Calypso is the traditional music of Trinidad and Tobago – and is not as Jamaican as most people think. Musical trade throughout the region did, however, bring calypso from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. Jamaica's own local music from the countryside is called mento, but it is often referred to as calypso as well.
The confusion over these types of music is common. Those who know will tell you that Jamaican mento, the music of the island's rural areas, is the basis for all later Jamaican musical styles. Calypso was developed on the island of Trinidad from the music of slaves, and it is extremely important to modern celebrations of Carnival, even on Jamaica.
Traditional calypso has a slow tempo, which has been sped up in more modern recordings of soca and rapso music. One major component of calypso is picong, a lyrical style of insulting of others in a manner meant to be lighthearted and fun.
Lyrics are often political and have been known to inspire social changes on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. At carnival celebrations, there are even calypso tents where performers show off their skills. This musical style has, in many ways, become synonymous with the Caribbean.
Recordings of mento songs, particularly early mento songs, are extremely rare. This form of music was popular in the 1950s on Jamaica. The genre combined mainly European and African styles, but it was played in many different manners, without as many stylistic rules as are found in later types of Jamaican music.
Banjo, acoustic guitar, homemade bamboo saxophones, clarinets, or flutes, a variety of hand percussion, and a rumba box were the main instruments in mento (or country) music. The roots of reggae can be traced to this rural musical form, though ska and rocksteady also share roots in mento.
Eventually, the popularity of blues and other musical forms led to dropping the banjo from mento music, but the instrument was important in the earliest development of this genre. Another early characteristic of mento music was the use of makeshift percussion. A full drum set would not have been common in a rural Jamaican setting; so many items were used to create mento beats.
It was during this time that Trinidadian calypso's fame was growing internationally. This is the reason why mento is often confused with calypso music, as it was called "calypso," "kalypso," and even "mento calypso" by companies seeking to sell the music. Of course, Jamaica also had its own calypso recordings, done in the style of the Trinidadian calypso songs.
The calypso craze in the United States and Britain was spurred by calypso recordings by Harry Belafonte. What many don't realize is that many of his songs were Jamaican mento songs. These songs' popularity led the way for Jamaica's mento recordings to become popularized.
Still, in a few short years the calypso craze had died down, and the ska, rocksteady, and reggae songs of the 1960s had taken center stage in the Jamaican musical scene. Mento took a back seat to the genres it had influenced, but it would not be there long.
Reggae was the style that brought back mento. Mento-reggae, in fact, is a popular fusion genre that brought the sounds of Jamaica's countryside back into the spotlight. Surprisingly, it was largely international interest in mento – recordings were popular in Germany and Japan – that helped spur a renewal of interest in Jamaica.
So, whether it's called calypso or mento, Jamaica's earliest local music is still popular to this day. Although you may have to dig to find recordings, any reggae, ska, or rocksteady fan will immediately see the ties between these genres and their musical predecessor.
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