The Early History of Mento Music:
Mento music emerged as a distinct style of Jamaican music in the early part of the 1900s, although its roots run much deeper. Mento, much like other Caribbean folk music, is a blending of African rhythms, Latin rhythms, and Anglo folksongs. Mento found its greatest popularity in the 1940s and 1950s in Jamaica, before Rocksteady and Reggae became the predominant musical styles.
Mento music is often played on "folk instruments", versus the predominant horns and electric instruments that came to dominate later Jamaican musical styles. Often a band will consist of a guitar, a banjo, a gourd shaker and a "rumba box" (a large, bass-register mbira, or thumb piano, played by sitting on the box and striking metal "flappers" which are attached). Other common instruments are upright bass, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele and trumpet.
Mento Music Today:
Many American tourists to Jamaica get their first taste of Jamaican music through Mento, as the Jamaican government funds mento bands to play in the airports and on tourist beaches. However, recordings of the music are very uncommon and can be hard to find, as record labels prefer better-selling reggae and dub records.
Mento music is often referred to as Jamaican Calypso, although the rhythms and song patterns are markedly different from those of Trinidadian Calypso.
While many mento songs are about traditional "folksong" subjects, from political commentary to simple day-to-day life, a disproportionately large number of the songs are "bawdy songs", often featuring poorly-veiled (and delightfully funny) sexual double-entendres. Popular mento songs include references to "Big Bamboo", "Juicy Tomatoes", "Sweet Watermelon", and so on.