How knowledgeable are you about our culture? How familiar are you with the genres of Jamaican music? Did you know that Reggae and Ska weren’t the first commercially recorded genres? If you didn’t know, then you’re in the right place. However, if you did know, feel free to refresh your memory. Before Reggae, we had popular genres such as Mento, Ska, Rocksteady and Jazz. These genres were trendy between the early 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, some of them are not as mainstream nowadays as they were. Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring the different genres that were birthed on the ‘Rock’. However, today let’s explore the grandfather of popular Jamaican music – Mento.
Oftentimes confused with Calypso, Mento is Jamaica’s first indigenous popular music (although Kumina was before, it is from the Congo and imported by slaves). The Mento genre was created by slaves who wanted to celebrate their own sound and created their own style and flavour. Its vibe is unmatched. Although Jamaica is popularly associated with Reggae and Dancehall, tourists and visitors’ first experience of Jamaican music will probably be Mento. This is so because airports, hotels and cruise ships are known to be avid Mento players. Mento is more common than we recognize. Have you ever heard the “Banana Boat Song” by Harry Belafonte? Yes, the same song that we sung on every Heritage Day in Primary School. Don’t remember? The first verse of the song is below:
Daylight come and we want go home
Day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day, is a day-o
Daylight come and we want go home
Some other major 1950’s mento recording artists included Louise Bennett, Count Lasher, Harold Richardson, Lord Flea, Lord Fly, Alerth Bedasse and Ivan Chin.
This genre is a combination of West African slaves and European traditions. Slaves could not freely congregate.; thus, they were unable to communicate with each other openly. Communication came mainly through chanting in rhythms using lyrics brought to the West Indies were from Africa. The European slave owners were often unaware that communication was taking place. Interestingly, the Plantation owners thought that the slaves were entertaining them. It was a requirement for slaves who could play musical instruments to play music for their masters. Eventually, the slaves incorporated elements of European melodies into their music to please their masters. This infusion allowed them to create music that incorporated the elements of these traditions into their folk music. This folk music became Mento.
Characteristics of Mento
Mento typically features acoustic instruments. These instruments include acoustic guitars, banjos, hand drums, and the rhumba box, which carries the bass. On the other hand, some used bamboo flutes, fiddles and fifes, a horse or donkey jawbone, a cow horn, plus a spoon or a fork drawn against a grater. These instruments created an orchestra of sounds that represented the earliest stages of Mento. The lyrics often speak about the island’s social issues and include humorous slants and sexual innuendos.
Mento will forever remain one of the wonders of music. It is the foundation of the other beautiful genres we love. Music is one of the most powerful tools in the world. It is more than mere entertainment. It is a way of life. Why do you listen to music? Do you only listen for fun? Let us know in the comments. “Come share, celebrate, boast and debate our Jamaican culture with us.”