The Music Diaries | Bedasse was central to mento era of J'can music
Alerth Rockford Bedasse was central to the mento era of Jamaican music. He was the lead vocalist and chief music arranger for perhaps the most popular mento aggregation: The Chins Calypso Quintet. Along with Count Lasher, Harold Richardson and The Ticklers and Lord Flea and His Calypsonians, they were the essence of the mento upsurge during its heyday of 1950 to 1956. Bedasse's role was crucial to a movement that not only became the forerunner of ska and rocksteady, but also had an influence on reggae.
Born in a district named May Kraal in north Clarendon, Bedasse grew up in Pennants. He got into music when two cousins, after observing his youthful musical exuberance, coincidentally bought him two guitars as presents from America. It inspired him to begin fooling around with the instruments, and after observing his musician friends operate theirs, the youngster began teaching himself to play the instrument.
At about age 18, he deputised for a friend at a dance in a calypso band, and his performance was so good that he was asked to become a permanent member. According to Bedasse in his autobiography, "I even started to get my own engagements."
All hell let loose on a Sunday afternoon in 1949 when his grandmother's niece - Aunt Ethel - a higgler who sold in the Coronation Market, invited Alerth to Kingston for Monday's market. The 21-year-old accepted the invitation, taking with him one guitar and some accoutrements, no doubt sensing the possibility of becoming a vagabond. Bedasse helped a new-found friend sell newspapers and earned a small token, and after spending a couple, nights with Ethel's relatives, returned to the market on Tuesday to discover that she was gone. He was now becoming a real vagabond, although he had the option of staying with a cousin.
Good luck was, however, to become one of his closest friends. According to Bedasse in a 2005 interview I did with him, after discovering that he was working with The National Workers Union at East Street in Kingston, "I started to buy Peaka Peow (something resembling Cash Pot), and won two pounds and five shillings - bought a cot with it and stayed with a friend." On another occasion, he won £44, a substantial amount in those days.
But the most comforting news came in late 1949 when Bedasse learnt that a prolific songwriter named Everard Williams was searching for a guitarist and singing partner to replace one that just left. Bedasse quickly found Williams, and soon, they were working together - Williams shaking the maraca and singing the tunes he wrote, while Bedasse did the music arrangements, played his guitar and sang along - doing almost exactly what Slim and Sam had done the previous decade.
The sessions created roadblocks at the Spanish Town Road and Oxford Street intersection, almost facing the Coronation Market. Bedasse's lyrics, written by Williams, were tantamount to social commentaries about events or conditions that existed at the time like gambling, poverty, illegal activities, duppies, sexually charged women, women-stealing, and notorious characters. As a reward for their efforts, they sold the printed tracks for a penny or two-pence each.
After numerous street-singing outings, Williams wrote his first song for recording purposes in 1952. Night Food provoked enormous debates from various quarters, including the Jamaican Parliament, concerning its suggestive lyrics, which were sung by Bedasse:
"I really thought that I was wise
Till a woman made me realise
that of a proper knowledge I was nude
For I did not know what they call night food.
The woman said, inside I have some nice night food.
I hope you are in the eating mood.
This sounded to me now very strange
As she didn't visit the kitchen range".
Bedasse had put together a quintet of talented mento players with a bamboo saxophone, a banjo, a maraca, a rhumba box, and two guitarists, himself included, for the session, which took place at the Hanover Street-based Stanley Motta Studio. The lead-up to the song's release was, however, beset with maladies as nobody wanted to take the risk for producing Night Food because of its lyrical content. The opposite did in fact happen when a brave man, only known as Sanford, took the chance and financed the recording. It created history by becoming the fastest-selling record (upon release) in Jamaica's music history.
According to Bedasse, hundreds of copies were sold on the weekend alone that the recording was pressed. Asked about what could have contributed to this, Bedasse's response was simply: "You know, it was kind of a something new and different, and you know how Jamaicans love that kind of thing."
The drama was further heightened when Bedasse met the man who did the pressing at Federal Records, the Monday morning following that historic weekend. He looked jaded and prompted Bedasse to enquire of his condition. His response: "Didn't get any sleep all weekend. Pressing Night Food all night long as orders kept coming in."
In an interview just before his passing, Ken Khouri, owner of Federal Records, admitted that the huge sales of the record assisted him in constructing a studio at 220 Marcus Garvey Drive. Night Food's success also encouraged Ivan Chin of Chin's Radio Service to invite Williams and Bedasse to compose two mento songs per month for him to produce. Naming themselves The Chins Calypso quintet/sextet after the producer, they recorded about 30-odd songs for Chin.
Despite the initial risque overtones in some of the lyrics, mento music holds pride of place as being Jamaica's most indigenous music form and the island's first commercially recorded music. Tourists and visitors' first experience of live music in Jamaica will probably be a mento band, either at the airport, a hotel's poolside, or on a cruise ship docked in the harbour. The tourist industry will forever be indebted to people like Bedasse who laid the foundation that has helped to keep the industry buoyant. In one of the tributes at his thanksgiving service at the Webster Memorial Church on March 17, 2007, Bedasse, a man of wit and humour, was quoted as saying that his first name, Alerth, meant that he was alert, his middle name, Rockford, meant that he was like a rock; and, as for his last name, he said, "look around and you'll see all the children that I had."