mento jamaica
Mento at the Half Moon resort in Jamaica.
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Exploring Mento, the Jamaican Folk Music That Helped Give Birth to Reggae

By: Bob Curley - June 7, 2024

Nearly everyone who travels to Jamaica has heard of Bob Marley and reggae music, but far fewer know about mento, the traditional folk music of rural Jamaica which has lyrics focused on everyday country life (not unlike traditional American country music) and is played on acoustic guitars, banjos, hand drums, and a rhumba box, a bass instrument with roots in African music.

Yet it’s likely that you’ve heard some mento songs in your lifetime — it’s just that they were probably branded as calypso, instead. Jamaican-American musical legend Harry Belafonte was crowned the King of Calypso in the 1950s, but many of his most famous songs, like The Banana Boat Song, (Day-O), were remakes of classic mento tunes.

“A lot of Americans, by way of Belafonte, know these mento songs,” says Mike Garnice, author of The Ultimate Guide to Great Reggae and administrator of the website mentomusic.com.

The blurring of the lines between mento and calypso are understandable, says Billboard music writer Pat Meschino, because calypso music from Trinidad and Tobago was some of the earliest Caribbean music recorded and distributed via records and radio in the early 20th century.

“That probably really influenced folk music in Jamaica,” she said. Even Lord Fly, one of the earliest mento musicians along with Count Lasher, Lord Tanamo, and Lord Lebbe, was called a “calypso star.”

While calypso music became a global musical sensation, mento remained popular in rural Jamaica, providing some of the musical influences (along with ska and rocksteady) of roots reggae, which in turn has given birth to dancehall, reggaeton, and other more modern offshoots.

The origins of the name mento are unclear, although it may come from pimento (a spicy pepper native to Jamaica) or even from one of the livelier sections of Quadrille, a form of European square dancing that was taught to enslaved people in Jamaica according to Garnice.

“Mento is country music, not only because of the instruments used but as an expression of rural people,” said Meschino. “So much of reggae is about connecting with your roots, and mento is really local stories about local people celebrating their day-to-day lives. Mento was part of the foundation of the recording industry in Jamaica and contributed to once of the greatest musical forms we have, which is reggae.”

“People talk about reggae being the roots — mento is the seed. It’s really the beginning of indigenous Jamaican music,” says Garnice, who said mento can be considered a form of ‘acoustic reggae.’

Penny Reel, an early ska song by Eric Morris, was also a cover of a vintage “call and response” mento song, and Garnice, says there are “hundreds of reggae songs that are covers of mento songs” or feature mento influences — even some recorded in the 2000s, like the raunchy Bleach Pon It by Tanya Stevens.

The various forms of reggae dominate the airwaves and club playlists in Jamaica, but it’s still possible to hear mento played — sometimes by bands whose members have been playing mento for a half-century or more. A trip to Cockpit Country or other parts of rural Jamaica could include a stop at a local bar with a mento band, and mento is still traditionally played at funerals in the Jamaican countryside.

But perhaps the easiest way to enjoy the sounds of mento is, perhaps ironically, at a Jamaican hotel or resort, where bands like the Jolly Boys still perform for island visitors.

Easygoing, accessible and with no requirement for electricity or amplification, mento is a good fit for a resort setting, said Garnice. 

Mento bands play regularly at the hotel bar at the Half Moon resort in Montego Bay, among others; the GeeJam Hotel in Port Antonio is well-known for its support of mento and music and musicians in general. You also may find mento bands playing their laid-back folk music at Sandals and Couples all-inclusive resorts.

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