Roy Black: Deep roots to J'can music
For a country with currently under 2.9 million people, an extraordinary level of output and immensely varied forms of records have emanated from Jamaica's shores.
According to Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton's Reggae - The Rough Guide, published in 1997, up to that point, Jamaica had produced more than 100,000 records. This was after the introduction of recording facilities to the island in late 1951.
The earliest Jamaican recordings were mento, captured on either dub plates or 78 RPM vinyl records. The other recordings of choice at the time were foreign songs by artistes like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Nat King Cole and Patti Page. Later in the decade, American R&B took centrestage and its influence on the development of Jamaican popular music was far-reaching. As a young boy, I was privileged to be a part of this development, having lived in the heart of the music along the Orange Street (Beat Street) corridors of downtown Kingston.
With the musical Goodison family living just in front, Beverley's Records a few metres up the road, Coxson's store at the corner of Charles Street, Prince Buster at 127, Sonia Pottinger's Tip-Top Records further down the road, and Jack Taylor thumping some hard rhythm and blues from his hardware establishment a few doors below where I lived, the area became a literal melting pot for early Jamaican popular music.
But even before the American R&B and mento music, which really started it all, there existed many other influences which helped shape the island's popular music. Folk, cult, Pocomania and general revival music were some of those influences.
Part of it was a legacy from the mix of African ritual and tribal religion which was brought by Africans who came here in enslavement. Another part had to do with the influences that came here in the 1860s, following the US revolutions of that decade. It saw colonists fleeing those states where wars were prevalent. Some came to Jamaica, bringing with them a different kind of music - a type that was more oriented towards Christianity.
All that was absorbed as part of the background to revival music. The 'clap-hand' churches in particular embraced that music and later it filtered down into popular music through artistes like Toots and The Maytals and Prince Buster, among others.
Folk music, like the music of the pocomania churches, initially fulfilled social functions. The jonkanoo masquerades, emphasising fife and drum music, with participants dressed in scary headgear, became regular sights on the streets of Kingston during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Theirs was a type of folk music that was also absorbed into the musical culture of Jamaicans from very early.
Although mento drew heavily on all of this folk music, the adoption of the European quadrille dance and music, along with the long tradition of work songs from the Jamaican slave plantation system, may have been more responsible than anything else for the creation of mento (or what some called Jamaican calypso). The genre went on to become Jamaica's first commercially recorded music.
Mento and Reggae
The sound created by the maraca in a mento band may have been mirrored in the shuffling sound of reggae years later. Musicologists, however, tend to differ on the topic of whether or not mento had any bearing on Jamaican music as it now stands. In an interview I did with former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who did extensive research on folk music, he was quite explicit in his explanation:
"It's quite different, but there are some mento pieces that have traversed into the modern period - Rukumbine, River to the Bank and that sort of thing. Mento was very popular up to the mid-1950s, being played at Silver Slipper, the Glass Bucket and other night-clubs and on the north coast. Now, where mento had rhythm, the music we developed had beat. It's a deeper thing - deeper by way of distinction. The younger people wanted the heavier beat. The mento had the rhumba box, which gave it that beat, but when it came to the rhythm and blues, you had the electric guitar. It could fairly be said that mento was one of the pillars of our music, but over the years, we had amalgamations and there were cross-overs and English folk ditties that were absorbed into the music. What emerged as mento was a combination of the African music, English folk songs and religious material out of the US after the civil war and the Great Revival there."
Another of the early pillars of Jamaican music were the street singers. Appearing on the Jamaican scene in the 1930s, Slim and Sam were perhaps the earliest of this lot. Like the mento singers who followed, the duo based their lyrics on real-life situations and well-known characters.
With Slim on lead vocals and Sam on guitar while doing backing vocals, their performances generated enormous attention and massive crowds along Spanish Town Road, close to the Coronation Market. Selling the printed tracks of the songs they performed for one penny each may seem a small reward for their efforts, but when the pennies were added up, they represented an appreciable addition to a day's wage at the time.
Immersed in social commentary, their compositions touched on murder, hard times, an election, love affairs, duppies, a hurricane, wife-stealing and even a 'scammer' when they sang:
"The latest news today is about a man who come from far
He come to buy a bus but he preferred a tramcar
He saw a 'ginal' then in a Hope tram leaving town
The 'ginal' sold him the Hope tramcar for 25 pounds"
Slim and Sam gave way to Bedasse and Williams in the following decade.Operating from almost the same location, they were soon being referred to as mento singers. Alerth Bedassee and Everard Williams emerged from being street singers into one of the main exponents of mento music during the 1950s. Operating as The Chin's Calypso Sextet, they had enormous hits like Night Food, What is Catty, Red Tomato and Boogu Yagga Gal.