The Rhumba Box

While waiting in the immigration line at the Donald Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay a few years ago, I heard the unmistakable sound of a mento band. They were playing a familiar tune, Take Her to Jamaica, and as I waited, I tapped my feet lightly and hummed along.

The singing got louder as I exited immigration on my way to pick up my luggage from the carousel. By now, I could see the musicians – three or four of them. One was playing a rhumba box, a percussion instrument that I hadn’t seen in years.

Rhumba box, Jamaica
Rhumba box

The rhumba box is a two foot square wooden box. It has a hole in the center to which is attached five metal strips that are tuned to different pitches. At that size, it’s also a seat for the musician and allows him to reach the metal keys.

The rhumba box originated from the African mbira, or thumb piano. It made its way to Cuba, where it’s called the marímbola, then to other countries. In Jamaica, it’s synonymous with mento, the folk music that is a precursor to ska and reggae.

Sitting on the rhumba box, he strummed the metal strips to hold the rhythm for the guitar and the maracas players as they belted out the words to another song, This Long Time Gal.

I watched many stoic faces relax and smile as they heard the music. I was still humming to myself as I walked out of the airport.

Click here to listen to the sound of the rhumba box and here to hear a mento version of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab by the Jolly Boys.


I’m linking this post to the weekly photo linkup, Travel Photo Thursday, at Budget Travelers Sandbox. Be sure to head over and check out other photos from locations around the world. Enjoy!


24 comments on “The Rhumba Box

  1. When I get home I am going to click on your link to hear the rumba box. I love cultural instruments – so much soul and heart of the country and its people.

  2. First time every seeing or hearing this. Well knowingly hearing it. I am probably sure one of my friends collection of music contains this instrument. I will check withe the wifey to see if she knows this instrument as she is from Africa and I would think she has seen it before.

  3. Marcia, I had never heard of a mento band until I read this. I listened to that song Rehab by the Jolly Boys. OMG! I would have never, ever looked for that had it not been for your post. And I absolutely LOVE it! I’m actually listening to it a second time now as I write this comment 🙂

  4. Marcia – Thanks for a trip down memory lane. Growing up in Jamaica in the 50’s and early 60’s, I remember these boxes that were a part of every Mento band. It’s so nice to know that the art — of music and decoration — is not lost. Thanks also for continuing to document so much of that beautiful island.

  5. I\’ve never heard of a rhumba box before and amazing how great sounds can come out from something that looks so simple. Great cover of Rehab. I had to go on youtube and look for the song Take her to Jamaica. I liked it a lot and it\’s very catchy. 🙂

  6. I’ve never heard of a rhumba box or mento music. I’m learning all sorts of stuff today at Inside Journeys. Thanks for the link to Rehab. That’s a cool rendition. If you hadn’t said it was mento, I think I would have classified it as reggae.

  7. You’re welcome, Michele. It’s what I try to do with the site, so I’m glad you’re learning new things.
    It’s great that you’ve noticed the similarities. Reggae came from mento.

  8. I’ve discovered that it doesn’t take much to make music, Mary, and people back then relied on whatever they could find to create instruments.
    Yes, Take her is pretty catchy. Glad you looked it up.

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