FROM the latter part of the 19th century throughout the first 50 years of the 20th, Jamaican mento was the popular indigenous music played live at events in Jamaica. It had gestated as a mix of African and European music, mostly played by indigenous instruments and banjos. Evolving over 100 years or more, simultaneously with Jamaicans dispersing throughout Central, South and North Americas, it cross-fertilised and diffused into other music idioms. Mainly for international marketing purposes, it was often confused with, or deliberately labelled as calypso, as all Caribbean music was then labelled.
During the heyday of the plantation era, when many estates across the region were owned and managed by a network of interrelated families, skilled Jamaican musicians were in great demand and were, therefore, transported around the continent for special occasions. Furthermore, there were several large migration waves of skilled labour, in pursuit of economic opportunities, during the establishment of Metropolitan New York City, the South American gold rush, the sugar and tobacco booms in Cuba, expansion of the banana plantations into Central American territories and the building of the Panama Canal. As a consequence, segments of the Jamaican population, including skilled musicians, settled in places like Panama, Nicaragua, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Cuba, as well as New York, in the north, and in the southern plantation belt of the USA.
At the dawn of the 1950s, first Ken Khouri, followed soon by Stanley Motta, acquired disc-cutters and established recording studios for "high-quality recordings of voice and music", aimed primarily at Jamaicans in the diaspora, the tourist market, night-clubs and dancehalls which were beginning to mushroom across Jamaica.
In 1955, Jamaica began pressing its own mento records. Of historical significance is the fact that, like dancehall music today, many of the initial releases were risqué. Local opinion makers reacted adversely and this eventually led to the adoption of what some termed the "calypso morality code" in 1956. This restriction played a part in mento's demise and fortuitously, the beginning of ska's evolution and rise to prominence — outside the mainstream — which began circa 1958.
By then, live music as a form of social entertainment, had given way to sound systems and our now famous dancehall culture was already born. This movement initially thrived on competition between producers such as Clement 'Coxson' Dodd, Duke Reid, King Edwards and Prince Buster. This was followed in the mid-70s to mid-80s by competition between Dodd's Studio One and Channel One recording studio owned by the Hoo Kim brothers and driven by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The latter were largely responsible for the rise of the Rockers sound. With Jamaica hosting more bars per square mile than any other nation on earth, and the jukebox being a primary feature of these establishments, this complemented and facilitated the flowering of the new musical genre. Add to this mix, the introduction of the role of the disc jockey/DJ, led firstly by Winston 'Count Machuki' Cooper, live in the dancehall, followed by King Stitt and U-Roy live and on tracks as well, by the 60s Jamaica's indigenous music industry had taken firm roots, coalesced around the sound system and the dancehall as its base and main propeller.
Jamaica is unique in this aspect of its post-colonial social transformation, as we attained mass cultural liberation, in a real sense, before achieving our political independence in 1962.