The Music Diaries | Mento Bands and emancipation
The fusion of African drums and mento rhythms were happy preludes to the emancipation of African slaves in the British West Indies in 1834.
Congregation, gatherings, and idle chatter by slaves on the plantations were prohibited by slave masters for fear of revolts. But music, with the drum and African chants at the forefront of their presentation, was effectively used to exchange messages in ways their white masters could not understand.
They used crude instruments like a bamboo flute, a fork drawn against a grater as a percussion instruments a horse or donkey jawbone, a cow horn, and home-made drums to create music that belied the instruments being used, while giving the earliest glimpse of what would later become Jamaica's most indigenous music form: mento.
As we prepare to enter Emancipation Day on Wednesday, we must become aware of the impact that the music of slaves created on that momentous Friday of August 1, 1834 not only in their fight to free themselves of the shackles of slavery, but in their quest to create a music, albeit unwittingly, that would inspire Jamaica's succeeding genres. Many of mento's rhythms can be heard in the early reggae of the late 1960s like Long Shot Kick The Bucket by the Pioneers and Sweet And Dandy by Toots and The Maytals.
The music was so powerful, that even slave masters became involved. European instruments like fiddles and fifes, along with European melodies, rhythms, and dances the quadrille being the most dominant - arrived on the plantations via the slave owners. They were interwoven into the slaves' creations, to proslaves' creations, to produce a sound that was uniquely Jamaican. Slave masters who were musically inclined sought to entertain themselves by utilising the talent of slaves. In a real sense, the slaves' music became an effective tool in their effort to unite, create revolts, incite unrest, put pressure on slave owners to release them, and, ultimately, hasten emancipation.
With the inclusion of the rumba box as a bass, the guitar, maraca, and the banjo, by the late 1940s, Jamaica's popular music, as it was then, had taken a giant step forward, with mento ensembles becoming the dance band at dances, parties, and other festive events across the island. Several bands and singers like The Chin's Calypso Sextet, George Moxley and His Calypsonians, Lord Flea and His Calypsonians, The Ticklers, Count Lasher, Count Owen, Sugar Belly, Lord Power, Hubert Porter, and others emerged on the music scene by the early 1950s. As can be observed, many mento performers, and even the early slaves, gave themselves royal titles like King, Lord, Count, Prince, Duke, etc, to place them on equal levels with their masters.
Most mento lyrics at the time were either ambiguous stories about sexual encounters, or humorous social commentaries about events, or conditions that existed at the time. In one of mento's popular recordings, Hubert Porter related the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, especially during rainy weather, when he sang in the recording Dry Weather House.
"When the rainy weather was raising cane,
The dry weather house couldn't stand the strain.
All the house began to leak,
And the whole foundation squeak.
Count Lasher unveiled an amusing episode about the dangers of infidelity in the presence of a parrot when he sang about the 'Talking Parrot', the first stanza of which says:
"I nearly loose me life in Spanish Town,
Through a talking parrot that was around.
At a married woman's home I stole a chance:
The man came while we were in romance,
As he rushed in the house, the girl rushed out.
And in the heat of the excitement the parrot shout:
'Hey Danny, a man inside,
Search well, he gone and hide.
Danny search all about,
For a fellow went inside he ain't come back out'."
Although mento has lost ground since about 1956, the excitement and fervour generated by and associated with this music that had its genesis in the Jamaican slave plantation system during the 18th and 19th centuries has lived throughout the ages and into present day.
The first experience of visitors and tourists to the island has often been a mento band either at the airport or on a cruise ship docked in the harbour; or by their hotel's pool or bar; or at one of the government-sponsored festivals around the island. Mento, which is sometimes referred to as Jamaican Calypso, has some slight resemblance to the Trinidadian brand, yet it is distinctly different in its beat and melody. It holds pride of place as being Jamaica's most indigenous music and the island's first commercially recorded music when it appeared on 78RPM (revolutions per minute) vinyl records in the early 1950s.