Mento

It is not certain but supposedly the word “mento” is derived from the Cuban Spanish verb “mentar” which means “to mention” or “call out name”.  This form of music from the island of Jamaica, was created around the late 19th century.  Mento, which is a fusion of African and European elements, reached it’s peak popularity in the late 1940’s and 50’s.  Although this genre predates ska and reggae, by the 1960’s they both overshadowed mento.  It is described as Jamaica’s folk form of  dance with acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and rhumba box.  The rhumba box which carries the bass part of the music, is an Imbira in the shape of a large box that can be sat on.  Now an Imbira is quite interesting.  It is a family of musical instruments originally associated with the Shona people of Zimbabwe.  Their design feature a  wooden board with metal tines attached.  The instruments are played by plucking the tines with the thumbs and fingers.  While sitting on a rhumba box, a musician will reach down between their open legs in order to pluck the metal tines, thus creating the leading bassline.  Mento is usually confused with another genre from the island of Trinidad and Tobago; Calypso.  Although they share a few similarities, they are two different and distinct musical forms.  Like calypso, mento’s lyrics deals with everyday life, social issues, subliminal sexual references and humor.  As the name suggests, the lyrics  often criticize or “call out” both the regular black or native citizens and the ruling caucasion class.  Major 1950’s recording artists include; Louise Bennett, Count Lasher, Laurel Aitkin, Lord Composer, Lord Power and Harry Belafonte. The confusion of the two genres was also a result of Belafonte’s popularity at the time.  Two of his biggest mento hits in the period from 1956 – 1958, “Day O”(the banana boat song) and “Jamaican Farewell” were promoted and sold as calypso songs.  Many other mento songs by Harry Belafonte and other artists from that era were incorrectly branded as “calypso”.  By the 1960’s mento was overshadowed by ska and reggae, the two latest genres to be birthed by this musical island.  As a testament to longevity, the style was revived in the late 1980’s and 90’s spearheaded by The Jolly Boys.  Originally from the eastern part of the island, this mento band was formed in 1945 in Port Antonio, Portland.  They had great commercial success with the resurgence.  They also released an album in 2010 entitled “Great Expectations”.

 

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