Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Mento, merengue, formed Caribbean's indigenous sound

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Ralph Lindsay, lead vocalist of Energy Plus Mento Band in performance.
Members of the Joy Makers Mento Band performing at Walkerswood Pepper Farm in July 2006.

'Soca greats spring from calypso roots' ran the headline of last week's Music Diaries. But calypso roots, or calypso in its embryonic stages, had numerous subgenres resembling calypso, that sprung up in the Caribbean islands shortly after the emancipation of slaves, although there is evidence that the artform had been around before. Many historians claim that the 'real' calypso is that which was birthed on the island of Trinidad during the formative years of the colony.

The calypso of Trinidad can be traced back to the West African 'kaiso' (type of music) and the arrival of French planters and slaves from the French Antilles in the 17th century. They brought with them a music that they first called 'caiso' - a music with a strong syncopation in its rhythmic beat, and a lyrical tendency to satirise and extemporise on almost every conceivable subject. Other subgenres of calypso, or music resembling calypso that emerged at the time included 'shanto' in British Guiana (now Guyana), 'plena' in Puerto Rico, and 'the merengue' in the Dominican Republic. Many, however, seemed to have distorted and confused these seemingly folk-oriented music styles with calypso music, and have labelled them under that banner.

Jamaica, too, had its own indigenous, calypso-sounding music, called 'mento', which, along with the Dominican Republic's merengue, was very popular in Jamaica during the 1950s and early 1960s. Originally a country folk dance, merengue, which is probably several hundred years old, proved most adaptable to the rapidly changing circumstances and environment of the Dominican Republic, and like mento, it was most expressive of the mood of the people.

The Dominican Republic, which occupies approximately two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, has a rich tradition in music, which saw a huge portion of the music of Spain finding its way on to the island. After an extended period of colonial unrest and the vacillation of ownership of the island to Spain and France, the long residence of the Spanish conquistadors in the country - and the Caribbean at large - left the mark of their homeland, where people sing and dance and where musical expression is part of their way of life.




Meanwhile, the need for cheap labour, mainly for the cultivation and reaping of sugar cane, resulted in the importation of African slaves to the West Indies. Soon, the music and dance of the Spanish colonists were influenced by the rhythms that were a part of African ritual. The marriage of Spanish music and African rhythms was consummated and gave birth to an entirely new form of music and dance called merengue.

Over the years, merengue has grown tremendously popular, to the extent that it has become the national music and dance of the Dominican Republic. With its irresistible, catchy tempo, which intrigues musicians and dancers, it has spread to several countries of Latin America.

Apparently copied from the Dominican Republic, there exists in some countries 'merengues' of various types, but none bears the characteristic trademark of the DomRep's 'lame duck step', performed with a limping motion always to the same side.

Merengue has earned pride of place as a folk dance of the common people, which rose to the society level, rather than a dance that originated on the society ballroom floor and filtered down to the common man. Both the music and dance which have grown and developed with the nation itself are regarded with pride of national ownership as an indigenous product.




Jamaica's mento, or what is sometimes called mento calypso, perhaps occupies a similar position to that of merengue in the Dominican Republic. The genre holds pride of place as being Jamaica's most indigenous popular music, having had its roots in the slave plantation system of the island. Yet, unlike the merengue, it has not been given the same kind of recognition which it duly deserves, perhaps because of the huge shadow that reggae music has cast on every other genre of music that came in its wake.

And although Jamaica's reggae music has placed the island on the international map, a tourist or visitor's first experience of Jamaican music would most likely be mento, performed by a 'live' mento band, either at the airport, on a cruise ship in the harbour, at their hotel's pool or bar or at one of the government-sponsored festivals around the island. Somehow, a mento band seems to have a special arrival-appeal to visitors. Perhaps the intrigue of witnessing sweet rhythmic music played with primitive-looking instruments was particularly satisfying. Using home-made drums, a rhumba box as a bass, bamboo flutes, fiddles and fifes, a horse or donkey jawbone, a cow horn, and a spoon or fork drawn against a grater, the earliest of mento players/singers created an orchestra of sounds that was truly amazing. As the years rolled by, the instruments of mento musicians were gradually upgraded to include more modern-looking ones.

Whereas the Spanish had a profound influence on merengue music, the English input was evident in mento. The European dance rhythm, the quadrille, which arrived with the slave owners, were interwoven with African rhythms to create a sound that became uniquely Jamaican. By the early 1950s, mento music, which was distinctly different in beat to other forms of calypso, became the first popular Jamaican music to be commercially recorded. And while we are on the topic of the 'beat' of the music, the question arises as to whether or not mento had any influence on the genres that followed.

In an interview I had with former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, a musicologist who had done extensive work in early Jamaican folk music, he said, "It's quite different, but there are certain mento pieces that have traversed into the modern period, like Rucumbine and River to the bank. Whereas mento had rhythm, the music we developed from the American boogie had beat. It's a deeper thing, deeper by way of extension," he said.

My opinion is that mento stands alone as a musical entity. Boogie and ska that followed were deeply rooted in the American R&B, with rocksteady being the offspring of ska, and reggae the offspring of rocksteady.