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.
One of the first forms of music created in Jamaica was called mento. Mento songs originated in the rural areas of the island, through the use of the acoustic guitar, banjo, flutes, homemade bamboo saxophones, clarinets, and a rumba box. Percussion was important to this style of music as well, though actual drums were rarely used. 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 on Trinidad. Another style of music that originated on Trinidad, but is popular in Jamaica is steel pan.
Music has also historically been performed for work and entertainment. Work songs are an aspect of the tradition rooted in the culture of slavery, when songs were used to pass messages and gossip, though they also helped ease the work of the slaves. Songs of this type followed a traditional African call and response format. However, games are also sung, and children often gather in circles to sing and clap. Games are generally very physically demanding, so there are rarely instruments in these songs.
Religious music has been influenced by the various smaller religions popular on the island, most commonly Kumina, Pocomania, and Rastafari. These songs are generally accompanied by drumming and chanting. Songs can also include singing and other musical instruments. They are generally performed at all-night vigils and services.
As jazz and blues music from the United States began to be broadcast on Jamaican radio stations in the 1950s, some mento musicians branched off into the creation of a new style of music: ska. Local artists combined elements of the three 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. When the political climate in Jamaica took a turn for the worse, upbeat songs were not as desirable, and ska evolved into rocksteady, a genre of music with many of the same elements, but with a slower tempo and with the introduction to electric instruments. Classical music also has a small audience among some of the islanders.
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.
There are numerous ways to hear Jamaican music first hand during your vacation to the island. Local musicians often put on performances at open air markets, or are hired by resorts to perform for guests. There are also several festivals each year that celebrate various genres of island music. Heineken Startime showcases performers in a variety of genres, the Reggae Sumfest offers a full week of different reggae concerts each day, and the Rebel Salute Music Festival celebrates traditional folk music.
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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