Go to Content
Columbia College Chicago
Kenneth M. Bilby Oral History Collection

Kenneth M. Bilby Oral History Collection

on Foundations of Jamaican Popular Music

The Kenneth Bilby oral history collection on foundations of Jamaican music consists of 142 audio cassettes containing 194 hours of in-depth interviews with 100 important Jamaican studio musicians, arrangers, and vocalists. The interviews feature the individuals who created the genres of ska, rocksteady, and reggae during the 1960s and 1970s, and reveal in great detail how these new forms actually emerged, and what their creators thought about the creative process. Those who actually created these sounds—the studio musicians of Kingston during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—have been largely bypassed in the writing of the history of these musics. Yet it is precisely in the memories of these pioneers, most of whom have yet to receive the credit they deserve, that the deeper cultural significance and more personal meanings of this history reside.

The bulk of this collection was assembled during 2004–2005 as part of an oral history project on Jamaican music funded by a Guggenheim fellowship. The interviews were designed to elicit not only factual information (e.g., who composed and played on what, and when and where), but also a culturally-informed sense of the social contexts in which they played, arranged, and recorded music, as well as an experiential account of what this music meant to them personally. Among the interviewees are a number of GRAMMY award recipients and several “stars” such as Toots Hibbert, Prince Buster, and Sly & Robbie, but the collection also includes most of the leading studio guitarists, bass players, keyboardists, drummers, and percussionists during the periods when critical stylistic shifts took place. For example, 5 of the 6 session guitarists most responsible for the transition from rocksteady to reggae-style guitar are represented in this collection—Ranny Bop, Hux Brown, Dougie Bryan, Alva Lewis, and Ernie Ranglin. The interviews are unique in that they were conducted by Bilby himself, a trained ethnographer and ethnomusicologist whose professional involvement with Jamaican culture spans more than 35 years. Bilby’s expertise in both the rural grassroots music and urban popular music of Jamaica put him in a unique position to carry out the ethnographically-informed interviews of studio musicians. The CBMR preservation and access project was funded in part with a grant from The GRAMMY Foundation.