The Music Diaries | Alerth Rockford Bedasse, the mento pioneer
Alerth Rockford Bedasse is another of the February-born artistes who have made invaluable contributions to the development of early Jamaican popular music.
He was crucial to the mento era, having sung lead vocals on the most mento recordings in Jamaica's music history, in addition to doing the musical arrangements and adding his guitar artistry to the songs.
Mento, which for some odd reason is hardly mentioned under the umbrella of Jamaican popular music cannot be taken lightly either because apart from it being the island's most indigenous music form, it was one of the cornerstones on which the succeeding genres, especially reggae, was built. Many of mento's rhythms can be heard in the early reggae of the late 1960s. Reggae songs like Sweet and Dandy, by the Maytals, and Long Shot Kick the Bucket, by the Pioneers, are glaring examples of this. And so Bedasse's role cannot be discounted.
Working mainly with the Chins Calypso Quintet or Sextet out of Chin's Radio Service at 48 Church Street in downtown Kingston, the group, with Bedasse as leader and lead vocalist, created countless mento recordings that epitomised the best the genre had to offer. Recordings like Night Food, Night Food Recipe, Big Boy and Teacher, Red Tomato, Sampson and Delilah, Black Market Meat, Monkey Opinion, Rough Rider, Depression, Boogu Yagga Gal, and Woman Tenderness told stories about relationships gone sour, the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, illegal activities, duppies, gambling, obeah, and notorious characters.
In this black history month (also reggae month), we remember Bedasee and others like Count Lasher, Lord Flea, Lord Fly, Count Owen, Lord Power, and others, whose work perpetuate a genre that was closely connected to the slave plantation system in which black men were ill-treated, stigmatised, and brutalised. Many of mento's rhythms were birthed on slave plantations, their music at first being used as a communication tool and later, as a form of entertainment.
Bedasee, the man of the moment, hailed from May Kraal, a small district in north Clarendon, where he was born on February 21, 1928.
His unpublished autobiography, which was handwritten and handed to me in 2005, revealed that his first exposure to music came when a cousin bought him a gift: a Gene Autry guitar. With the help of a friend, he learnt it in almost no time. Then came a request from the friend for Bedasse to deputise for him at a wedding dance.
According to Bedasse, "I did so well, I became the talk of the district - how good I was and how quickly I learnt - and I started to get my own engagements."
Accompanying his aunt to Kingston in 1949, he suddenly became exposed to the busy music scene of the city when he linked up with one Everard Williams, a street singer, who was looking for a guitarist to replace one that had just left. The duo created ecstatic scenes in the vicinity of the Coronation Market along Spanish Town Road and continued to do so until one day, Williams, an exceptional songwriter, wrote a song called Night Food for recording purposes and wanted to put a tune to it. Bedasee obliged and put a quintet together that included Williams on maracas and himself on guitar.
But no producer-sponsor wanted to accept the responsibility because of its suggestive content and the attendant risk of failure. A few lines of the song ran:
"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, however, claims that the lines are ambiguous and that the interpretation is in the mind of the listener.
When a man named Sanford decided to accept the risk, "All hell broke loose", according to Bedasse. The recording became the biggest-selling one in Jamaica at the time, resulting in Sanford's disappearance from the scene after becoming a rich man almost overnight. Asked by me what he thought was the reason for the massive sales, Bedasee replied: "It was something different, and you know how Jamaicans love that type of thing."
Needless to say, all the naysayers suddenly wanted to get the quintet into their fold, and Bedasse opted for Ivan Chin of Chin's Radio Service, who had earlier turned him down. The Chin's Calypso Sextet was born sometime in 1952 with Chin as manager-producer, Williams as songwriter, and Bedasse as musical arranger and was given an exclusive contract to compose and record two songs every month at a cost of 18 Pounds per month. The result was a plethora of mento hits (78RPM records), which was the heartbeat of the nation at the time.
The Sextet became a popular draw for parties, weddings, and other social events in the early 1950s, and became, as it were, the forerunner to the sound systems of the mid-late 1950s.
Because of the work of Bedasse and others, mento has retained its pride of place as an important element in the scheme of things that led to the success of the island's music.
A visitor's first experience to live Jamaican music will most likely be a mento band, either at the airport, at his hotel's pool or bar, on a cruise ship docked in the harbour, or at a government-sponsored festival.