Mento, motion picture in the flesh
The Jamaican Music Museum recently hosted its first Grounation session for Reggae/Black History Month.
Curator Herbie Miller invited newspaper columnist Roy Black, Professor Matthew Smith, head of the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of the West Indies (Mona), and ethnomusicologist Dr Daniel T. Neely to comment on Modern Mento: The Emergence of Native Music in Jamaican Tourism.
"[Mento] has been a viable music for decades, and its viability waxes and wanes. It all depends on who is investing in the music at any particular time," Neely told The Gleaner. Neely used The Jolly Boys, who also opened and closed the session with performances, to serve as a prime example of a successful mento band in a contemporary tourist space. "They had the backing of Jon Baker, to sort of move them forward. But Jon has a special fondness for mento music, whereas most hotel owners don't share that fondness, so they don't necessarily invest as heavily in it." Baker is the owner of Geejam, a luxury hotel and recording studio in Portland.
"The Jamaica Tourist Board used to invest in these bands, and I don't know if they still do that, but one of the reasons why it's sort of a cloudy area is, there just aren't as many mento bands around as there used to be," he continued.
"The more primitive it seemed, the better," said Neely. While mento was used as an attraction, tourism was used as a vehicle for industrial growth. In his research, Neely noted images of hotel performers dressed as native Americans - an invention of native identity, designed strictly for tourist consumption and given the description of 'motion picture in the flesh'.
Professor Smith briefly presented on the importance of mento music in establishing Jamaican cultural identity. He told of the time during the second celebration of independence, the first anniversary, when the Government held a mento concert in 1963. "It was a remarkable event. It was done to showcase mento as part of Jamaica's identity," he said.
Smith said that on one side, from the 1930s, mento was associated with the tourist market, but on the other hand, "it is a folk music, indigenous music and it is a part of our culture. This was the purpose of that event. The show was emceed by Harry Graham and Louise Bennett," Smith said. "It was remarkable. It was important because what was being conveyed at the time was the sense that mento was crucial to identifying Jamaican culture, the Jamaican identity.
"It was also important, too, because it was a year into independence, when ska was still in its infancy, before it became known as the national sound. Mento was that sound," Smith said.