Although reggae is the most widely known type of music to emerge from the island, it was not our first indigenous genre. Mento is the genre known as the original sound of Jamaica.
Mento is commonly referred to as Jamaican calypso and although, to some extent, it resembles Trinidadian calypso, it is distinctly different in the beat. The music also holds pride of place as being Jamaica’s first and, in a sense, most indigenous popular music. In fact, it was the first popular Jamaican music to be commercially recorded. The genre grew out of slavery and is stamped with its own flavour. Slaves were not allowed to congregate and, of course, the idea of freedom of speech did not exist.
Communication came mainly through chanting lyrics brought to the West Indies from Africa. European plantation owners often thought the slaves were entertaining them and ordered the slaves to perform for them. This led to slaves incorporating elements of European melodies into their music to please their masters.
Using homemade drums, bamboo flutes, fiddles and fifes, a horse or donkey jawbone, a cow horn, plus a spoon or a fork drawn against a grater, they created an orchestra of sounds that represented the earliest stages of Jamaica’s mento music.
The European dance rhythm, the quadrille, which arrived via the slave owners, was very much a part of the concoction, insofar as it relates to the shaping of Jamaica’s mento music. These were interwoven with the African melodies to create a sound that became uniquely Jamaican.
Another interesting feature of early mento music was the practice by slaves of taking their masters title of nobility for their own, referring to themselves as Lord, Duke, Count, Prince, King, etc. The practice continued down the ages with later mento performers like Count Lasher, Count Owen, Lord Laro, Lord Flea, Lord Power, Lord Beginner, Lord Creator, Lord Lebby and others decorating their persona in this way.
Jamaica’s mento music has gained immeasurable grounds on the international music map in recent years. The Jolly Boys, a Jamaican mento ensemble, have contributed most to the resurgence and the musical mileage of a genre that has been given scant recognition.
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