Jamaica is famous for its fast sprinters, amazing coffee, rum weather and beaches. But undoubtedly, it’s most well-known for its music. With Reggae, Ska, and of course, Bob Marley all coming out of the Caribbean island, Jamaica is a powerhouse of musical expression.
From the Goombay and Kbandu to the Steel Drum and Vaksin, Jamaican musical instruments come in a lot of different shapes, sizes and sounds. And in this post, we’re going to be taking a deep dive into some of them as we explore the musical instruments of Jamaica. Let’s get started.
Opening our list is the quintessential handheld percussion instrument, the Maracas. While maracas might not have originated in Jamaica, they became an essential part of Jamaican music.
Maracas are traditionally made from gourds or shells. They are filled with dried seeds, pebbles, or beads, which make a sound when shaken. Modern Maracas are made from leather, plastic, fiberglass, wood, or animal hide.
The performer holds a Maraca in each hand by the handle to play. He can create an eight-note rhythm or shake the Maracas in a double-swish motion.
Though a simple instrument, the Maracas can create a range of incredible sounds. This makes them a great instrument to serve as an accompaniment.
Traditionally, Maracas were used in divination and healing practices. They were also used to accompany singing and dancing. In Jamaican music, these are accompaniments for music genres such as salsa and mambo.
2. Steel Drum
The Steel Drum is another Jamaican necessity though it did not originate from the country. However, it became a staple instrument in musical styles like ska and reggae. You may recognize its sound from songs like “Stir Up!” and many Bob Marley songs.
Traditionally, these instruments were created from metal pans. These days, these drums are made from sheet metal, about 0.8 to 1.5 mm thick. These are finished using chrome and nickel plating.
The surface is concave and consists of grooves. The performer uses a pair of sticks with rubber heads. When playing steel drums, it’s important to use creativity. Figure out a combination of hits to get the note or vibration you want.
We can tell how integral Steel Drums are in Jamaican music. You will hear it played day and night in some parts of the country. The upbeat sound sends us a message about the easy way of living in the country. Steel Drums can be played in ensembles, along with cowbells, bongos, and triangles.
3. Coromantee Flute
Many traditional Jamaican instruments have African roots. One of which is a wind instrument, the Coromantee Flute.
It was named after the Coromantee tribe, an especially fierce African tribe. Their legacy carried over the ocean to Jamaica when the Arawaks, the indigenous Jamaicans, named a traditional flute after them.
Traditionally, the Coromantee Flute was made from a yard-long reed and has three holes in it. The sound it produced was mournful.
Back in the day, it usually accompanied drums in tribal dances. It isn’t used in music now but has great historical significance in Jamaica and many surrounding Caribbean islands.
Another percussion instrument to grace our list is the Güiro. It might not have originated in Jamaica but is a Caribbean instrument through and through.
Traditionally, the instrument was made from dried, hollowed-out gourds, most often the calabash gourd. Manufacturers carve ridges on one side of the gourd. These days, Güiros are mostly made of wood, plastic, or fiberglass.
Unlike many of the drums on this list, the Güiro is small and doesn’t require striking to make a sound. Instead, the musician rubs a pick, stick, or scraper along the ridges to create a rhythm. The sound you get is amplified due to the hollow body.
At first, it may seem easy to play this instrument. But the Güiro is unpitched, and it may take time and practice to master the techniques of playing it.
Like many other reggae percussion instruments, the Güiro emphasizes the communal aspect of music in Jamaica. These days, it serves as an accompaniment to dance music. Specifically, it is used to keep time in salsa.
We have yet another percussion instrument on the list. A Goombay is a type of drum that has almost become its own genre.
Goombay music is fast and related to the calypso, the most famous Caribbean dance. Like many other Caribbean music types, it’s featured on Junkanoo, a cultural parade in Jamaica, where music is also celebrated.
The Goombay is made of goat skin stretched over a wooden barrel. Most often, the barrel is decorated with bright geometric designs. In addition, the Goombay is heated over a fire to tone it. The drum is a membranophone played with the hands.
Thanks to the Goombay Dance Band, the Goombay drum became popular. They used the drum and the style extensively in their music. They were popular throughout the 1980s and continue to have a following on the islands.
Our next instrument belongs to the percussion family. While the Tambourine did not originate in Jamaica, it certainly became an integral part of its music. The Tainos, or the Arawak people indigenous of the Caribbean, called it maguey. They used the instrument for occasions that celebrate their ancestors.
Tambourines come in different shapes and two forms: headless and one with a drumhead. They’re usually made of wood, with metal jingles around the frame. These jingles, when shaken, give the instrument its distinct rhythmic sound.
There are different ways to play the instrument. The simplest is shaking it with one hand and striking it with the other. In some cases, the performer may use their hips to strike the instrument.
The Tambourine found its place in revival churches in Jamaica. It also plays a role in mento, pocomania, and Kumina music. In addition, you can find the Tambourine being used in folk music and as a part of the Steel Band.
Up next is Kbandu (pronounced as “bandoo”). It is more than just an instrument. It’s also a traditional drumming style.
Considered a male drum, the Kbandu measures 20 inches long and 14 inches in diameter. It is usually made from kegs, cedar logs, or a hollow trumpet tree trunk. One end is headed, covered with the skin of a goat. While the Kbandu looks like a conga or djembe drum, it has a lower pitch.
Two players are needed to play a Kbandu drum, both of whom sit astride the instrument. They use their heels, hands, and fingers to manipulate the pitch and tone. The second player is at the back of the drum using sticks called “katta tick” to play on the side of the drum.
Kbandu was traditionally used for tribal ceremonies and drumming circles on the island. The past years witnessed a decline in the use of the Kbandu. These days, it is mostly used for cultural events.
Up next is the Vaksin (also called Vaccine), which belongs to the wind instruments family. This is the one-note trumpet of Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
The Vaksin is made of bamboo, about a meter long and five to seven centimeters in diameter. One end is open, while the other has a mouth-hole cut into the node. This is wrapped with a piece of rubber.
To use the instrument, the performer blows into the hole. The sound produced is low-pitched. Aside from blowing, the player may use sticks to tap the bamboo to provide percussion.
Aside from being played in a Vaksin band, the instrument had been used as a signal horn in an agricultural setting. Fishermen and stevedores also found similar use for this instrument.
9. Rhumba Box
In the 1930s, the Marimbula instrument that originated from Cuba traveled to different countries. It adopted a different name once it reached a particular country. In Jamaica, it became the Rhumba Box.
The Rhumba Box is a plucked box instrument. It’s basically a wooden box with a hole in the center. Across this hole are metal strips attached at one end of the resonating box.
To play, the performer sits atop the box and reaches between their legs to pluck the metal strips. In some cases, the metal strips have rattles on them to produce a distinct tone. The player can also slap the side of the box for added percussion.
Traditionally, the instrument has been used in ceremonies and rituals for many years. It served as a tool of communication between humans and spirits.
These days, the Rhumba Box is one of the instruments used in mento music. Mento is one of the music genres or styles that became very popular in Jamaica. The Rhumba Box also provides rhythmic support for a band and is played in churches as well.
Our next instrument, the Abeng, is considered the national instrument of Jamaica. No surprise there, considering what the instrument was used for in the olden days.
The Jamaican maroons were the first to use the Abeng. Maroons were the indigenous Tainos and enslaved Africans that the Spanish brought to Jamaica.
There are several variations of the Abeng, but they all are made of the same thing: a cow’s horn. It consists of a side hole and another hole on the tip. To play, the performer blows on the side hole at the same time using the thumb to cover the other hole to change the pitch.
The Abeng had a very important role among the Maroons. They used it as a signaling and communication device during the war against the British.
And because of its loud sound, it could be heard over great distances. This enabled the Maroons to send coded messages to their community. Today, the Abeng is still used in ceremonies and occasions or to announce the news.
11. Bongo Drums
Our next entry, the Bongo Drums, or simply Bongos, also belongs to the percussion family. It’s unclear where exactly these drums originated. But the instrument spread and reached Jamaica, becoming one of its common instruments.
A bongo drum set consists of two drums: the male and the female. The female is larger, about seven inches across, while the male is five inches. The drums are conically shaped and usually made of wood. They are conjoined by a wooden bridge for ease of playing.
They are played by one musician who either stands with drumsticks or sits and uses their hands. It gives off a distinct “island” sound and can be heard in many reggae songs.
Traditionally, Bongos were played in Latin American dance bands. These provided rhythmic patterns in music. Presently, Bongos can also be played in solo or ensemble works.
Another stringed instrument on our list is the Cuatro. It is an adaptation of the Spanish guitars and was brought to the Caribbean countries by Spanish colonizers. While this is Puerto Rico’s national instrument, the Cuatro was adopted by Jamaica.
The word cuatro is “four” in Spanish, so named because the old versions had four strings. A Cuatro may resemble a viola, but most Cuatros look like a small to mid-sized classical guitar. But the resemblance ends there.
The use of laurel wood for the body of the instrument gives it a pitch and resonance that are different than that of a guitar.
The modern Cuatro consists of five sets of double strings and comes in different sizes and shapes.
In Jamaica, the Cuatro is used in ensembles to accompany singing and dancing. It is also used in secular or religious music. In some cases, one might find it played in traditional gatherings.
Related: Check out our list of Peurto Rican musical instruments here.
Finally, we have the Banjo, a stringed instrument with a fundamental role in mento music. In fact, the 4-string Banjo is the main instrument in mento, accompanied by a guitar, Maracas, and a Rhumba Box.
The Banjo consists of a body that resembles a Tambourine. It has a thin, circular membrane stretched over the instrument’s frame. The membrane is made of plastic or animal skin. The neck passes through the resonator diametrically.
In the 1980s, frets were added to the neck. There used to be only four gut strings. Later on, Banjos had five to nine metal strings.
The Banjo is played using the fingers or with the aid of plectrum and finger picks. In mento, the Banjo serves as rhythm and lead, owing to its volume and sharpness.
Summing Up Our List Of Jamaican Instruments
Jamaica is a beautiful country with a rich and varied history. Its music history is no exception, as we’ve shown you through the list above.
Percussion, reed, and stringed instruments are a huge part of Jamaican culture and music. Without the resourcefulness of generations before, nearly half of the instruments on this list wouldn’t exist. And the music of Jamaica would not be what it is today.
These musical instruments represent more than just the sound they make. They mirror the life, vitality, and originality of the island itself. These instruments also reflect the sound and rhythm that is Jamaica.