Mento Music Definition Essay

What is mento? Here's a short answer: It's a Jamaican music that is largely unknown outside of that is the grandpappy of reggae. For a ska or reggae fan, mento sounds familiar and exotic and unfamiliar. Mento recordings are difficult to come by, but worth seeking out. It's music that lifts my spirits and relaxes my mind whenever I hear it. Here's a somewhat longer answer:

The Golden Age (1950s)

The Secret History of Mento Music

Mento music had its beginnings in Jamaica in the 19th century, and was  uniquely Jamaican fusion of African and European musical traditions. In mento's recorded history pre-history, from the 1920s through the 1940s, a number of Jamaican songs were put to wax by Caribbean jazz artists. In the 1930 and 1940s, Slim and Sam, a mento group who performed in Kingston, gained renown and are recalled today. They're  remembered for their originals, and sold "tracts" -- printed lyrics -- at their performances. (The book "Reggae Routes" by Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen lists the names of some of these originals, and  has additional information and even a picture of Slim and Sam.)

But it wasn't until the early 1950s that true mento recordings first began to appear on 78 RPM discs. This decade was mento’s golden age, as a variety of artists recorded mento songs in an assortment of rhythms and styles. It was the peak of mento's creativity and popularity in Jamaica and the birth of Jamaica's recording industry.

These recordings reveal mento to be a diverse musical genre, sometimes played with reckless abandon and other times with orderly precision. In addition to mento's African and European roots, by this time, it had also encompassed pan-Caribbean influences, as well as from American jazz. Although it was informed by a world of music, mento is clearly, uniquely Jamaican. And as Jamaica's original music, all other Jamaican music can trace its roots to mento.

Some styles of mento would evolve into ska and reggae. (As a matter of fact, some mento songs are still being recorded inna dancehall stylee today.) Other styles, while purely mento, seem to have done less to contribute to the development of later Jamaican music.

During this time, Trinidadian calypso was the Caribbean’s top musical export, and the term "Calypso" was used generically applied to Jamaican mento as well. Far more often than it was called by its proper name, mento was called "calypso", "kalypso" or "mento calypso". Adding to the confusion, Jamaica had its own calypso singers that did not record mento, such as Lord Creator. (The Trinidad-born Creator later became a ska singer for Studio 1.) And mento artists would oftenperform calypso songs in the mento style, or record a mento song with calypso influence. Some mento artists followed the calypsonian practice of adding a title such as "Count" or "Lord" to their name. But make no mistake, mento is a distinctly different sound from calypso, with its own instrumentation, rhythms, pacing, vocal styles, harmonies, and lyrical concerns.

The Classic Rural Sound

The classic mento sound is the acoustic, informal, folksy ruralstyle. Still sometimes referred to as country music in Jamaica, it's easy to imagine farmers and their families celebrating harvest with a mento dance. Typical instruments included banjo, acoustic guitar, a home-madesaxophone, clarinet or flute made from bamboo, a variety of hand percussion and a rumba box. Often, these songs had a proto-reggae beat, and sounded like an acoustic antediluvian form of reggae. (The mento proto-reggae beat was especially reminiscent of reggae where the dub echo doubles the guitar chop. Bob Marley's "Sun Is Shining" from "Kaya" is an example that leaps to mind.)

The frequent use of banjo in mento may come as a surprise, since this did not carry over into later Jamaican music. This is strange, considering how great this instrument sounds in mento, and how many different ways it was played. It strummed the rhythm similarly to the role of guitar in reggae. It was a lead instrument, sometimes played very precisely and sometimes very loosely. It could riff wildly, or be played as orderly and pointillisticly as a music box. Sometimes it chimed like a steel drum, other times it sounded like a mandolin. But banjo always brightened up the song.

One thing mento banjo doesn't sound like is the banjo playing heard in bluegrass or other American musical traditions. Mento banjo had different approaches.

Although you can count on one hand the number of reggae songs that feature banjo, some guitar techniques heard in reggae, such as the picked rhythmic playing employed by many Jamaican  guitarists sound as if they have their roots in the banjo playing of the island's past.

Acoustic guitar was typically a strummed rhythm instrument. Banjo or winds most typically handled any soloing.

The bamboo sax had a distinctive, organic sound. The Sugar Belly page has information, pictures and even video of this instrument in action.

The rumba box is a large thumb piano built from from a wooden box. A large circular sound hole is cut into the front, over which are a number of tuned metal tines. These are plucked to produce bass notes. One of reggae's hallmarks is a sparse, thunderous bass-line. The rumba box provided much the same for mento, albeit in a more rudimentary form. Depending on how the tines were plucked, the rumba box could also produce a rich and unusual percussive sound. The rumba box is typically sat on as it is played. Scaled-down souvenir rumba boxes were available to tourists in Jamaica during the 1950s and 1960s.

The type of percussion heard on these recordings is another important feature of mento's unique sound. A full drum set would have been impractical, too expensive and a poor fit for such a rural, acoustic and informal music. Instead, if drums were present on a rural recording, a single hand drum was typically used. But as is often the case in mento, less is more. The single drum could really open up the music, by playing a solo or by its playing throughout a song. Sometimes, a second percussion instrument would be added, such as maracas (which were typical) or wood blocks. Hand drumming developed further in later Jamaican music, as African-influenced Rastafarian nyabhinghi drumming became an important ingredient in reggae. 

Additional instruments (such as harmonica, fiddle, fife or penny whistle, and others) were also part of rural mento and found their way into many recordings from this era. It seems to be a rule that if a mento song features harmonica, it would be a fantastically upbeat recording. Likewise, if it featured fiddle, it sounded very country to my ears.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the popularity of R&B in Jamaica would effectively filter out banjo, bamboo instruments, clarinet, rumba box, flute, fife and penny whistle from later Jamaican music.

The Urban Mento Style

With lineage back to the Caribbean-jazz bands of the 1920s, there was a second style of mento. This was the more urban, polished, jazzydance band style. (This term came from Dan Neely's liner notes in the compilation CD, "Boogu Yagga Gal") If you are looking at a mento label and the word "Orchestra" appears in the artist's name, it's most probably a dance band recording. 

In dance band mento, home-made instruments were replaced by professional saxes and clarinets and basses. Often, banjo was left behind in favor of electric guitar. Along with clarinet, piano was often a featured instrument, as the music became overtly jazzy. Percussion was less rustic, and sometimes had a Latin feel. Almost all of the rural style's rough edges were smoothed out. In the 1960s, a calypso inflection was often heard in urban reggae, replacing the jazz sound. Dance band mento seems to have largely died out by the 70s, while the original rural style continued. However, the musicians of this style of mento contributed greatly to the jazz that was such an important element of ska.

The Lyrics

Though mento bands recorded a handful of quadrille and mento instrumentals, most mento songs had vocals. Mento's lyrics are typically a lot of fun. As a whole, they portray the issues, large and small, of life in Jamaica. Some songs are about Jamaica itself. Some described Jamaican foods and recipes -- just one way that mento gave you a real slice of Jamaican life in the 1950s. (There were so many songs about various fruits, it could be considered a sub-genre.) The trials and tribulations of Jamaicans migrating to England was a popular topic. All manner of relationships between people are explored, as is the problematic and comic relationship between man and animal. Though there a few serious or sad songs, the great majority were happy and positive.

Humor was integral to many mento songs. This sometimes includes ribald lyrics, filled with double entendres, which delighted Jamaicans and tourists alike. These songs were very popular, and can be seen as the beginning of what grew into the explicit slackness lyrics in reggae. Though, by today's standards, mento naughtiness is very mild. Yet, the popularity of these records led to a scare where the Jamaican government considered banning native 'calypso' records! There were also topical songs describing and commenting on the latest styles and news stories. This may be the earliest song writing tradition in mento, along with adapting Jamaican folk songs. Two mento lyricists stand out: Count Lasher and Everard Williams, who each wrote a bushel of classic songs. There are very few of what could be described as a traditional love song in mento. Also refreshingly absent are self aggrandizing lyrics. Mento artists had enough to say without singing about their own preeminence. 

In addition to songs of Jamaican origin, many Trinidadian calypso songs made their way into the mento repertoire. For example, "Hold 'em Joe" was first recorded by Lord Executioner in the 1910s. But while a number of songs found their way to Jamaica's shores, the calypso practice of extemporaneously improvising lyrics did not. Mento songs aimed specifically at Jamaica's tourists, such as "Take Her To Jamaica (Where The Rum Comes From)" where also part of the mix.

Recording more than one vocal performance to the same musical backing is a quintessentially reggae practice. But it appears to have originated in mento, where this was not uncommon. Old folk and mento melodies would sometimes acquire altered, or an entirely new set of lyrics. (The melody from "Rucumbine" proved to be especially reusable.) Those who have acquired these recordings described on the Can I Buy Mento Music? page can compare "Naughty Little Flea" from Lord Flea’s "Swinging Calypsos" to "Nebuchadnezzar" from Laurel Aitken’s "The Pioneer of Jamaican Music". The lyrical content and vocal style couldn’t be more different, but the music is essentially the same. Or compare the two Lord Composer clips, Galag Gully; Matilda and Hill and Gully Ride; Mandeville Road. As in reggae, this practice does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of these recordings.

The Vocals

Mento's vocalists sang in a variety of styles and pitches. But if there is one style that sounds most mento of all, it's the nasal, rural sound that some mento singers possessed. It's a sound with strong echoes of African heritage. Listen to the intonation, phrasing and melodic approach that Harold Richardson displays in the opening line of, "Don't Fence Her In", or in, "Glamour Gal". That is a great mento voice. Then, listen to Alert Bedasse, the lead singer in Chin's Calypso Sextet on such songs as "Adam and Eve" and "Not Me Again". You will hear a very mento voice. (You will also hear bamboo sax, a very mento instrument.) Some reggae singers posses something of these vocal qualities, but (with the exception of the heavily mento influences Stanley Beckford) never really matched this sound.

The Venues and Festivals

Mento was everywhere in Jamaica, live and recorded, in the country and the city, uptown and downtown, at work, at dances, at funerals, at burlesque shows, at tourist resorts, as an added attraction at the movie theater, at bars, at the airport, at markets, at night clubs and at festivals and contests. Basically, any public gathering might include a mento band as entertainment. But it was at the festivals and competitions where one could have been treated to incredible multi-act bills.

For example, in 1953, the Ward Theatre hosted the First Annual All-Island Calypso Band Contest. Thirteen bands competed, including first place winner Lord Power, second place winner Lord Messam. There was a tie for third between Lord Food and His Firehouse Four and Clyde Hoyte and his Sunbeams . Sugar Belly won a consolation prize, as the controversial scoring was said to have penalized him. Power's raucous set was lauded, but Messam's set was said to be tame because he was too used to catering to the tastes of tourists. Hoyte's set was said to be suited for a nightclub and Lord Food (I wonder if this is Lord Foodoos) performed "Mother Love".

An even more impressive collection of talent was assembled at the 1955 Calypso Pepper Pot show, again a the Ward Theatre, as seen below left. Silver Seas, Lord Lebby, Lord Messam, Count Lasher, visiting Trinidadian calypsonians, renown Jamaican jazz band Eric Deans and His Orchestra and many more performed, including Lord Tanamo and Sir Horace, both of whom were not part of the advertisement. Judges included Louise Bennett, Mapletoft Poulle and Stanley Motta. The winner was Silver Seas for their song "Chinese Cricket". Second place was Count Barry featuring lead vocalist Lord Lebby. Third place was has by Count Lasher for his performance of "History of Jamaica" and "Calypso Cha Cha." Lord Messam won best costume and performed "If You're Not White, You're Considered Black".

Two advertisements from
The Daily Gleaner appearing 
June 1, 1955 and June 10, 1956


Another contest was held at the Ward a year later, 

with many of the same bands, plus King Arthur and others, as seen right.

At the Duns River Falls Festival in 1964, a mento competition attracted a roster that included Count Lasher, Count Owen, Sugar Belly, Harold Richardson and The Ticklers, and some less well remembered acts, such as The Diggers, The Pirates, The Ever Ready Band and The Seven Elevens. Also on the bill were CarlosMalcolm and Louise Bennett.


Though the club was not exclusively male, there were very few female mento singers. Golden age exceptions included a few odd singles by the jazzy Louise Lamb and Louise Bennett, who was primarily a Jamaican folk singer, but did record some urban mento. In mento's middle period, there wasa single by female singer Girl Wonder.  Visit The Wailers and Mento page for Girl Wonder's surprising identity.

Mento's Peak of Popularity in the US and UK

Late in the 1950s, a calypso craze swept both sides of the Atlantic, spearheaded by Harry Belafonte's massive popularity. But many of Belafonte's calypso songs, were, in fact mento and Jamaican folk songs. This helped open the door for mento acts to go international.  London Records released a mento compilation of material licensed from the Jamaican M.R.S. label. Lord Flea appeared on American TV shows, in two Hollywood films and released an album on Capitol. Other groups, such as The Silver Seas Calypso Band appeared on American television. Lord Foodoos recorded for Electra Records. Consistently, however, the generic term "calypso" rather than the more descriptive "mento" was used. The calypso craze ended by the early 1960s, and with that, mento faded from the international market.

The Golden Age Ends

Mento’s golden age ended as American R&B exploded in Jamaica. Sounding more modern, urban and danceable to Jamaican ears, R&B supplanted mento as the country’s favorite musical form. However, mento continued to be played and recorded. When R&B ran it course, shrewd Jamaican producers/sound system operators sensed that the island was again ready for a more Jamaican sound. Elements of mento were combined with R&B, resulting in the brief pre-ska era of songs, such as the Prince Buster produced, "Oh Carolina". Not to be outdone, Coxsone Dodd assembled Jamaica’s finest jazz musicians, added their skills to the mix, and ska exploded on the scene, triumphant. A new Jamaican music was being born just as Jamaican was being born as an independent country in 1962. But mento's golden age had ended.

For more on mento's golden age, visit artists', More Golden Age Album Scans, More Golden Age Single Scans and the Can I Buy Mento? pages. The Other Artists and Favorite Songs page has sound clips from a number of songs from the golden age.

The Middle Period (1960s)

As ska begat rock steady, and rock steady begat reggae, many Jamaicans largely looked upon mento as old-fashioned and provincial compared to the exciting new music that the island continued to generate. As Glen Washington sang in 1976 on "Rockers (Nu Crackers)", in the only reference to mento I've found in a reggae lyric:

Down in the ghetto,
Don't want no mento sounds,
Don't want calypso,
Don't want no other sounds,
Only rockers

(A few years later Lord Laro took a more positive view in his "Mento DJ Jam". He sings, "reggae come from mento", that "the mento has been around as long as our history" and even mentions quadrille with an incongruent instrumental backing that fuses dancehall and Trinidadian soca sounds.)

But mento continued to be recorded. Some 45 RPM singles (such as King Barou's great 45 RPM, "Calypso Cha Cha Cha" on Coxsone Dodd's Port-O-Jam label) and many LPs were produced in the middle period.  These were targeted primarily at tourists, who often found a mento group playing at their hotel. Judging by the surprisingly high number of autographed mid-period records floating around today, it would appear
mento-reggae, as elements of both Jamaican music were combined. Some middle period mento LPs were quite bland, such as "Yellow Bird" by the promisingly named Jamaica Duke and the Mento Swingers, and the aforementioned Wrigglers LP. The great majority of the recordings from the middle period were of old mento songs, with sundry other covers. Virtually none of the songs on these LPs appear to have been written during this period.

To see jackets from all of the releases mentioned above and more from mento's middle period, visit the artists' pages, More Middle Period Album Scans, More Middle Single Scans and the Can I Buy Mento?  pages. The Other Artists and Favorite Songs page has sound clips from a number of songs from the middle period. 

The Mento Resurgence (1977 - Today)

Mento's popularity as recorded music experienced a resurgence beginning in 1977 and continuing through today.

1977 - 1990s

Mento's popularity experienced a resurgence beginning 1977, when the NYC-based Lyrichord world music label released the Jolly Boys "Roots of Reggae" on LP and cassette. In 1989, two Jolly Boys  CDs appeared on the American Ryko label. This was followed by several more CDs on non-Jamaican labels. Although none of these releases are in print today [though some are coming back in print. See the news page.], they must have done well enough to show that there was a market for mento. Other releases followed. A Lititz Mento BandCD was released out of Germany, which may be explained by the fact that Jamaica is a popular vacation destination for Germans. A 1997 The Humming BirdsCD was released only in Japan, where they are crazy for Jamaican music, and mento seems to enjoy a small but dedicated fan base. In 1997, the final Jolly Boys CD, a live set recorded in 1992, was released in Japan only.

Reggae's Sleng Teng riddim of the early 1980s kicked off the digital revolution that lead to today's dancehall sounds. A song to that riddim, "Pumpkin Belly" by Tenor Saw unexpectedly mentions mento bamboo sax player Sugar Belly and calls him the "king of the saxophone". Another song by Tenor Saw from this era was his hit "Ring The Alarm". This song, about "another a sound [system] is dying", unexpectedly interjects lyrics from the mento song "Hold 'Im Joe". This could either be in remembrance of when sound systems played mento records, or perhaps alerting against mento being forgotten.

2000 - 2001

This international interest segued nicely into a renewed interest in mento at home, as The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission released "Mento Music in Jamaica, Vol. 1" in 2000. Other Jamaican releases, such as the largely instrumentalRod Dennis Mento Band and The Blue Glaze Mento Band, appeared the next year.

Another 2001 release was the overdue and crucial golden age anthology "Boogu Yagga Gal" on the Heritage label out of the UK. This was soon followed by other collections of 1950s mento.

2002 - 2003

In 2002, Mutabaruka released both reggae and mento versions of "The Monkey". Based on the old the mento song, "Monkey Talk", the latter offered a fusion of mento and dub poetry. (On the same LP, Muta also recorded "Miss Lou", a salute to Louise Bennett.) Lord Tanamo played a set of mento at a Legends of Ska reunion concert. The Golden Aires released two CDs, complete with video.

Also in 2002,"Stanley Beckford Plays Mento", a collaboration with The Blue Glaze Mento Band, was released. This CD is comprised of classic mento tracks, a handful of Bob Marley songs mento-style and new mento renditions of some of Stanley's reggae-mento songs. One of these is a great track, "Broom Weed", that showed mento could move forward in new directions, while still being true to what mento is. Then, in 2003, another golden age compilations, "Rookumbine" from the Khouri family was released.


In 2004, a collection of golden age MRS recordings, "Mento Madness" was released, as was Stanley Beckford's second mento CD, Reggaemento, again backed by the The Blue Glaze Mento Band.  Then, a series of five CDs compiling 80 (!) songs by Chin's Calypso Sextet began to be released, as the great mento remembrance continued.

There have been mento-ska LPs, (see the Count Owen and Hiltonaires pages for just two examples) and reggae-mento was an entire genre of reggae onto itself (see the pages for Stanley Beckford and Naaman Lee). Then, evidence of a fusion between Jamaica's oldest and newest forms of music was heard as mento-dancehall recordings appeared from Jamaica.

In 2004, Louie Culture recorded "Donkey Back". Dancehall vocals and rhythms were successfully merged with banjo, synthesized flute, and lyrics filled with country proverbs, producing a most enjoyable track. Later that year, the "Chaka Chaka" dancehall riddim broke, featuring harmonica, banjo, fiddle swoops (though played on guitar), a bass line simple enough for a rumba box, and a pre-reggae beat, dancehall style. Beenie Man voices the riddim several times, as does Elephant Man, who works in the melody of "Sammy's Dead". "Wi Have It", by TOK , captures the upbeat, celebratory spirit of the riddim especially well.


A Chaka Chaka single-riddim collection CD is released in April. It includes all of the recordings to that riddim, except, sadly, the TOK track, which is worth seeking out as a single.


In January of 2006, Raged Records released the double CD set, "Strummer: A Clash Tribute", which contains a mento version of "Junco Partner."  The group, King Django and Dr. Ring Ding meet The Freshmakers featuring Lord Tannehill includes Dan Neely. For more information, visit Dan's site.

In March 2006, Monty Alexander's "Concrete Jungle" CD was released. It featured a track with the Rod Dennis Mento Band -- a rural mento version of Bob Marley and The Wailers'"Three Little Birds", featuring Monty on melodica. In April, at a NYC performance, Monty and band jammed with Carlton James of the Rod Dennis Mento Band.

In April 2006, Trojan released the two CD collection: "Dip and Fall Back!: Dr. Kinsey To Haile Selassie - Classic Jamaican Mento". The first disc contains golden age sides, while the 2nd disc contains middle period recordings. In June of 2006, Pressure Sounds released "Take Me To Jamaica" - another good golden age collection.


In the first half of 2009, another mento-dancehall riddim hit the street. The "National Pride" riddim featured a feel good vibe, banjo and a simplified pre-reggae beat. It attracted big names like Beenie Man, Elephant Man and TOK amongst others. Memories were stimulated in two songs. "No Man Room" by Ding Dong utilized some of the melody of the Clyde Hoyte's mento song "Daphne's Walking". "The Garden" by Degree featuring Lukie D recalls a few lyrics from Count Lasher's "Water The Garden".

In December, a new CD by Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Bandwas released.

2010 and on

In the 2010 The Jolly Boys made a return to recording with a surprising album, video and media-rich new web site. They toured Europe, and at the start of the next year, the US . Also in 2010, Tallawah Mento Bandreleased a strong CD. The same year, roots reggae group Israel Vibration surprised by including a mento song, "Cantankerous", on their Reggae Knights album. In 2011, The Blue Blaze Mento Band released a guest star filled CD. In 2013 Larry And The Mento Boys released an 18 song CD. And the double CD golden-age collection called "Mento, Not Calypso" was released. Others followed, as listed on the Can I Buy Mento? page.

For more on the releases from mento's resurgence, visit the More Resurgence CD Scans, Can I Buy Mento? and the Other Artists and Songs Clips, Stanley Beckford and Jolly Boys pages.

Also see:

For more information on mento, also see:

  • This site's Jamaican Music Roadmap .

  • This site's Edric Connor, Louise Bennett & Jamaican Folk Music page has video about mento and Jamaican folk music, and includes a mento performance.

  • The Beat magazine, [Volume 20, No. 6, 2001], for the five page article, Long Time Gal! Mento Is Back!, by Daniel Neely.

  • The liner notes of the release Boogu Yagga Gal.

  • The September 2004 issue of Global Rhythm magazine, where Dan Neely has a two page article that reviews the history of mento with an emphasis on the start of Stanley Motta'sMRS label. It also discusses Stanley Beckford's career and is well worth the small cost of a back issue. The magazine is bagged with a CD that includes Lord Messam's fine recording of "Linstead Market", from the Motta compilation CD, "Mento Madness".

  • The book "Reggae Routes" by Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen has information and even a picture of mento's earliest remembered act, Slim and Sam.


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Retention and Preservation of African Rootsin Jamaican Folk Music

Carter R. Stowell

University of Vermont

August 4, 2000



Amid tens of thousands of volumes in this library collection at UVM, the "silence" is in fact a low hum issuing from the vents. I read essay upon essay, ideas and histories of ideas, until I pause in a pensive moment. A thick green binding breaks my meditation. A title, The Power of Sound, fills my mind with music. I consider the power of words.

- - -

The music issuing from the Caribbean island of Jamaica has for decades — and many contend longer — broadcast a uniquely Jamaican identity. This personality arises from a complex intermingling of diverse cultures, unforgivable power structures, passionate religious expressions, not to mention the late twentieth century pressures of global capitalism. Though many characters both principle and complimentary have passed away amid this cultural evolution, a musical lineage bears witness to the island’s history.

This study will focus on cultural themes in Jamaica’s colonial history which contributed to the retention of distinctively African forms of musical expression. The goal of such an approach is to learn something about the process of change itself, an indomitable fact of life which stands in contradiction to all efforts at preservation. The grandeur of such knowledge is appropriately called out by Romanian scholar Constantin Brailoiu who writes, "each time our studies have as an aim a human fact or one tied to human reality, we are bound to conclude that the understanding of any particular aspect of life is only possible if we understand life itself in its entirety." This statement represents a comment on the then emerging field of sociology as a response to what Brailoiu interprets as a "powerful wish for synthesis" in a world of infinite cultural data. In that music is inherently a synthesis and communicator of cultural experience, reflections on the life of music within the island community of Jamaica can only lead to a clearer understanding of cultural phenomena.

In particular, the goal herein is to address issues regarding the persistence of African elements in Jamaican music. This purpose will be accomplished by first addressing the construct referenced by the phrase "African music elements". Then several themes — slavery, resistance and rebellion, religion, preservation — will be discussed as they pertain to a distinctly African heritage resplendent in early Jamaican music.

Approaches to "African" music in Jamaica

References to music dubbed "African" or "European" in studies of the Caribbean are born of practicality. In the case of Jamaica, the generalization applies to musical practices of sub-Saharan West Africa. John Storm Roberts likes to differentiate further by naming two kinds of music with African roots: neo-African music and Euro/African blend. In Roberts’ conception, neo-African music is "largely or totally African". With neo-African music, it would be easy to establish a connection with modern day Africa because practitioners can name the music’s specific geographical or tribal origins. Euro/African blends, largely developed by Afro-Americans, are more difficult to pinpoint. In these cases, the African elements, where they are apparent, are simply "African" rather than Ashanti, Yoruba, Congo-Angolan or whatever. Kenneth Bilby illustrates the challenge of determining musical origins when he writes,

In this case Bilby takes issue with the value of differentiation. However, his analysis references the highly developed Jamaican styles of ska and reggae as they relate to earlier forms which can be more easily connected to their past. So Roberts’ distinction between neo-African and Euro/African music is useful mostly in distinguishing folk music, both secular and religious, which were largely subsumed or overshadowed by popular music like ska which matured in the 1960’s.

The use of the general term "African" also follows the thinking that slave communities combined African peoples from different regions and ethnic groups. In the next stage of the process dubbed "transculturation" by Cuban scholar Fernando Ortíz, European music dilutes African practices. This process of blending is alternately referred to as syncretism or, in the case of Caribbean music, creolization. After the slave trade which ended for Britain in the early 1800’s, contact with Africa stopped; Jamaican musicians applied their own creativity to the music.

What is commonly distinctive of African music to warrant this divisive approach? Foremost, African music is functional. Bilby says, "In Africa, music is not so much ‘good’ as ‘effective’, that is, right for its purpose." The quality of a music, or how "good" it may be, is a purely subjective declaration. For many, music that is not somehow "effective" couldn’t possibly be "good". These discussions rest with critics. What is clear is that the music of Ashanti-Fanti and Yoruba-Ibo peoples who dominate Jamaica’s population is tied inseparably to a broad spectrum of cultural events. Herein lies the gulf between European and African music. Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, who is based at the University of Ghana, reported in 1961 that "the Ashanti of Ghana have a special song of insult for the habitual bed-wetter." This example emphasizes the degree to which music in integrated in the life of Ashanti people. Music apart from some event or occasion is a conceptual oddity; the language lacks vocabulary to describe it.

The functionality of music couples with a theme of collective participation. The audience is active and essential to the music. The music does not exist without significant involvement of work, dance, song or clapping of hands.

African music of Jamaica has been identified with unique sounds. Peter Manuel elaborates, naming an emphasis on rhythm, vocal call-and-response and cellular structure, that is, pieces constructed by repetition and variation on a short musical cell. In contrast, a typical list of European musical features names chordal harmony, sectional musical structures, concepts of orchestration and arrangement and use of notation. African music employs rich singing styles and buzzing sounds. Singing styles exhibit varying vocal tone such as a nasal quality, liberal variation or ornamentation by the lead singer and common use of falsetto. Examples of a buzzing aesthetic are apparent in the practice of attaching bamboo stems, feathers, or pieces of metal to drums and other instruments to create vibrating sounds. Roberts offers, "the African instruments most often used by the greatest number of people in the greatest variety of [African] societies are the human voice and the human hands, used for clapping." Roberts also reports on the observations of Sir Hans Sloan who, writing of Jamaica in 1688 , describes a gourd with a neck strung with horsehair. A common Western misconception traces stringed instruments to European roots. Stringed instruments predate certain drums in Africa. For example, many Bamana rhythms of Mali that are today played on the chalice-shaped jembe drum are adapted from the donso ngoni, a spike-harp with a gourd resonator of purely African origin. Roberts, insightfully contextualizing his own methods, comments that "the struggle to differentiate stems more from cultural and racial politics than from the artifact of tones and pulses." This statement is particularly relevant to Jamaica’s history of colonial rule and slavery beginning shortly after Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1494.


The island of Jamaica is populated overwhelmingly by West African people of the Gold Coast and Nigeria, and Congolese-Angolan people of central Africa. Minority groups of East Indian, Chinese, and Europeans are also found there. The British treatment of Jamaica as a "plantation colony", beginning with cultivation of sugar in the later half of the 17th century, quickly led to dominant numbers of blacks. In 1800, slaves made up 88% of Jamaica’s population. Of course, the Africans are absolutely responsible for any transmission of African music to the island. People were forced onto slave ships in the bleakest of conditions. In Gary Stewart’s recent book — Rumba on the River, a history of the popular music of the two Congos (2000) — he describes the "holocaust of unparalleled proportions… that fractured African institutions and de-humanized both black and white." The harsh conditions of slavery in Jamaica shaped the cultural landscape for hundreds of years, from Columbus’ landing until 1655 under Spanish control and thereafter under British rule which ended with Jamaican independence in 1962. The constant influx of African music and culture — that is, individuals carrying this knowledge — ended in 1807 when the British banned further importation of slaves. However, the institution of slavery continued in Jamaica until emancipation in 1834. These dates provide an essential though cursory framework for understanding the transport of African musical concepts and the persistence of neo-African styles that are manifest in Jamaica to this day. The most significant date, 1807, marks the historical moment when direct contact with Africa is severed. By the late 19th century the black population is almost entirely Jamaican-born. A more thorough study would examine the succession of specific ethnic populations arriving at different times in Jamaica, such as the Ashanti-Fanti groups of the Gold Coast which comprised 70% of the British-imported slaves in the 17th century compared to the Central African Yoruba-Ibo groups arriving in smaller numbers.

With respect to music, the tumult of slave life ultimately blurred ethnic lines. Roberts describes that "differing African tribal musics blended in the New World to form neo-African musics that were almost entirely African-derived, and yet non-African, for they were not to be heard in Africa." Later he asserts the concept that "musical survivals have been associated with social survival." As slaves in rural areas were concentrated in sugar production, port cities bustled with the arrival of slaves and supplies and the departure of agricultural products headed to European markets. Slaves unloaded ships and carried heavy loads from the docks. This work was performed in groups of slaves that for practical reasons, like cooperation, shared ethnic ties. Thus reunited as a tribal group, though in horrific bondage, the slaves would sing; music lived.

Thus slavery, while raping cultural practices, suppressing artistic expression and causing ethnic groups to combine for survival, could not entirely control the succession of music which is woven inseparably with the thought and action of Jamaica’s African population. A history of rebellion contributed immeasurably to this musical retention.

Resistance and Rebellion

As slavery cannot be considered a vibrant vessel of music, rebellions were not literally accompanied by an Ashanti drum corps. However, the impact of struggles for freedom and class justice on Jamaican music cannot be understated. It is helpful then to look into the history of resistance and rebellion in Jamaica to better understand the music and, hopefully, the process of retention of root forms evident only through a broad cultural inquiry.

When the Spanish caved into British conquest in 1655, many slaves on the island seized the transitional period to flee to the hills and fight, to the death, for freedom. These Spanish slaves formed the first Maroon communities, which included what remained of Arawak heritage; the Arawaks were a peaceful, domestic, agricultural people living on the island when the Spanish arrived. The name Maroon, of both Spanish and French derivation, means "hunters of wild animals" and later simply "wildness and fierceness". The Maroons successfully resisted British harassment and attempts at re-enslavement for decades. Their communities became havens for runaway slaves -- mostly Ashanti prisoners-of-war who were sold to British slave ships on the Gold Coast. Though specific musical practices of Maroon communities are largely unknown or undocumented, modern Maroon peoples, living in deep poverty in Jamaica’s western interior "cockpit" country, maintain clearly neo-African practices. It can be assumed that these were passed from the early Maroons through oral histories as is common of both African and European folk traditions. The Maroons, living with a greater measure of freedom than their enslaved brethren and to some degree among fellow tribespeople, were best equipped to steward cultural practices through the hostile environment of colonial Jamaica. French sociologist Roger Bastide (1972) asserts that the bossales — African-born slaves — were the ones "responsible for the preservation of African customs." Further, Maroon efforts set a precedent for attitudes of resistance which sped a deathly slow progress toward greater freedoms for the black population. Freedom appears to play a critical role in the natural preservation of cultural practices, at least in Jamaica.

Leonard Barrett (1997) writes that "not a year passed between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries without a rebellion or at least the threat of one." In the first decades of the 19th century, an anti-slavery debate grew in England while slaves were buying their freedom in Cuba and Haitian slaves had freed themselves following a gruesome struggle with their French oppressors. Jamaican slave Sam Sharpe — an intelligent man and a charismatic speaker — was keen to these events. Literate slaves could catch bits of news from the papers; this news spread conversationally. Sam organized a large-scale revolt which is logged as the Sam Sharpe Rebellion. Though the rebellion was brutally repressed, it likely contributed to the emancipation of Jamaica’s slaves just three years later.

A more subtle rebellion of slave women was the refusal to bear children. This contradicted British preferences. Slave offspring were the most economical source of new workers. Women simply adjusted to avoid pregnancy; no potential parents wanted to bear children into slave conditions where they would be removed from home, sold as children.

With the dawn of freedom, or at the least a transfer from institutionalized slavery to institutionalized classism, a window opened for open practice of culture, manifest overwhelmingly through religious practices. However, it is certain that the end of slavery was not the end of severe struggle in the black community. Barrett (1997) writes, "the pitiful state of [rural Jamaican] housing, cultivable lands, and economic wage differentials… remain the same as that described by Martha Beckwith in her study of 1929." And the period between emancipation and the global depression of the late 1920’s represents incremental progress for Jamaica’s downtrodden.


"Central to every aspect of folk life are the religious overtones which pervade it. People in folk societies have not yet separated their religious beliefs from their secular activities." This quote from Barrett’s 1976 work The Sun and the Drum: African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition contends that it is an exercise in abstraction to discuss Jamaica’s blend of African religions as a "component" of some lifestyle. Instead, there exists a peculiar gravity, perhaps a spiritual saturation, without which life itself is inconceivable. Some of the deepest rooted musical traditions are preserved within the context of religious practice, the ritual ceremonies that are part of this particular cosmology. In Jamaica, African folk religions served this purpose, even in combination with certain Christian denominations.

From 1655-1816, the Church of England made no attempt to Christianize the slaves. This policy reflected the hypocrisy of the Church at that time. Barrett writes, "the masters feared that the preachers… would stretch the equality of humanity before God a little too far." However, Christianity found its way into slave communities through the so-called nonconformist denominations — the Moravians in 1734, the Methodists in 1736, the Baptists in 1783, and the Presbyterians in 1823.

At the same time, a folk religion evolved out of a blend of African religions. The cult of Kumina was most affected by the Ashanti, the dominant ethnic group among the slaves. Kumina ceremonies which are called for births, deaths, marriages and other occasions involve vigorous dancing, drumming, a sacrifice, alcohol (typically rum) and ancestor-spirit possession. The spirit possession is critical. In this state, the possessed becomes a medium for a revelation communicated by an ancestor of the dancer or of the person who called the Kumina. The revelation is taken very seriously. In this way, neo-African cults and religions were a main preserver of music. The spirits are summoned by specific drum rhythms. This major role of music persists in Afro-American cults though the music itself may venture in new directions. As Roberts puts it, "slaves were not musically conservative or unenterprising." The result was a spirit-filled amalgam of Christianity and African folk religions invoking persecution by a fearful, established Church of England.

Christian fervor grew infectiously among Jamaica’s African population from emancipation through 1860 when a social phenomena dubbed the Great Revival swept across the island and across the Western world. Barrett writes, "The Great Revival allowed the African religious dynamic — long repressed — to assert itself in a Christian guise and capture what might have been a missionary victory." The Afro-Christian Revivalist sects used guitar, drums, cymbals and handclapping in emotionally charged worship services. At this point the music is essentially Jamaican, formed through a syncretism of African concepts, dynamism and sounds with European style verses and longer melody lines. So the overall sound might be called Euro/African in Roberts’ system. On the other hand, the energy of the worship service and ultimately the practice of the faith overwhelmingly favors the African contribution.

There is a symbolic element carried by the presence of the drum. The Church of England , had they encouraged Christianity among the slaves, would certainly have prohibited drumming at a worship service. For the Ashanti, the drum is among the tangible connections to an African heritage. The drum is the voice of God and a medium of worship. R.S. Rattray in his 1923 book Ashanti recounts the Ashanti story about the origins of drumming:

Drumming is sacred to the Ashanti like the bird to the forest. Its voice called from Jamaica’s Revival yards, open courtyard spaces where worship services convened. Thus African traditions were reformulated, becoming truly Jamaican, and survived with remarkable clarity in the carriage of worship.

Preservation and Letting Go

Why does music die? Musical practices of West African nations and their Caribbean descendants, as discussed previously, are associated with specific functions. As a musical tradition loses its original function, crucial motivation is lost in participants. The music may find a new function or perish. Changes in music or the passage of a form can happen slowly and quite noticeably. For instance, when the younger generations in a culture fail to accept the traditions of their elders, a music which may have been significant in worship or folk medicine is bound for extinction. In the late nineteenth century, these extinctions were globally recognized; academics rushed in to observe and catalogue.

The effort did not begin in Jamaica, of course. Czechoslovakian-born, American academic Bruno Nettl, in his essay "The Concept of Preservation in Ethnomusicology" (1985), clarifies that 19th century collectors of non-Western music were not initially concerned with preservation. Not until students of European folk music wanted to preserve their own folk heritage did it become a practice. Scholars in Britain compiled an immense collection of Child Ballads. In North America, the Works Progress Administration sponsored publications of folk songs. By the late 19th century, music publications emerged to address the needs of the amateur musician. Books were published for teaching while people were urged to play and to dance to keep their heritage alive.

Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton’s Reggae: The Rough Guide (1997) — an anthology of Jamaica’s audio recordings — notes that musicologists recorded albums of Revival Zion music, work songs (called ring play or the ring game), and Jonkanoo. These efforts are generally considered "too little too late". Many of the forms were recorded post-mortem, the music’s function having turned entirely to self-preservation. However, recordings capture just a piece of musical culture: the artifact of sound, of tones and pulses.

Alan Merriam contributed a measure of rigor to the ill-defined field of ethnomusicology in his 1960 article "Ethnomusicology: Discussion and Definition of the Field". Merriam offers a definition — "the study of music in culture or as culture" — with a model of music having three components: concept, behavior and sound. Nettl observes an overwhelming concentration on sound: archives of transcription and recording lacking a sufficient compliment of documentation regarding the when, where, how and why of performances or the styles they have created or represented. To this day, there is no consensus regarding methodologies of musical preservation.

The issue of preservation is further complicated by a search for identity and reclamation of dignity. This dynamic, in Jamaica and also in Caribbean studies in general, leads to an emphasis on the differences between two musical macrosystems, Africa and Europe. While this pragmatic approach is arguably oversimplified, it hopefully lends insight and context to more granular approaches. Nettl’s 1985 essay offers a summarized history of preservation:

The urgency for preservation, manifest in non-Jamaicans, did eventually touch the island. In successive visits during 1919 and 1921, Martha Warren Beckwith collected Jamaican "Anansi" stories from over sixty native informants. Miss Helen Roberts accompanied Beckwith in 1921 to record the music and the "magical effect of song which, at least in the old witch tales, far surpasses that in the action of the story." Among the Ashanti of Ghana, anansi is a spider. Beckwith, in her preface, compares the Anansi stories to the Hare of Bantu lore which became Brer Rabbit in the United States. These folk tales have been interpreted to represent the power of the ancestors to take on animal forms. The exposure of these stories through publication has offered the outsider one more clue reflecting the complexity of Jamaican folk culture which developed with a keen spiritual awareness originating in West Africa.

Closing Thoughts

Hundreds of Twi words of the Ashanti remain in the dialects of Jamaican peasants. A few elderly people sing Yoruba songs in the parish of Westmoreland. Folk forms of the lower class have percolated upward through societal classes, taking on more sophisticated musical elements. As a music is enjoyed by the upper class or the elite, a creole form may be tied to nationalism, evidenced by Jamaican reggae music. No effort at preservation has suspended the rapid transformation of Jamaican culture and music though archetypal connections to the past are concocted, enshrined and challenged.

In the later studies of Captain Rattray (1881-1938), published as Religion and Art in Ashanti (1954), he recounts this Ashanti tale,

The same moon this evening might stand as a reminder of what is distant and practically imaginary in contrast to what is palpable. Landing on the moon and tasting its soil is not the same as knowing or even understanding it. Similarly, the conclusions of a cultural examination lacking direct experience is, at best, supplementary to voices of the culture itself. Mindful of this predicament, a world community can still benefit from such discourse so long as the ‘man in the moon’, like the Kumina drummers of Jamaica, maintains the rhythm.





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