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'Sly Mongoose' mento exhibition
Tracing a popular dance music in Jamaica

published: Sunday | June 29, 2003

Georgia Hemmings, Staff Reporter

THE SWEET, bouncy strains of mento music emanate from a wooden rhumba box. On a raised dais, instruments used in a mento band are arranged ­ the acoustic guitar, bamboo fife, tambourine, shakas, grater and fork, bongo drums, and a pair of Dutch pot covers. Around the room, old photographs show couples dancing to mento music, and some of the island's popular bands performing at north coast hotels.

The stage is set for the "Sly Mongoose" exhibition currently on at the Museums Division of the Institute of Jamaica on East Street in Kingston.

Named after a popular song, the exhibition traces the history of mento, its rhythms and instruments, its role in voicing issues affecting the society at large, existing bands, and how early Jamaican musicians "tu'n dem han' mek fashan". It also explores mento's linkages with present-day music, and what is being done to preserve this musical form.

Although described as the genre from which almost all other popular Jamaican music has drawn, there are still some doubts about mento's origins. Some believe that it is derived from a Spanish word (mentar ­ "to call out" or "to name"), and this is supported by the fact that so many Jamaicans worked for long periods in places like Cuba, Panama and Nicaragua. Others suggest, however, that it is an African word, describing a lewd dance.

Whatever its origin, the exhibition shows that mento's roots lie in the early 19th century when European dances like the quadrille were popular throughout the Caribbean. By the end of the 19th century, mento was all the "rage" in Jamaica, and (like dance hall today) served as "throw wu'd" music, providing an avenue to discuss taboos and social issues.

MENTO SONGS

So mento songs commented on local news, the Bible, politics, infidelity, even obeah, and their subtle innuendo, humouros double entendres and suggestive lyrics helped to protect the innocent from the song's baser meanings.

According to the research, Slim and Sam were two of the best known writers of "throw wu'd" songs in the 1930s and 1940s. "Sly Mongoose" is one of the most popular "scandal" songs, which is still sung today:

Mongoose go down Missa Beckford kitchen,
Tek out one a 'im ritious chicken,
Put 'im inna 'im waiscoat pocket
Run mongoose

Sly (slide) mongoose, yu name gone abroad.
Sly (slide) mongoose, yu name gone abroad."

Originally, the lyrics likened the eccentric religious leader, Alexander Bedward, to a cunning mongoose (a dodgy character). But Bedward is absent from later versions sung today, which leaves the object of the song's criticism open to interpretation.

INSTRUMENTS

The types and variety of instruments used in mento are on display, and, looking at them, one can see how the sound and character of the music has developed.

In the 1700s, the instruments accompanying the "lively song and dance of Negro slaves" were mostly African and made by the musicians themselves. In the outer display area, the viewer sees examples of these early instruments including the jawbone, tenor drum, conch shell, and the bamboo fife.

A stick drawn over a horse's jawbone produced a dull, rattling rhythm; the banjo was made from a gourd with a wooden neck, and horsehairs tied long or short along the neck to produce different tones; and glass bottles of any size or shape produced a sweet, sharp whistling sound when blown. However, after Emancipation in 1838, the instruments changed, with the violin, guitar and other items being introduced to the newly-freed, partly through the formal education system. Many of these instruments were locally crafted. By the 20th century, the clarinet, harmonica, and tenor banjo were added, and, much, later clavé (rhythm sticks), the weré (a notched sound board), conga drums, and the Cuban rhumba box to provide bass. The intriguing shakas (seeds in a snall gourd) can be seen, as well as the grater, fork, and the Dutch pot covers, whose timbre added to the beat.

A typical mento dance is simple, centering around the hip, with the knees bent and the feet remaining well-grounded. Couples dance loosely to the 3-3-2 beat pattern, with body contact. When the feet move, they perform a kind of balancing act, with dipping and feinting motions.

During its heyday, mento dances were well-attended affairs, and served to bring the people together and strengthened community bonds. Community bands played at house parties, tea parties, "nine nights" and Maypole celebrations, but other bands played for hotel guests. Over times, these latter groups became known as "calypsonians', since tourists mistakenly labelled mento as "calypso".

RISE AND DECLINE

Like a cat with nine lives, mento has gone into decline and risen several times throughout its existence. The exhibition shows that these times of decline coincided with the infiltration of non-Jamaican popular music (such as jazz), and this still continues today.

In contemporary times, reggae and dancehall have been dominating local music, providing the platform that mento once did ­ for leisure/social activities, and for voicing personal grievances and social issues.

The exhibition points out that although the two are different (mento relying on a live band, and dancehall relying on pre-recorded music), they are linked.

Reads one poster: "Dancehall can be described as an updated form of mento, based on a common 3-3-2 beat and rhythmic styling that uses drum machines and digital technology as the backdrop for dancing.

"In addition, one finds call-response (between a singer and audience) to be a common feature of the two forms. And although audiences may not see musical instruments being played or hear many traditional songs, the musical style and delivery of the dee-jay are clearly mento-inspired. This places dancehall in the same musical space that mento occupied 50 years ago."

But, for fans of mento, all is not lost. In recent years, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) ­ mandated to unearth and preserve Jamaican cultural heritage ­ has sparked renewed interest in mento through its annual competitions at Festival. The repertoire on these occasions include folk songs, quadrilles, polkas and whatever else was popular at the time.

Pressed about the intriguing name of the exhibition, library guide, Nadine Spence, read from her exhibition script: "The mongoose is really a part of us all. He is the individual who has learnt to survive using his God-given talent and imagination. Such was the needs of our forefathers, who having all stolen from them, were left with only their wits... And much wit did they have, as, with only memories and what this "land of wood and water" offered, they shaped a different culture...Nothing expresses this achievement better than our music (including mento) which draws on all areas of native genius."

So, go see the exhibition, and take time to browse and learn how our forefathers helped shape Jamaica's musical culture. As it is scheduled to run through to the end of July, it should be included in the list of 'must do' activities for young and old alike this summer.

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