The granddaddy of many later Jamaican styles, mento music had its beginnings in Jamaica as early as the 19th century. A uniquely Jamaican fusion of African and European musical traditions, the first recordings emerged in the 1920s when Caribbean jazz artists put their songs to wax cylinders. By the the 1950s, mento had reached a golden age and recordings began to appear on records.
These early disks reveal the diverity of sound among mento artists. An assortment of rhythms and styles, the diversity and creativity exhibited in the genre grew with the birth of Jamaica's recording industry. By the late 1950s, mento artists were incorperating pan Caribbean influences, as well as taking inspiration from American jazz.
With all this diversity, what gives mento its uniquely Jamaican sound? The classic mento sound has been described as "acoustic, informal, folksy and rural." Mento is still sometimes referred to as "country music" in Jamaica and many folk songs were recorded in this style. Instruments typical of mento surprise a lot of people. Mento musicians include banjo and acoustic guitar, as well as home-made instruments like the bamboo saxophone and rumba box.
The banjo is used in a variety of ways in mento music. It is strummed to provide rhythm, it is picked with precision (or not) to create solos, and it's even chimed like a steel drum. Its use in mento is quite distinct from the banjo in American musical traditions (as you might gather when you hear it, as it sounds nothing like Bluegrass).Unfortunately the use of the banjo didn't carry over into other, later types of Jamaican musical styles... Real shame.
The bamboo sax is exactly what you think it might be: a saxophone-type instrument made with a large piece of bamboo. It doesn't sound quite like a saxophone, but contributes a very unique, organic sound. You can learn more about bamboo saxophones and listen to a recording here.
The rumba box is also a mainstay of mento music. It is a large thumb piano built from from a wooden box (fancy, I know) A large circular sound hole is cut into the front, over which are secured a number of tuned metal tines. These are plucked to produce wonderful, belly-rumbling bass notes. The rumba box would later find a home is reggae music, too.
As the tourism industry developed in Jamaica, mento groups began to write songs specifically for visitors, like this one, and this little tune, which you may have heard before.
Gotta love grandpa music.