Vintage Voices | Mento cited for vulgarity
Alerth Bedasse, one of the main exponents of mento music, and his sidekick Everard Williams, a mento songwriting genius, have a lot to say about the resistance meted out by the government of the day and other stakeholders to the lyrics of their songs, and by extension the establishment of the genre.
The most early mento recordings, many of which were written by Williams, were ambiguous social commentaries about events and happenings in the society, but the authorities, almost invariably, found the lyrics offensive, citing them as being highly suggestive and lewd.
Wills O. Isaacs, minister of trade and industry in the ruling People’s National Party at the time, in issuing a heavy broadside against Bedasse and Williams, held aloft a calypso record in parliament and declared, “Imagine things like these being played to our children.” In a front page Star publication of April 1956, while targeting the distributors, Isaacs went on to say, “It is true to say, there are some traders who do not care how they make their money, and whether they drag the children of the country into the gutters”. Yet, Bedasse declares that the very songs that Isaacs denounced, he danced to at parties.
Bedasse was quick to respond to Isaacs forays: “Day by day complaints are being published about vulgar calypsos. Now, is it the calypso that is vulgar, or is something wrong with the minds of the complainants? For example, what is Night Food or what is forbidden fruit? Can anyone give the right meaning?” Night Food written by Williams and recorded between 1951 and 1952, was in fact Bedasse and his quintet’s first hit.
The singer, who I managed for a short period when he made a brief resurgence in 2005, reinforced this point to me recently adding, “When you compare the lewd songs that are being played today with mento’s suggestive songs, perhaps the mento ones could be played in a church,” he jokingly said. Bedasee also threw cold water on the view that songs like Night Food could corrupt the minds of children. “Unless you showcase the double-meaning, they would only be thinking that Night Food is either overnight food or food that is eaten at night,” he said.
Williams-Bedasse union became one of the earliest pillars in the establishment of Jamaican popular music. They first met when Bedasee, after coming to Kingston with a relative in 1949, learnt that the prolific songwriter and street singer, Williams was searching for a guitarist and singing partner to replace one that had just left.
The 21-year-old Bedasee, who became quite proficient at the guitar while growing up in Pennants Clarendon, was lucky to have taken one of the instruments with him and quickly accepted the offer. Pandemonium suddenly broke out - increasing to road-block levels in the vicinity of the Coronation Market, as the two combined in song to shed light on topics like landlord and tenants, sex, gambling, illegal activities, duppy, woman-stealing and notorious characters. As a reward for their efforts, they sold the printed tracks for between a penny and threepence.
After several successful outings, Williams decided to write Night Food. It became the biggest selling record in the land. Asked what he thought contributed to the record selling so much, Bedasee responded, “It’s the first they were getting a rhythm like that, and it was a little suggestive, and you know how Jamaican people love that kind of thing”.
The lyrics ran in part:
“I really thought that I was wise
Till a woman made me realise
That of a proper knowledge I was nude
For I did not know what they call night food
The woman said, 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”.
Although there was some resistance to mento lyrics generally from some quarters, business people and the general populace seemed united in their endorsement of the genre. Ken Khouri, managing director of Records Limited said, “I think calypso is one of our biggest attractions as regards to the tourist trade. We have received hundreds of orders for calypso records from various parts of the world”. Leroy Riley of Savoy Record Shop gave the detractors a tongue-lashing with: “According to the mind, so be it. If one’s mind is in the gutter, then he can find nothing besides dirt. Where intelligence fails, vulgarity prevails”. Everard Williams, the writer of Night Food was more submissive: ”I am very sorry if my song is causing any trouble, but why blame me alone. When I started writing these songs, I used to write very high-class calypsos, and altogether I did not sell 200 copies. Then I started out with others like Satan’s Wife and began to make a headway. But I didn’t make a hit until I wrote Night Food. Obviously, that was what the people wanted.”