The Music Diaries | Grounation explores mento's influence on local music
Suggestive lyrics, or what some Jamaicans call slackness, have permeated Jamaican popular music for years, dating as far back as the mento era. The phenomenon has again been brought to the fore during the current running of the annual Grounation series of shows and lectures at the Institute of Jamaica Lecture Hall.
Coordinated by the director/curator of The Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, this year's presentation puts the spotlight on mento music - an indigenous calypso-flavoured Jamaican music form that was the heartbeat of the nation between 1950 and 1956.
Mento, being one of Jamaica's national treasures, the event is particularly timed to coincide with Reggae Month (February), which is also celebrated as Black History Month. Various aspects of mento's impact on the nation are slated to be explored by several learned scholars of the genre each Sunday in the month. Among the topics down for discussion are: mento and the calypso phenomenon in tourism; Mento and its connections with obeah and other Jamaican folk forms; legitimising mento - from country chune to uptown music; and mento's sexual innuendos, double entendre, and downright slackness. The latter topic has so far generated great interest and sustained interaction presenters, panellists, and the audience.
It was not surprising because traditionally, Jamaicans are known to gravitate towards suggestive lyrics. Many musicologists believe that slackness in Jamaican popular music began in the mento era with artistes like The Ticklers, Count Lasher, Lord Power, and the Chin's Calypso Sextet.
As early as 1952, the Jamaican mento band - Bedasse and his calypso quintet - stunned the nation in more ways than one with their recording of Night Food. There was a tumultuous outcry from various quarters about the negative effect the recording could have on the nation's children, while at the same time, it became the fastest-selling record in Jamaica at the time. The escalating sales of the record not only proved that this was the type of stuff that Jamaicans loved, but opened the eyes of entrepreneurs and record producers to the fact that there was a lucrative market for such music.
Night Food was ingeniously crafted by Everard Williams, a school teacher with exceptional poetic skills. With its double meaning, the lyrics ran in part:
"This food needs no knife and fork
How can any human be so dark?
The food is right here in the bed
Come here man
Make me scratch your head".
Several other mento recordings like Penny Reel, Water The Garden, Miss Constance, Talking Parrot, Rough Rider, Depression, Big Boy and Teacher, and Red Tomato - all containing bawdy overtones - were immensely popular during the mento era.
The tradition continued into the ska era with Prince Buster's Wreck a P** P**, which, ironically, was sung to the tune of the Christmas carol Little Drummer Boy. It was a massive seller during the 1960s. A female version of the song - Wreck a B***y - was almost as popular, while the Barbadian-born singer Jackie Opel added to the drama with, Push Wood In The Fire. With its sexually oriented lyrics and the Skatalites band at full blast, the recording was perhaps Opel's most popular ska hit, along with You're No Good, You're Too Bad, Turn Your Lamps Down, and Solid Rock.
Lee Perry's Studio One recording of P***y Galore, with vocal backing by The Wailers, is an adaptation of the female character Honor Blackman, who plays the role of P***y Galore in the 1964 film Goldfinger. Perry's recording takes on sexual connotations as he displays a double meaning in the lyrics:
"If you are rich and you want to get poor
Just fall in love with p***y galore".
Throughout all the changing styles of Jamaican music over the years, the flow of suggestive lyrics in Jamaican popular music has never ceased. Those that were too blatant or explicit were banned from airplay, but despite this, some became the biggest sellers in the history of Jamaican music.
As the rocksteady era dawned in late 1966 into 1967, several erotic recordings emerged. Foremost among these was the Heptones' Fatty Fatty, which remains the most sexually suggestive song in rocksteady-reggae history, although still not as explicit as some in the dancehall era. Musical tastes, however, have changed so much, that the recording, which was initially banned, is now considered a classic that is played freely on the airwaves. The lyrics are sexually haunting:
"I need a fat girl, fat girl tonight
I need a fat, a very, very fat girl tonight
I'm in the mood girl,
I'm feeling rude
I know you want it
And you're gonna get a lot
There was also Barbed Wire by Nora Dean: "Oh mama, he's got barbed wire in his underpants." The Lloyd Charmers-produced album Censored sold so well that it inspired the production of volumes two and three.
The trend continued into the dancehall era with greater intensity to such an extent that Alerth Bedasse, the frontman for the Chin's Calypso Sextet, remarked to me in an interview: "When you compare mento to these current-day songs, mento could perhaps be played in a Church." Nothing is left to the imagination. Admiral Bailey entered the fray with Punnany, while Lecturer had Punnany Too Sweet, both becoming top-selling singles.
The indefatigable Yellowman (born Winston Foster) transformed dancehall slackness into something more like an art form with several risquÈ recordings during the early 1980s. He boasted of his sexual prowess in the recording Them A Mad Over Me.
Lady Saw became well known for her slack performances, both on stage and in her recordings. In the recording What Is Slackness, she denies slackness. In recent times, she has moved away from secular music and prefers to be referred to as Minister Marion Hall.