Jamaican Musical Instruments

The Jamaican people have a long musical tradition and there are a number of styles developed by different groups living on the island. Read on for more facts & information on Jamaican musical instruments…

Most of the musical instruments have their roots in African culture since about 90% of the island’s population are of African or mixed African descent. The most prominent groups of instruments are percussion and stringed. The guitar, banjo and drums are the primary instruments in Jamaican music.

Jamaican Mento Music

Jamaican mento was a musical style which developed during the 19th century. A mixture of African and European music, it was uniquely Jamaican. Mento uses primarily acoustic instruments including the banjo, guitar, hand drums, the bamboo sax and the rumba box. The rumba box is a native Jamaican percussion instrument and it provided most of the bass line for mento music. The Jamaican recording industry was born in the 1950s and 1960s and most of the early recordings were mento music. As time went on mento began to incorporate the sounds of American jazz and Pan Caribbean calypso music. While sometimes referred to as Jamaican calypso, mento music is the folk and country music of the island nation.

Jamaican Music Goes Mainstream with Reggae

Mento music is the grandaddy of reggae which became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The most well known reggae recording artist is probably Bob Marley, who died in 1981. Reggae developed in Rastafarian communities which held to the African culture.  However, reggae music shows clear influences from American R&B and Trinidadian calypso music. Its most characteristic quality is the beat with its accent on the 2nd and 4th beat rather than on the 1st and 3rd beat which makes it different from American and European music. Unlike mento, reggae often uses amplified rather than acoustic instruments although some of the traditional Jamaican instruments continue to be used in reggae. Early reggae lyrics featured political themes no unlike the American folk music of the 1960s.

Jamaican Ska Music

Like reggae, ska has its roots in mento, calypso, R&B and jazz. Ska is dance music and is one of the most popular types of music to come from Jamaica. Instead of the traditional Jamaican instruments, ska uses bass, guitars, keyboards, drums as well as brass instruments like the trumpet and woodwinds like the sax. Ska was born in the tough poor neighborhoods of Jamaican slums and it is, in many ways, the equivalent of African American rap music.

Jamaican music has a unique sound and is popular throughout the world. Like American music, it has many influences and continues to evolve over time. While many of the traditions Jamaican instruments used in mento have not made the transition to reggae and ska, the rich heritage of Jamaican music is clear in every note played.

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