"Mento has been described as ‘Jamaica’s original foundation music, the father of them all’" - Music, by Catherine Ross at Museumand
The secret history of Mento & Calypso – the iconic sound of the Caribbean
Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music recognisable by its acoustic sounds. It became a feature of Caribbean music in the 1920s, but the golden years of this genre, were in the 1940s and 50s.
Mento is a fusion of African and European rhythms and musical traditions reflecting many centuries of history. It was originally played on homemade, makeshift instruments including natural gourds, pieces of iron, empty sardine cans, forks and graters! Today, Mento is played on instruments like the banjo, guitar, hand drums and triangle, with its distinctive bass rhythm coming from the double bass played as percussion, and the Marimba or rhumba box. Over time, vocals were added to the music, which was originally used for dancing the Quadrille.
Mento has been described as ‘Jamaica’s original foundation music, the father of them all’. It flourished until the time around Jamaican Independence in 1962, when ska and sound systems flourished and Mento was replaced by genres like reggae and rocksteady. Mento became seen by many as old-fashioned and provincial, but the music is still played today by 21stcentury fans, from older people to those who are keen to keep the heritage of Caribbean alive.
Mento was originally recorded on wax with lyrics sold as sheet music, and by the 1950s it was being recorded on 78rpm discs. It enjoyed something of a revival and resurgence from the late 1970s, when the Jolly Boys released new Mento music on LP and cassette. By the end of the 1980s and early 90s, Mento hadn’t just recaptured the imagination of the Caribbean, it was reaching the ears of listeners further afield, with Mento musicians touring the US. A similar revival took place in the 2000s and today, technology means that Mento can be enjoyed and appreciated anywhere in the world.
What’s in a name?
Some say the name Mento comes from the Spanish word ‘mentar’, which means to ‘mention, call out, name’, because of the subtle ways Mento lyrics critique other black people or white authority figures. In that way, Mento shares similarities with Calypso, including lyrics with a humorous slant, a focus on everyday issues such as poverty and politics, a light-hearted feel and often, sexual innuendo!
Historically, there haven’t been very many female Mento singers. The first known name was Louise Lamb, who made two EP vinyls in the 1950s. The next name was Girl Wonder, who sang in 1965, and was said to be none other than Rita Marley. Neither women were heard of again in relation to Mento. Louise Bennett was the only other woman to make vinyls, but they featured traditional folk songs outside of Mento. Some say that the reason for the lack of women singing Mento lies in the name – Men-to.
The sound of the Caribbean
Today, both Mento and Calypso music is used to welcome visitors to Caribbean islands, when they arrive at their hotels for example. Perhaps because both genres are synonymous with the spirit and exoticism of the tropical Caribbean. The music evokes images, emotions and memories associated with sun, sea, sand and island idylls.
Calypso music is the child of African musical traditions brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans, and European music brought by the colonialists. Some of these African traditions still exist in modern Calypso. For example, the ‘call and response’ technique used by Calypsonians invites listeners to get involved in singing the music, as well as dancing to it. Similarly, the African tradition of singing improvised songs of self-praise, or to express scorn for others, is still evident in many Calypso lyrics. Often called a poor man’s newspaper, Calypso’s lyrics tend to comment on the issues of the day, from local and international political and social issues, to religion and relationships.
Originally, Calypso was played on whatever makeshift instruments the enslaved could find, on the rare occasions that they were given time off by the plantations owners and could socialise in their own way. These occasions were around Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter.
Calypso developed over time and in the 1940s it became associated with the iconic instrument it’s known for today – the humble oil drum. Oil drums were discarded by US soldiers based in Trinidad during World War 2, and they were used by local people living in Trinidad’s deprived neighbourhoods to create the sound and genre known as Calypso today. The music proved very popular and drew crowds wherever it was played. The Government of the day discouraged it for that reason, as they feared it would stir up riots and disturbances. The people and the music won though, and today, everyone can enjoy Calypso music wherever they are. Oil drums are still used to create Calypso’s steel pans, with commercially-made versions available too, often bought by schools and professional performers.
Whine & get down
Above all, Calypso is made for dancing, as anyone who’s gyrated their hips and waved their hands in time to the music can tell you. Calypso lyrics also encourage dancers to ‘jump jump’ – another indication of the high energy moves inspired by Calypso music and the fun it brings. You can’t hear Calypso and not want to let your hair down.
The world has been rocking, or more accurately, ‘whining down’ to Calypso for generations – including in the US and in the UK, where it was a favourite of the British upper classes and royalty in the 1950s. Caribbeans in the diaspora have taken Calypso music and songs with them wherever they’ve made their home, with the sound familiar in almost every country.
It’s still popular today of course and is often played at carnivals, community events and festivals celebrating Caribbean culture. Having a steel band play a favourite hymn of the deceased is becoming a feature of many Caribbean funerals in the UK. It looks like Calypso is here to stay, worldwide.