Mento draws on musical traditions brought over by African slaves
Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that predates and has greatly influenced Ska and Reggae music. Mento typically features acoustic instruments, such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the rhumba box — a large mbira in the shape of a box that can be sat on while played. The rhumba box carries the bass part of the music. Mento is often confused with calypso, a musical form from Trinidad and Tobago. Although the two share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms. During the mid-20th century, Mento was conflated with Calypso, and Mento was frequently referred to as calypso, kalypso and Mento calypso; Mento singers frequently used Calypso songs and techniques. As in Calypso, Mento uses topical lyrics with a humorous slant, commenting on poverty and other social issues. Sexual innuendos are also common.
Mento draws on musical traditions brought over by African slaves. The influence of European music is also strong, as slaves who could play musical instruments were often required to play music for their masters. They subsequently incorporated some elements of these traditions into their own folk music. The lyrics of Mento songs often deal with aspects of everyday life in a light-hearted and humorous way. Many comment on poverty, poor housing and other social issues. Thinly veiled sexual references and innuendo are also common themes. Although the treatment of such subjects in Mento is comparatively innocent, their appearance has sometimes been seen as a precursor of the slackness found in modern Dancehall.
Major 1950s Mento recording artists include Louise Bennett, Count Lasher, Harold Richardson, Lord Flea, Lord Fly, Alerth Bedasse with Chin’s Calypso Sextet, Laurel Aitken, Denzil Laing, Lord Composer, Lord Lebby, Lord Power, Hubert Porter, and New Yorker of Jamaican origin Harry Belafonte, whose massive hit records in 1956-1958, including “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell” were really Mento songs sold as Calypso. Previously recorded Jamaican versions of many Belafonte’s classic “calypso” hits can be heard on the Jamaica – Mento 1951-1958 CD released in 2010.
Mento became conflated with Calypso in the 1950s. In a 1957 interview for Calypso Star magazine, Lord Flea explained:
“In Jamaica, we call our music ‘Mento’ until very recently. Today, ‘calypso’ is beginning to be used for all kinds of West Indian music. This is because its become so commercialized there. Some people like to think of West Indians as carefree natives who work and sing and play and laugh their lives away. But this isn’t so. Most of the people there are hard working folks, and many of them are smart business men. If the tourists want “calypso”, that’s what we sell them.”
This was the golden age of Mento, as records pressed by Stanley Motta, Ivan Chin, Ken Khouri and others brought the music to a new audience. In the 1960s it was overshadowed by Ska and Reggae, but it is still played in Jamaica, especially in areas frequented by tourists. Reggae historian and author of seminal reggae book Bass Culture; Lloyd Bradley said that he felt Lee “Scratch” Perry’s seminal 1976 dub album Super Ape contained some of the purest Mento influences he knew. It was re-popularized by the Jolly Boys in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the release of four recordings on First Warning Records/Rykodisc and a tour that included the United States. Stanley Beckford and Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band also revived rural mento in the 2000s.
In 2006 dubstep producer Skream released a mento inspired track with the title ‘Check-It’.
Vintage Mento on CD
Jamaica – Mento 1951-1958 (Frémeaux et Associés)
Mento Madness : Motta’s Jamaican Mento 1951-56 (V2)
Boogu Yagga Gal: Jamaican Mento 1950s (Heritage)
Take Me to Jamaica: Story of Jamaican Mento (Pressure Sounds)
1984 – Caribbean Crucible. From Repercussions: A Celebration of African-American Music series, program 6. Directed by Dennis Marks and Geoffrey Haydon.
Johnston, Richard (2004). How to Play Rhythm Guitar, p.72. ISBN 0-87930-811-7.
“Frémeaux & Associés éditeur , La Librairie Sonore”. Fremeaux.com. 1932-06-19. Retrieved 2012-07-24.
Michael Garnice (11 March 2012). “Mento Music Lord Flea”. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
“Mento: Reggae’s Forgotten Past | Clash Music Exclusive Interview”. Clashmusic.com