- Leighton Williams photo
Rod Dennis Mento Band member Alton James holds up his banjo, one of the instruments used by the mento bands.
Leighton Williams, Staff Reporter
DESPITE the rich history of mento music, its musicians have been suffering over the years from not only a lack of recognition but also limited financial rewards.
The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) has made quite some effort to keep the music alive but performers are still without just compensation.
Mento music has been described as the great-grand-parent of reggae. It was once Jamaica's most popular form of music having several bands in almost every district across the island. Its popularity also produced songs that are still performed today. Several of those songs are Rukumbine, Peel Head John Crow and Linstead Market.
Like all music forms, mento has had its stars and its controversies with some of the songs being banned because they were thought to be sexually explicit.
However, in the 1950s the popularity of Mento music declined. It was taken over by ska and eventually reggae. As the music declined, so did the number of bands. Moving from at least one per district to a small number in isolated locations.
"As far as we know on our last count there were at least eight bands across the island. Eight bands signed up for our last mento festival but only six participated," Marjorie Leyden-Vernon of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) pointed out.
With the decrease in popularity has come a decrease in the number of dates that the bands get to play. Most of the bands now play in festivals, at hotels, at functions such as parties and weddings as well as occasionally at airports. Some are lucky enough to play more than once a week. However, no band plays more than three times per week.
In terms of money - there is very little to be made for these bands. On average, a mento band earns from a low of $8,000 per performance to a high of $15,000. There are usually five members in a mento band so this money gets divided leaving each member with between $1,600 to $3,000. This amount is not even a drop in the bucket when compared to what reggae or dancehall artistes makes. At the moment fees in reggae and dancehall start from a low of $30,000 up to $700,000.
To make matters even worse for mento bands: "Transportation comes out of our pockets for going to the venue where we play," explained Ransford James of the Kew Park Mento Band.
"We have to pay the van man about the same money we get. So more time we don't get any money from what we play for. We just doing it for the love of it because when we pay the van man we don't have anything left," added Alton James, of the Rod Dennis Mento band.
Terra Nova, one of the hotels where several of the bands used to play closed its doors recently and so the bands have to find other places to play. "People enjoyed them greatly when they used to play here. They played twice a week every week, on a Friday and on a Sunday. They wouldn't have been here long if people didn't enjoy it," explained a spokesperson for the hotel.
The Terra Nova, however, is not the only place where the music has been enjoyed. The band members say that they have received warm reception wherever they go. For bands such as Rod Dennis and the Blue Glaze band that have travelled overseas, they say the reception has been equally good.
"When we went to Venezuela for a world cultural festival we were well received by the audience and they loved us. They loved how the music sounded," said Alton James of the Rod Dennis Mento Band.
Vincent Pryce of the Blue Glaze band said: "We have been to nine countries representing Jamaica at the World Cultural Festival and the response has been good. For example, when we went to South Korea the people loved the music we were playing."
Both bands say the overseas audience respond better to their music than locals.
In order to attempt to reach the ever-dwindling local market the bands have had to use creative methods. Their music has been combined with several popular music forms including reggae.
Patrick Christian of Peacemaker Band is one of the mento musicians who plays songs by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh on Mento rhythms.
"Sometimes the people request reggae and we play it. Other times we combine mento with reggae," said Christian.
With all this effort, however, the bands are still short of recognition. There are many persons who don't even know which instruments mento bands use. The music is played using the guitar, banjo, a rhumba box - something like a box with guitar strings, a maracas, a harmonica and a saxophone. All the instruments with the exception of the rhumba box which is made by local carpenters are bought at music stores.
However, all is not lost. The JCDC has in recent times been trying to keep the music alive. They have launched a mento CD and have travelled the island trying to generate interest. The CD, which features four bands, was well received in Mandeville. The sale has gone past the expectation of its organisers.
"Considering that it is a traditional form of music it has been doing well beyond our expectations. Based on our perception of the public, we had confidence in our product but we did not know how the public would respond," Terrence McDonald, Cultural Officer at the JCDC explained.
"It has gone past our expectations and we will be taking it overseas. We have ordered 500 more copies and we will be taking 300 overseas with us. If it goes well over there, we will order more. The CD is available in record stores islandwide and people have been coming into the offices and ordering them," he added.
The JCDC hopes the CD will do well so the bands get some money and the music is revived. Plans are also afoot to produce a second volume and the JCDC has also launched a music competition to keep the music alive.
As for the bands, some of them hope to raise enough money to do a CD on their own. They feel that the music has great potential especially overseas but for now they cannot tap into that market since to produce such a CD will cost money they do not have.