jRoots Timeline: a Timeline of Jamaican Music, etc.

A hand drawn exploration of Jamaican music history and performance art. Things like reggae, ska, mento, jonkonnu, kumina, folk dance, storytelling.

I created the jRoots Timeline as a way to learn. If you have any feedback or suggestions for improvements, please contact me.

Print-on-demand, full-size posters available at my “store”. This is not a for-profit venture, the posters are priced simply to cover costs.

Thanks to Jump Up Records for printing the jRoots Timeline 18″x12″ posters, and the puzzles, as part of their 2021 Record Store Day release! If you’ve received a copy from Jump Up, contact me with any feedback, or to point out errors or omissions. More learning!


Jamaican Music History Timeline

I worked for several years on this mapped timeline of Jamaican music and history. I call it the jRoots Timeline. It is my attempt to learn about and illustrate Jamaican music, performance and art. Obviously, this project is a tribute to Jamaica, but the infographic itself is inspired by wonderfully complex diagrams like Ward Shelley’s Science Fiction map, or the awesome Movie Narratives Poster by Randall Munroe, and the maps of Martin Vargic.

Below is the full map image…but you can also see a higher resolution version here.

Jamaican Music History Timeline, Caribbean Performance diagram, art, diagram, infographic, culture, ceremony, roots, reggae, ska
The full timeline, from Taíno to dancehall.

How this Timeline came to be…

Around 2015, my family was living in Kingston. For a long time, I had loved old-school ska and reggae—but my actual understanding of Jamaican music & history was threadbare. Like my friends back in the U.S. (who only ever asked me reggae and Rastas), my awareness did not go any deeper than Jamaica’s most popular musical exports. But the obsessive in me really wanted to dive deeply into the full context of this music I love. Challenges immediately became apparent:

  • I’m a middle-aged white dude
  • I realized that a comprehensive timeline must include history, peoples, rituals, and all sorts of stuff
  • Jamaicans live their culture every day and, for better or worse, have watched the world “adopt” it. Understandably, not every Jamaican wants to spend time once again explaining it to an outsider
  • I’m not a scholar on the subject, so I am in debt to the work others have made freely available online (e.g. the detailed information at www.slavevoyages.org that allowed me to better visualize the various West African peoples forcefully brought over in slave galleys.

I spent a lot of time alone researching and surfing the web. But then I was very lucky to start an ongoing conversation with Michael Holgate, a University of the West Indies educator and proponent of homegrown Jamaican theater, dance and music. And because my wife was connected to Peace Corps, volunteers were able to introduce me at their sites. On the whole, Jamaicans seem happy to share the intricacy of their culture(s) with anyone truly open and interested, though they almost always scrutinized my motivations before telling me anything.

West Africans, enslavement, Britain, Spain, Storytelling, Masquerade

The Result

steelpan, Rastafari, ska, sound systems, Nyabinghi drumming, reggae, rocksteady, lover's rock, conscious, gospel, soca, reggaeton

In the end, the timeline runs from the pre-Columbian Taíno people through modern day. Britain’s enslavement of 1 million Africans figures prominently. There are events like the 1838 emancipation, or Marcus Garvey on the scene. Mento + Nyabinghi drumming + R&B go into the big mixing bowl that begets reggae. Many peoples come in from all over, bringing their music and dance, even their food…you find ackee from Africa, saltfish from Newfoundland, meat patties from England, mangoes and curry from India, the otaheite apple from the South Pacific.

Figuring out all the relationships took forever, and then I had to map them out in a way that made sense. My prototype looks like the world’s craziest subway map. But once that was done, I was able to hand-draw all the nodes and arrows…and it just made sense that it all wind together to create a giant root. It’s like a family tree in reverse. The last step involved going in and illustrating the negative space with plants and animals special to Jamaica. Seriously fun.

And voila! An art piece with a chronology of Jamaica’s musical past and performance art. Things like reggae, ska, mento, jonkonnu, kumina, folk dance, storytelling.

West Indies, indigenous, Taino, Maroon, Sugar, Goombeh, Kromani Play, Myal, Nine Night, Gerreh, Dinki Mini

P.S. Did I mention? I’m a middle-aged white dude.

I know. I know.

Believe me, I know how it looks. The last thing I want to do is appropriate Jamaican culture…not for gain, not to make myself feel special, and certainly not to set myself up as an expert. But here’s the thing: nothing like this timeline exists and I really wanted there to be something like this out there. There are some diagrams out there, some cool infographics, but nothing like the jRoots Timeline. As someone living in Jamaica, I really wanted to learn all I could and, as someone who could not help but love the place, I really enjoy honoring what makes Jamaica special. I hope to continue this learning.

I consider my version a beta. I have a handful of dreams for the timeline:

  1. I would love if actual Jamaican experts could weigh in on the diagram itself; catching omissions, weighing relevancies, checking assumptions
  2. I would really love it if these experts were all in the same place for a couple days, something like a 2-day symposium. My motivations are selfish…it just sounds like fun!
  3. I would love to make the timeline interactive, with media & content explorable for each node
  4. I would love if this were a podcast series, with the timeline providing the roadmap for a series of interviews and media.
  5. Finally, I would love to find the funding to have this completely recreated by a Jamaican artist
  • Extra dream: a similar map of musicians, labels & producers

If you would like to be a part of realizing these dreams for the jRoots Timeline, please contact me!

SEE: A higher-resolution image of this hand drawn timeline of Jamaican music history and performance art.