Elephant Man, and Mr. Vegas have led the pack in popularity and influence in modern dancehall, while Beenie Man is still regarded as the "King of Dancehall." Lady G and Macka Diamond are popular female artists of the genre whose clever and sometimes raunchy lyrics have garnered fans, while veteran peer Lady Saw maintains her top ranking as Jamaica's favorite female performer.


The Jamaican art world can be classified broadly into folk artists, schooled artists, and self-taught or intuitive artists. Folk art has been around throughout Jamaica's history, as far back as the Tainos, whose cave paintings can still be seen in a few locations on the island. European and African arrivals brought a new mix, with the planter class often commissioning works from visiting European portrait painters, while enslaved Africans carried on a wide range of traditions from their homeland, which included wood carving, fashioning musical instruments, and creating decorative masks and costumes for traditional celebrations like Jonkunnu. The annual Hosay celebrations, which date to the mid-1800s in Jamaica, as well as Maroon ceremonies, are considered living art. Folk art had a formative influence on Jamaica's intuitive artists.

The century after full emancipation in 1938 saw deep structural changes and growing pains for Jamaica, first as a colony struggling to maintain order and then more tumultuous years leading up to independence. Jamaican art as a concerted discipline arose in the late 1800s, and culminated with the establishment of formal training in 1940. In the early years, sculpture and painting reflected the mood of a country nursing fresh wounds of slavery, with progressive, renegade leaders and indigenous Revival and then Rastafari movements giving substance to the work of self-taught artists.

Edna Manley, wife of Jamaica's first prime minister, Norman Manley, is credited with formally establishing a homegrown Jamaican art scene. An accomplished artist herself, Edna Manley was born in England in 1900 to a Jamaican mother and English father and schooled at English art schools. On arrival in Jamaica, Manley was influenced by Jamaica's early intuitive sculptors like David Miller Sr. and David Miller Jr., Alvin Marriot, and Mallica Reynolds, a revival bishop better known as "Kapo." Edna Manley's 1935 sculpture Negro Aroused captured the mood of an era characterized by cultural nationalization, where Afro-centric imagery and the establishment and tribulations of a black working class were often the focus. Manley began teaching formal classes in 1940 at the Junior Center of the Institute of Jamaica, giving the structure necessary for the emergence of a slew of Jamaican painters including Albert Huie, David Pottinger, Ralph Campbell, and Henry Daley. Her school later developed into the Jamaica School of Art and Crafts, which was ultimately absorbed by Edna Manley College. Several other artists, who did not come out of Edna Manley's school, gained prominence in the early period, including Carl Abrahams, Gloria Escofferey, and John Dunkley. Dunkley's works consistently use somber shades and clean lines with dark symbolism reflective of serious times, making them immediately recognizable.

Jamaican fine arts exploded in the fervent post-independence years along with the country's music industry, fueling the expansion of both the National Gallery as well as a slew of commercial galleries, many of which still exist in Kingston today. The post-independence period counts among its well-recognized artists Osmond Watson, Milton George, George Rodney, Alexander Cooper, and David Boxer. Black Nationalism and the exploration of a national identity remained important topics for artists like Omari Ra and Stanford Watson, while many other artists like the ubiquitous Ras Dizzy or Ken Abendana Spencer gained recognition during the period for the sheer abundance of their work, much of which celebrated Jamaica's rural landscape. In the late 1970s, the National Gallery launched an exhibition series called The Intuitive Eye, which brought mainstream recognition to Jamaica's self-taught artists as key contributors to the development of Jamaican art. Some of the artists to gain exposure and wider recognition thanks to The Intuitive Eye series include William "Woody" Joseph, Gason Tabois, Sydney McLaren, Leonard Daley, John "Doc" Williamson, William Rhule, Errol McKenzie, and Allan "Zion" Johnson.

The Institute of Jamaica together with its various divisions continues to bring new exhibition space into use, notably opening a gallery in late 2006 on the top floor of the Natural History building, where a very successful photo exhibit on the 1907 earthquake that ravaged Kingston was staged.