It’s Hard to Sing Reggae When Your Head is Full of Strawberry Jam

She wasn’t a bad singer. She hit every note. But the word Jamming just didn’t sound convincing. Then I realised – she wasn’t thinking of jam in a Bob Marley sense. She was thinking of this:

The sticky sweet stuff you put on toast.

You think there’s no difference in sound? Oh, but there is. The jam you put on toast has a quick, straight-to-the-point vowel sound. The j at the beginning of that kind of jam propels you straight into the word. No need to hang about relishing the sound when you want to get straight down to relishing the taste. (We’ll have a demonstration of the sound and a recipe at the end).

Now listen to Bob Marley singing Jamming. The breadth and depth of the word jamming doesn’t spring from his Jamaican accent alone. He’s not singing about making jam.  He’s singing about getting together with friends, having a good time – a celebration. Pleasure and richness of human experience are contained in the sound of the word. Memory and hope:

Here‘s a definition of jamming as the word is understood in Jamaica. When you sing Bob Marley’s song, you need to have that jamming in your mind. Your mouth needs to shape a word that’s rich and warm, encompassing friendship and shared music.

Not this bright, sticky stuff:

Yes, she’s British and fairly posh, but you get the idea. The jam that you put on toast is a small, swiftly-said word. The vowel sound is light and the energy of the word is on the early part of the sound. Bob Marley’s Jamming is a full, rich, rounded word. One to be relished. There’s a subtle whisper of a y just after the j, giving more air and room for the a vowel sound. The energy of the jam part of jamming swirls around the middle of the fuller a. As a singer, you need to allow space for that.

The singer that I heard had simply added a –ming to her idea of the word jam – based on her memory of thousands of breakfasts or school cookery classes. That’s why it didn’t sound right. As a member of the audience, you could tell that it wasn’t quite congruent. You could tell that she was thinking of something else, but it was hard to figure out exactly what that something was. The word was the same but the intention was different. It didn’t sound like reggae, it sounded unsettling. It was thin and weak – like gruel instead of soup.

If you call jam something else – jelly for example, you’ll still need to adjust your intention when you come to sing Bob Marley’s song. His jamming has nothing to do with the jam of traffic, the jamming of your finger in a door, or even the jam of musicians getting together to play for fun. If English is your native language, you’ll have used the word jam many, many times, in many, many ways. None of those ways will work for Jamming. None of them convey the warm sharing of good times as the Jamaican sense of the word Jamming does. Just because a word is spelt the same, don’t assume it means the same.

Now, you may not be a reggae fan, but it’s always worth thinking about the words you sing.  Never take words for granted. Make sure that you’re thinking about them in the way that the song requires, so that you pronounce them in the way that the song requires. Lots of English words have more than one meaning. make sure you have the right meaning in mind when you shape your mouth to sing.

Simple words like jam can trip you up if you’re remembering toast or traffic when the song wants you to be thinking of celebration.

If English isn’t your first language: lucky you! You can come to Bob Marley’s Jamming with no jammy preconceptions. Understand the word and give it its full, rich meaning when you sing it.

By the way: jamming isn’t the only word that needs a rethink when you sing. Some thoughts about different ways with broken here. Or when you can’t sing passenger thinking of a passive traveller here. Or when do has to carry an extra weight of meaning here. Or the different versions of shout here.

Every post encourages you to pay attention to words. As a singer, or as a listener. Enjoy looking around.

© Sing Better English, 2014


8 thoughts on “It’s Hard to Sing Reggae When Your Head is Full of Strawberry Jam”

    1. It was very odd when we were watching her sing. It was at a local park – a sort of English summer fête. I couldn’t work out why her version of Jamming sounded so odd – she had the voice and she’d done other reggae type songs just fine. But then I realised that she was singing as if she was talking about making jam.
      If you didn’t grow up thinking of the word jam as a sweet, sticky thing for toast, then you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’d hear the Bob Marley word fresh and just make a true copy.
      Your new career as a reggae cover singer Pati!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a lovely upbeat way to be welcomed into the world!

      If you like Bob Marley – did you see Mitchell Bruning singing Redemption Song on The Voice of Holland last year? It was very interesting because he sounded just like Bob Marley – not like somebody parroting Bob Marley, but like somebody who had absorbed Bob Marley.
      The sad thing was watching other clips, as the weeks passed on The Voice. You could see that something or someone had interfered with Mitchell’s pure stream of Bob Marley. He seemed to be thinking too much and trying too hard, which all got in the way of his singing. I hope he’s recovered since the spotlight has moved off him.


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