Wed | Jan 16, 2019

Celebration of Jamaica's heritage

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Music is an integral part of Jamaica's cultural fabric. the influence of numerous cultures has been evident in the instruments that have been used over the decades to produce various genres of music. The benta is one such musical instrument, and is believed to have origins in the Congo.

It is made of bamboo with a gourd (calabash) resonator, and is the principal instrument at a Dinki Mini or death observance in the parish of St Mary. According to musician Marjorie Whylie, the benta is a glossed instrument (an instrument that can be played from one pitch to another) and is related to other instruments in the region such as the berimbau of Brazil.

Maureen Warner Lewis explains that to make the benta, a long piece of bamboo is cut while still green and pliable.

A piece of the bamboo's unripened skin is separated carefully with a sharp knife to produce a ribbon of one inch in width for an unbroken length of four feet. This ribbon or string remains attached at each end of the bamboo, and several rounds of strong twine are tied around each end to prevent further splitting.

Two wooden bridges are wedged underneath the fibre string to tighten it and raise it from the bamboo. The instrument is left to dry. The benta's noter, also referred to as a slider, is prepared from a round, dry gourd (calabash) whose contents have been emptied through a small hole bored in one end. This hole also serves as a finger-hold, the player inserting one or more digits inside it to facilitate greater control during performance.




According to Olive Lewin, when the benta is being played, it is laid horizontally with two players, one at each end of the instrument. One player slides the dried-gourd resonator along the string to produce a heavy, low, and twanging note on the first and third beats of each bar, while a player at the opposite end uses two slender bamboo sticks to play an ostinato rhythm on the string.

The National Dance Theatre Company has choreographed and performs a dance called Gerrehbenta, which takes its name from two of the ancient rites still practised in Jamaica: the gerreh, from Hanover and Westmoreland and the dinkimini which originated in St Mary and utilises the benta.The dance evokes ancestral spirits usually associated with wakes, known as 'deadyard' ceremonies. The dance also includes the character Horsehead, from jonkonnu, as a symbol of fertility, as well as the Yoruba shawling dance known as etu.

Today, the benta is used almost exclusively to accompany songs at dinki mini ceremonies in the eastern parishes of St Mary and Portland. these take place in the nights following the death of someone in the community.

- Information complied by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica