Guide to Jamaican Music Culture

Negril, Jamaica, ©dubdem sound system/Flickr

Negril, Jamaica, ©dubdem sound system/Flickr

The music of Jamaica follows the history of the island; as major changes occurred socially and politically, new genres of music were created as a means for islanders to make their voices heard. To really make the most of your Jamaican vacation, try and attend an event where live music will be performed.

Jamaica‘s music culture is a fusion of elements from the United States (rhythm and blues and soul), Africa, and neighboring Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Tobago.  Jamaican music‘s influence on music styles in other countries includes the practice of toasting, which was brought to New York City and evolved into rapping. British genres as Lovers rock and jungle music are also influenced by Jamaican music.

Early History of Jamaican Music

One of the first forms of music created in Jamaica was called mento. People in the rural areas started to play on acoustic guitars, banjos and also flutes and saxophones, clarinets made by themselves, therefore mento songs can be originated from these areas. Because the lack of original drums, percussion became an important part of this music style.

Mento music, ©Robert Bejil Photography/Flickr

Mento music, ©Robert Bejil Photography/Flickr

Instead, islanders would bang out beats on whatever they could get their hands on.  The instruments used, and the slow, country-music style has often allowed mento music to be easily confused with calypso, though they are two distinct styles, and calypso originated in Trinidad.  Another style of music that originated in Trinidad, but is popular in Jamaica is steel pan.

Appearance of Jazz Music

Because the lack of original drums, percussion became an important part of this music style. In the 1950s the United States started to broadcast jazz and blues on the radio stations and mento musicians invented a new style of music, named ska. Regional artists started to combine elements of the three different styles and in a stroke of genius began placing emphasis on the afterbeat, rather than the downbeat.  Horns and bass guitar dominated these fast paced, upbeat songs.

Jazz Jamaica, ©SteveR-/Flickr

Jazz Jamaica, ©SteveR-/Flickr

From Mento to Reggae

Still, the music of Jamaica continued to evolve, and the worsening political and social climate of the island aided in the development of reggae.  The 1960s disenfranchised youth of the island (many of which were Rastafarians) needed a way to voice their frustrations with the direction their country was going, and reggae music was it.  Reggae is the musical decedent of mento, ska, and rocksteady, but the genre focuses on creating more meaningful lyrics and speaking out about what is important to the people of Jamaica.

Negril, Jamaica, ©dubdem sound system/Flickr

Negril, Jamaica, ©dubdem sound system/Flickr

Music is many things to the people of Jamaica: a form of entertainment, a release, an important part of their heritage, and a way to express themselves.  To truly get a feel for the people of the island and what is meaningful to them, listen to the music, and if you can, attend a live performance.  Listening to live music in Jamaica is sure to be a memory you’ll keep of your vacation for years to come.

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