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From Mento to Dancehall Jamaican Music in Retrospect

Jamaican music is as colourful as its people, as the rhythmic beats mimic the warmth and beauty of the island. Music has always been a tool of communication in the Jamaican culture, as the art form often mimics the mood of the society, whether the nation is battling with issues of poverty, inferiority, disaster or celebrating some national achievement. With a history of European occupation and ownership, African enslavement and Asian indenture ship, Jamaican music will take a listener on an exciting journey that shows the assimilation of the different cultures in the island into one true blended artform.

In 1655, Jamaica an island that was discovered by the Christopher Columbus who claimed it for the Spanish fell into the hands of the English men, Robert Venables and William Penn, as the countries of Europe continued their mad hunt to claim as many colonies as they could in the newly discovered West Indies. The island became even more important to the English when the profitability of producing sugar in the West Indies was discovered, profits that led to the British Industrial Revolution that began shortly afterwards in the 18th century.

Sugar led to the Triangle Slave Trade, as European ships headed to the African Coast to collect their human cargo, after which they would travel with their captives between the dangerous and testing Middle Passage to the Caribbean where they would sell their precious commodity for sugar, molasses and rum, items that were produced exclusively on Caribbean plantations. These slaves went through the mandatory “seasoning” process where they educated to the culture of the plantations and given “British” names as the masters tried desperately to strip them of their African identity and make them into owned property. The Europeans however failed to strip these Africans totally of their culture, as the plantations often came alive with the “Burru” or the “talking drum” as they were called when they were used in arrangements.

These talking drums were used in the early Jonkunnu celebrations that were encouraged on the plantations, a celebration that combined African and European history, as slaves were given the opportunity to engage in drumming and use their conch horns and rattles. It was later discovered by the plantations ownerships that these drums were being used as a means of communication by the slave population, a discovery that was made far too late as it was already steeped in plantation history. These talking drums and simple musical tools and the satirical lyrics of slave songs formed the base of the first indigenous musical form to Jamaica, Mento.

Mento is simple music with humorous lyrics which is often played by a guitar, bango, tambourine, shaker, scraper and rumba or bass box. Mento’s popularity was heighten in the 1920’s and 1930’s, almost a century after the island abolished slavery and gained international attention to Jamaica’s musical culture aboard. With its close proximity to the United States, the Swing and Rhythm and Blues phenomenon that hit the US in the latter part of the 1930s to the 1940s was one that Jamaica did not escape. It became the catalyst for the birth of a new musical genre to the island, Ska.

The Rumba Box of Mento gave way to the big band sounds and horns of Ska, a musical art form that was so easy to move to that it created a form of dancing in the 1960s, as ‘skanking’ was popularized on the island. Star of Ska such as the Vikings, Carlos Malcolm and the Skalites were born as the dance craze that the genre brought introduced a new method of bringing music to people as mobile D.J.s known as “toasters” due to the fact that they would “talk” between the music emerged. The high tempo beats of Ska slowed downed in the 1960s as Jamaicans matured to a heavier base tune and the sounds of Rock Steady emerged.

Conceived by Leroy Sibbles and his singing group the Heptones, Rock Steady replaced Ska as the dance music of the 1960s. The term rocksteady came from a dance style that was mentioned in the Alton Ellis song "Rock Steady", and its first international hit was “Hold me Tight” which was performed by the American soul singer Johnny Nash, topping the Canadian charts weeks after it was released. The emigration to Canada of key musical arrangers Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt as well as other factors such as the upgrading of Jamaican studio technology led to the birth of Rock Steady’s younger superstar sibling ------Reggae.

With a perfect blend of stylistic elements such as  rhythm and blues (R&B), jazzmento,calypso, African, and Latin American music, as well as other genres, Reggae was born in the late 1960s. Earlier Reggae superstars were Prince BusterDesmond DekkerKen Boothe and Millie Small, however it was the Band, the Wailers which was later renamed Bob Marley and the Wailers that gave this musical genre the most international exposure. The tunes of Reggae were also being used in the island’s newest industry, film as the 1973 hit film “The Harder they Come’ starring Reggae Superstar Jimmy Cliff was laced with the sweet sounds of this new genre.

Reggae soon became a Universal language, putting Jamaica in the history books for its unique musical dynasties. With the association of the genre with Rastafarianism and the conversion of Reggae’s biggest superstars to Rastafari, the genre soon received divinity status. Reggae continues to be one of Jamaica’s premier export to the world, however the upheavals of the 1980s soon led to a new genre…..a genre that spoke of the happenings of the time as Reggae gave birth to Dancehall.

Dancehall, spoke a language that was starkly different from its predecessor. This new ‘dub” used a method that cut out the vocals that characterized Reggae songs, leaving a heavy bass and drum line that singers would dub over with their lyrics. Dancehall was brought to the club scene by its early stars such as U Roy, King Stitch, Big Youth, Yellowman and Shabba Ranks and it gained popularity at the same time as American Rap. Dancehall is often considered the music of the Jamaican youth and has constantly maintained its relevance since its arrival on the musical scene.

Jamaica is a small island, however its influence on world music cannot be downplayed. Our music has highlighted the expressive nature of the Jamaican people, something that is uniquely indigenous to us, as well as our ability to succeed in all area.