Reggae Music’s Illustrious Ancestors – Mento, Ska & Rocksteady

Mento 

Jamaica’s original rural folk music, called mento, is the grandfather of reggae music and had significant influences on the formation of that genre. Jamaica’s “country music” was inspired by African and European music as well as by American jazz and featured acoustic guitars, banjos, bamboo saxes, hand drums and marimbula (large thumb pianos) also called rhumba boxes, which were large enough to sit on and play. There were also a variety of hand percussion instruments like maracas. Mento’s vocals had a distinctly African sound and the lyrics were almost always humorous and happy. Everywhere people gathered you could find a mento band and there were many mento and calypso competitions throughout the island. Mento also gave birth to Jamaica’s recording industry in the 1950s when it first became available on 78 RPM records. Mento is still around today.

Before World War II, calypso from Trinidad and Tobago had made its way into Jamaica’s music and, although quite different, the two were often confused. Jamaica’s own calypso artists performed alongside its mento artists throughout the island, for locals and tourists alike. A calypso craze swept the U.S. and U.K. in the late 1950s as Harry Belafonte came onto the scene. Many of his songs were actually mento but they were more often described as calypso. 

After the war, transistor radios and jukeboxes had become widely available and Jamaicans were able to hear music from the southern U.S., particularly jazz and rhythm and blues from some of the greats like Fats Domino and Jelly Roll Morton, and records flooded into the island. 

And then, in the early 1960s, came American R&B. With a faster and far more danceable tempo, the genre caught on quickly in Jamaica. Attempting to copy this sound with local artists, Jamaicans added their own unique twists, blending in elements of their Caribbean heritage, fusing it with mento and calypso and jazz, to create a unique genre heavily driven by drums and bass and accented with rhythms on the off-beat, or the “upstroke”.  This purely Jamaican genre dominated the Jamaican music scene at the time and was known as … ska

Ska 

Coinciding with the festive mood in the air when Jamaica won its independence from the U.K. in 1962, ska had a type of 12-bar rhythm and blues framework; the guitar accented the second and fourth beats in the bar, essentially flipping the R&B shuffle beat, and gave rise to this new sound. 

Because Jamaica didn’t ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works until 1994, Jamaican musicians often created instrumental ska versions of songs by popular American and British artists; copyright infringement was not an issue! The Skatalites re-made Motown hits, surf music and even the Beatles in their own style. The Wailers’ first single Simmer Down was a ska smash in Jamaica in late 1963/early 1964 but they also covered And I Love Her by the Beatles and Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

Although the sound system concept had taken root in Jamaica in the mid 1950s, ska led to its explosion in popularity and it became a major, uniquely Jamaican, industry that continues to thrive today. Enterprising DJs with U.S. sources for the latest records would load up pickup trucks with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers, and drive around the island blaring out the latest hits. Essentially these sound systems were like loud mobile discos! DJs charged admission and sold food and alcohol, enabling them to profit in Jamaican’s unstable economy. Thousands would sometimes gather and sound systems became big business. Amidst fierce competition, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid surfaced as two of the star DJs of the day. Reliant on a steady source of new music, these two superstars began to produce their own records, ultimately becoming Studio One (Dodd) and Treasure Isle (Reid). 

Other important ska producers were Prince Buster, whose Blue Beat label records inspired many Jamaican ska (and later reggae) artists, and Edward Seaga, who owned and operated the West Indies Records Limited (WIRL) in the 1960s but went on to become Prime Minister of Jamaica and leader of the Jamaican Labour Party in the 1980s.

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