Mento v calypso
The Mighty Beestons Mento Band

As we get older the joy of Christmas dissipates and no longer holds the pride of place that it did when we were young.

As a tot my grandfather's farm workers would gather in the evenings, drinking white rum and singing work songs. It was noticeable that they didn't perform Christmas carols or radio songs. Instead, it was all made-up music using oil pans, buckets, farm implements, a harmonica, a tambourines. One had a beaten-up banjo, while another provided a bass sound with his booming voice.

Even the children were allowed to participate. So I would sit studiously on my tree stump chair and knock on my enamel cup with a spoon. Then, as the "whites" flowed, the women and men would begin dancing, each in their own suggestive way. The onlookers hooted and cheered, especially when a dancer made certain "exotic" move.

The children noticed the songs sung were the same as those the workers sang when labouring in the fields. We knew most of them, so we were able to participate. However, sometimes they would stop in the middle of a song and move on to another. We found out later that some songs were sexually explicit and, therefore, inappropriate for kids. But we "youngins" so wanted to hear those songs.

I asked my grandfather why the workers didn't sing carols. He explained that as the Christmas holiday approached, it was customary at the end of the work day to gather, sing work songs, eat food, drink a whites, and dance. Then they would sing carols at home, in the village square, or in the church. I asked him about the makeshift music, and he proudly proclaimed that the songs were a carry-over from our days on the plantation. According to him, these were the songs of our journey.

He then looked at me seriously and said, "We call this music mento, and it is one of the founding pillars of our music culture."

So fast-forward to Christmas 2022, and here I am in Washington, DC, in a heated discussion with some of my Trinidadian friends. They rudely suggested that my treasured mento is a knock-off of calypso. So let me try to set the record straight.

Mento and calypso are two genres that represent the early Caribbean musical styles of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. These musical genres emanated and flourished in the Caribbean during and after slavery. However, there has been much discussion regarding their similarities and differences. The false consensus is that mento is a derivative of calypso. However, this conflation of the two is open to much debate. After all, mento is said to have pre-dated calypso.

We need to define mento and calypso and review their origins, similarities, and differences. We can then decide if mento is a sub-genre of calypso or an unmistakably separate musical genre. To understand the evolution of Caribbean music, one must appreciate the individuality of the different music forms that developed in the region.

Our transplanted foreparents brought the music of their homelands to the New World. The clash of cultures would result in the fusion of African music with that of indigenous peoples and Europeans. These musical styles were gradually developed and fine-tuned with the introduction of European musical instruments, arrangements, and compositions. The music now conformed to chords, notes, verses, choruses, and harmonies, as per European musical styles.

This was the environment in which Caribbean music developed. However, each Caribbean country developed its own musical genres, each one being influenced by the others. This resulted in similarities in the musical styles across the region. The music developed in the early years were mento in Jamaica, Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago, and mambo in Cuba, just to mention a few.

Though they were different, the outside world classified all these styles as island music.

So what is this calypso music genre?

Calypso was a type of folk music that originated among the slaves and emancipated people of the English colony of Trinidad and Tobago. It is related to the kaiso music of West Africa, infused with European influences. Explanations for the origin of the name calypso is quite varied as per kaiso (African), calliso (Spanish), carrousseaux (French), and carieto (Carib). One theory is that Spanish music from Cuba and Venezuela influenced the early calypso genre. This Spanish input resulted in early calypso pieces being primarily Latin-flavoured jazz-based instrumentals.

Another theory is that calypso originated in medieval France as a musical form. Calypso plays an integral part in Trinidad and Tobago's carnival celebrations, again said to be adopted from French festivities. In fact, early calypso pieces were sung in creole French. Calypso also contained the traditional African artistic storytelling style, social discourse, and call-and-response singing. Unlike Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago's colonial status changed ownership among the Spanish, French, and English. The influences from these countries added to that country's cultural diversity and influenced the development of its music.

Calypso was the first Afro-Caribbean music to make an impression in North America and reach a substantive audience. Calypso recordings were done in New York as early as 1912. By the 1920s-30s, Trinidad and Tobago's musical ambassadors were performing in the USA. This exposure gave the genre a jump-start over other genres from the English-speaking Caribbean.

Calypso gradually spread to the other islands, gaining a toehold mainly in the Eastern Caribbean. Eventually, the genre washed up on the shores of Jamaica, where it was embraced by the country's elite. To them, calypso had a feel of international pedigree and was more sophisticated than Jamaica's home-grown mento.

Well then, what about this mento?

Mento is a type of Jamaican folk music practised during and after slavery. This music, as with calypso, was a fusion of the musical styles of African and European cultures. Mento's non-African influence came primarily from the English, but there are possible indications of Spanish input. One theory is that 'mento' is a Spanish word, meaning 'I/he/she/you mentioned', and the musical style came to Jamaica via Cuba. Such a theory is not improbable as the two neighbouring islands share evidence of multiple cross-culturalisation.

Early mento, again, as with Calypso, was mainly instrumental, with a gradual transition to the inclusion of vocals. The music was a product of the primarily rural agricultural society and a part of the planting and reaping culture of emancipated Jamaicans. This music blended English folk songs with the rudiments of African musical traditions. Mento's instrumentation was mainly home-made, consisting of shakers, gourds, graters, flutes, hand drums, fiddles, banjos, and a signature bass box called the rhumba.

Mento surfaced as an original Jamaican genre in the 1920s and achieved its golden age during the 1940s, right up to the country's attainment of Independence. Unfortunately, many 'biting' mento lyrics were initially viewed as unsuitable and censored for political and social reasons. However, the genre thrived underground for many of its formative years. Later in the genre's glory days, it was commonplace for mento bands to provide entertainment at various functions.

Mento was also important to Jamaica's music as the genre was the first to be recorded. As a result, mento is said to have kick-started a music industry that is now one of the powerhouses of global entertainment. Although the so-called father of Jamaican music, mento itself never achieved deserving international status. However, it is still alive and appreciated in niche markets. Recent attempts to revive the genre through the Jolly Boys did give mento a temporary lifeline but it needed more continuity.

So what is this, mento-calypso conflation or confusion?

Most musicologists agree that mento and calypso are two different genres. All have agreed that mento is authentically Jamaican. However, mento has suffered the ignominy of being called names like mento calypso, kalypso, and calypso itself. So it seems mento was considered to be sub-genre of calypso. This, even though the most successful island song to this day is a mento rendition, not calypso. More on that.

So what has caused the conflation of these two distinct genres?

The real issue is more about the similarities of both genres and less about the differences. So what are these similarities that are causing the conflation? First, mento and calypso are similarly rooted in African musical culture, which influenced oral/vocal expressions. Second, mento's vocal patterns are similar to calypso's, with the usual storytelling, social discourse, and call-and-response African traditions.

Both genres developed from the fusion of African and European music, except that mento did not have the French influences that calypso did. Also, they were both considered folk music of their respective countries and were played with rudimentary instruments. The Jamaicans mastered the rhumba box, while the Trinidadians introduced the Latin-influenced horn section and developed the steel pan.

Nevertheless, the two genres, given the above-mentioned similarities, can easily be confused.

The differences between the two are subtle. Mento has a more rural feel, and the musical instruments utilised give a distinct "rootsy" sound. Mento has a more acoustic sound with the rhumba box, banjo, and fiddle versus calypso's syncopated rhythms and song patterns. In the end, both genres fed off each other.

But what made the conflation favour calypso over mento?

As mentioned before, calypso was introduced to the North American market before other Caribbean music, so it stood out as the standard-bearer for island music, and other styles were considered mere sub-genres. To the North Americans, all music from the Caribbean was considered calypso. As a result, calypso as an international genre progressed while mento remained rural and subdued. This was especially evident with the introduction of vibrant horn sets in calypso.

Jamaican music producers were timid in the early days. They hesitated to invest in mento, which limited the audience reach of the genre. Meanwhile, some of these same producers were comfortable producing calypso songs because of their international. This environment delayed mento's progress, and the genre continued to be seen as just another calypso style.

However, in retrospect, the most tremendous disservice done to mento was by singer and actor Harry Belafonte. Even though it was chock full of mento songs, he named his debut album Calypso. And the album was the first to sell one million units in the USA. In addition, the album's signature mento hit, Day-O, became the most famous folk song from the islands. One wonders what would have happened if Belafonte had called the album Mento.

With Belafonte's success, calypso ruled the Caribbean music roost. Soon hotels were demanding entertainers perform calypso instead of mento. Entertainers who couldn't conform were out of a job. According to the famous mento balladeer Lord Flea, "If the tourist dem waan calypso, mi wi gi dem calypso." That said, Lord Flea and his mento ensemble seamlessly transitioned to calypso.

The circle of conflation was complete.

So mento got a lousy deal. But that's the way it goes in this music business. Also, we forgive Belafonte; after all, his efforts were a plus to Jamaican and Caribbean culture. Additionally, he remains an honorary ambassador of our African diaspora.

By the way, as a child, I loved the calypso-type music of the Merry Men. I was especially drawn to the song where the girlfriend of the singer promised to give him some "ting ting ting".

As for the mento-calypso conflation, old-time Jamaican people would say, "Wha gwaan bad a morning, cyaan come good a evelin".

Rohan M Budhai is a tax consultant, writer, and history enthusiast. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

The rhumba box was created specifically for mento,while the steel pan was designed for calypso. online
Harry Belafonte (left) and Lord Flee
Rohan Budhaionline
Rohan Budhai

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