For many years the small Caribbean island, Jamaica, has held worldwide popularity and visibility for several reasons. When persons hear of Jamaica the thoughts evoked may range from: sunshine, lovely beaches, great vacation spots (“no problem mon”), fun and frolic, track and field, football, cricket and music to lottery scamming, murder rate and motor vehicle accident fatalities. While the island has always been famous for its perpetual sunshine and beautiful, white sand beaches which is loved by our visitors, `Jamaica’ has, over time, become synonymous with `reggae music’ and `Bob Marley’.
While travelling to other parts of the world even as far away as Japan or countries on the continent of Africa, Jamaicans have had the distinct pleasure of observing the pleasant transformation in the countenances of people they meet as soon as they learn of our nationality. Quite often, the response is some variation of: “I love Jamaican music!” or “I love reggae music!” or “I love Bob Marley!” It is sometimes not difficult to tell that these words form a part of a very sparse English vocabulary for some of these persons.
It has always been a pleasure to look out the windows of my office and see the tour buses depositing tourists at the Bob Marley Museum on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city. The visitors are always excitedly snapping away on their cameras, or filming from various electronic devices as though they wanted to return home with every ounce of everything relating to Bob Marley. Every year on Bob’s birthday there is tremendous increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic on Hope Road as people visit the museum to view the displays and partake in the celebrations commemorating the birth of this musical icon. It is a fact that through Bob Marley, reggae music became a worldwide phenomenon and has played a great role in “placing Jamaica on the world map” as is often heard.
Jamaican music, however, did not begin with Bob Marley whose musical career skyrocketed in the 1970s, neither did it begin with reggae. What happened before and what has happened since then?
Where does the genesis of Jamaican music lie? Much of our customs as well as our culture have been designed and shaped by slavery and the experience of our forefathers on the sugar plantations. During the 18th century, when the slave population grew rapidly, the slaves who were mainly from West Africa, kept their customs and culture alive by practising what they had been accustomed to in their motherland. This includes music which emerged from the singing which often accompanied the work on the plantations and also during rituals or to express fear, sorrow, joy or other emotions. Our industrious forerunners created instruments from material available such as bamboo, conch, wood, animal skin and calabash. The music evolved into other forms as the years wore on.
Fast forward to the 20th century, about the year 1940. Jamaicans became exposed to American jazz music on the airwaves. This gave rise to the birth of local bands which played to entertain tourists. This includes a music form known as mento. Mento music told stories, folk tales, happenings of everyday life and is often referred to as the “Jamaican calypso”. This form of music is still being used to entertain visitors to the island, as the Jamaica Tourist Board and some hotels employ mento bands to give tourists and locals alike, a taste of “old time” Jamaican music. Singing is usually accompanied by instruments such as shakers (made from gourd), a rumba box, trumpet and stringed instruments among others. Some popular mento bands are The Jolly Boys and Blue Glaze Mento Band.
By Sheryl Ellis
Sheryl Ellis has a passion for writing, proofreading and business. Her professional experience has spanned the banking, industrial security and public sectors where she served for over 20 years.