Banjo plays a primary role in Jamaica’s national folk music known as mento – an indigenous fusion of the island’s African and European folk dance traditions. Other forms of music, such as Cuban rumba and Trinidadian calypso, have also been and continue to be absorbed into the mento style – and vice versa.
Mento has a characteristic 3:3:2 rhythm in quadruple time with an emphasis on 4th beat in a bar of 4. The songs are usually in major keys and key changes are not common. Mento songs are secular and usually non-political in nature, however the lyrics are often humorous and surprisingly bawdy. These are sung in both standard English and Jamaican patois.
4-string banjo is the main instrument in mento. Usually this is a tenor banjo tuned in some kind of fifths tuning, although not always to concert pitch. If a tenor is not available, musicians will use a 5-string banjo and take off the 5th string – either capoed up or tuned in a “uke” tuning (essentially making it a plectrum banjo). The most common mento instruments used to accompany a banjo include guitar, maracas and a rhumba box (also known as a marimbula).
Due to its volume and sharp tone, the banjo’s role in mento is both rhythm and lead. Banjo players are given “breaks” between verses to improvise arpeggio-based solos that harmonize with the primary chords and suggest the rhythm. These lead melodies often vary between eighth notes and quarter-note triplets creating a polyrhythmic banjo phrasing over the choppy upstroke of the guitar strum.
One of the best and most influential mento banjo players was Moses Deans – an original member of The Jolly Boys, mento’s best known group. Moses Deans can be heard on the Jolly Boys’ excellent late 80’s to early 90’s albums Pop ‘N’ Mento, Sunshine ‘N’ Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring. These recordings feature Allan Swymmer on lead vocals & bongo and a have a rustic, natural feel. Moses Deans passed away around 1998.