Mento vs calypso

Rohan Budhai (Jamaica Observer) explores the mento and calypso of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

[. . .] 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 workday 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.

[. . .] 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. [. . .] 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. [. . .]

[. . .] 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. [. . .]

For full article, see https://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/mento-v-calypso

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