Vintage Voices | Jamaica’s musical journey
Jamaica has given the world six major genres of music: mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall. That is nothing short of amazing when one considers the island’s geographical size and population. Most countries of comparable size in the Caribbean boast, at most, three outstanding genres: Trinidad has calypso; the Dominican Republic has merengue; Cuba has cha-cha; and Panama has the mambo.
But somehow in the scheme of things, mento, Jamaica’s most indigenous and earliest commercially recorded music, seems to have been sidelined. Yet mento’s influence was crucial to the development of succeeding genres, especially ska and early reggae.
Herbie Miller, director and curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, and who has done intensive research on mento, believes that the importance of mento to Jamaican popular music is no less than the importance of the American blues and traditional recordings to American music. He also believes that mento has true African roots. “Folk music, like mento in the black diaspora, retains more of the African elements that over the succeeding decades, have morphed into an art form that is indelibly entrenched in our culture. Its retention from the plantation system has reformed all other forms of Jamaican popular music,” he told me in a recent interview.
Ska, chronologically the next major genre to follow mento, did not come close on the heels of mento because there was an interim period that showcased a clutch of Jamaican Rhythm and Blues and Boogie-sounding recordings that dominated Jamaican dance halls at the end of the ’50s. Recordings like Laurel Aitken’s Boogie In My Bones and Little Sheila, along with Higgs and Wilson’s Mannie Oh and How Can I Be Sure fell among that lot. When ska became full blown by early 1962, it quickly became the heartbeat of the nation, with several ska practitioners laying claim to starting the genre, but undocumented evidence proved a hindrance in determining the true owner.
Dance halls suddenly became the happy hunting ground for ska singers and musicians while the sound systems were an ever-present fixture. And speaking of dancehall, it is worth mentioning that the name has been in the music business from as far back as the late ’50s when it referred to a physical space. Today, it refers to a musical genre. James Howard (Jimmy Solo), operator of Shanghi Solophonic Disco, and a man who was close to the action and one of the most knowledgeable on the topic, sought to split the difference as I spoke to him from his famed ‘Jazz Hut’ on Charles Street in downtown Kingston. “There’s hardly any comparison. Early dancehall had good lyrics, melody, and dance, with the dancers facing each other, unlike today, when they are dancing back to back. In addition, the horns that usually make the music rich are missing from current dancehall music,” he said.
The rocksteady beat, which is widely accepted as a slowed-down version of ska, had many so-called inventors. Guitarist Lyn Taitt claimed that he started it. “Hopeton Lewis came to Federal Recording Studios with a song called Take It Easy in late ’66. I find that ska was too fast, so I told them, ‘Let’s do this one slow,’ and as the music got slower, it had more spaces to do something with. That was the first slow song.” The other recordings that laid a strong claim as the first to grace the genre were Alton Ellis’ Girl I’ve Got A Date, Derrick Morgan’s Rudie Don’t Fear , and the Uniques’ People’s Rock Steady.
Dub music was greatly facilitated by the mixing out of some instruments in various rocksteady recordings, leaving the drum and the bass. It created the perfect platform for jive-talking deejays like U-Roy, Alcapone, and I-Roy to ride on to glory in the ’70s.
Reggae, the most popular of all the genres, still reigns today, along with dancehall, as Jamaica’s current popular music. Kevin O’Brien Chang and Wayne Chen were right when they expounded in their book Reggae Routes: “Reggae is one of the world’s few living folk music. It remains a genuinely popular sound spontaneously generated by a people’s experiences, emotions, and traditions.”