Mento, sights, sounds, meaning from beginnings to rebirth
Close to the end of Pimento and Hot Pepper: The Story of Mento Music, the connection between Elephant Man's Chaka Chaka and the melody of Sammy Dead is clearly illustrated, even before the documentary's narrative reasserts a point made close to the beginning. Mento is positioned as "Jamaica's original foundation music, the father of them all."
Still, children grow up and the father is not always the family's driving force, especially in his declining years. And, as the documentary outlines, mento had waned around the time of Jamaica's independence as ska took hold (though the influence was there, mento singer Lord Tanamo was recruited into the Holy Grail of ska, The Skatalites) and the sound systems - boosted by rural electrification - overpowered the acoustic mento musicians. However, it ends on a note of hope, following tours outside Jamaica by The Jolly Boys and Gilzene & The Blue Light Mento Band.
This is even as the last words go to now deceased mento standouts interviewed for the Rick Elgood-directed Billmon Productions documentary. The best known of these would most likely be The Jolly Boys' Joseph 'Powda' Bennett (1937-2014), Cecil Chambers (1940-2014), Nelson Chambers (1944-2010) and Albert Morgan (1937-2011). Referring to touring, Morgan makes a statement that could be about mento itself:
"Sometimes they want us to go away, but we can't make it."
Pimento and Hot Pepper: The Story of Mento Music screened last February during the Jamaica Music Museum's February 2017 Grounation series which focused on mento, and does more than trace the music's life cycle.
After opening with a dramatisation of Dry Weather House at each clearly defined stage, among them The Early Years and Music and Instruments, it contextualises the content with the consistent input and analysis of people like Garth White, Dr Daniel Neely, Colby 'Vintage Boss' Graham and former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga.
This analysis makes the documentary valuable beyond a chronology, and shows that mento is beyond rum and raucousness.
And the bands involved, among them The Happy Smilers, Lititz Mento Band, The Triangles, and Kew Park Mento Band, show that there are active units, even if they are not as loud - in more ways than one - that performers in the genres succeeding mento. Due credit is also given to the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission for mento's revival though its Festival competition.
Among the fascinating names in Pimento and Hot Pepper: The Story of Mento Music are the travelling duo Slim and Sam, Lord Flea and musicians Baba Mac, Pork Chops and 'Sugar Belly' Walker, who plays the instrument that earned him a place in dancehall classic Pumpkin Belly by Tenor Saw, who sang "yu tink a so Sugar Belly became the king of the saxophone?"