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Traditional bands a big part of tourist entertainment - Mento bands, still relevant to growth of current genres

Published:Thursday | July 5, 2018 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew
The Blue Glaze Mento Band performing in Paris.
The box which is the throbbing heart of mento.
The Jolly Boys in performance.
The Jolly Boys

Before there was ska, rocksteady, reggae or dancehall, there was mento - traditional folk music with African and Europeans influences.

Some musicologists and veteran musicians may even argue that without the prevalence of mento in the 1940s, all other locally created genres would not exist.

Originally played on home-made instruments, the 'country style' music is particularly popular for being an ode to life's struggles - 'man and woman problems' and social issues as well as folklore delivered with music fused with rib-tickling metaphors.

Talented musicians like Lord Flea, The Jolly Boys, Count Lasher, Rod Dennis, Lititz Mento Band, Lord Tanamo, The Clarendonians and Lord Fly, along with literary icon Louise Bennett, and The Wailers, were responsible for spreading mento music globally. A genre that developed in Jamaica, the bands that played mento were often classified as calypso from out of Trinidad and Tobago.

According to New Orleans-based film producer - Bill Monsted, mento bands are still relevant and in demand, especially on the hotel circuit. Introduced to the genre during his stays at hotels across the island, Monsted has taken a keen interest in the genre.

"I instantly liked the sound, more so found it interesting that they also played the tenor banjo as a solo instrument, as our Dixieland players do in New Orleans," Monsted told The Sunday Gleaner.

The band's instruments include: flute, rumba box, banjo, guitar, cymbals, maracas and the singers - sometimes congo drums add to the sound. Folk songs such as Hill an' Gully ride and Day-O are two of the most familiar, along with Louise Bennett's Linstead Market, which is taught in some schools.

Monsted added, "The special thing about mento bands is that the music that was born in Jamaica has endured for so long."

He and popular director Rick Elgood (also responsible for The Jolly Boys' management) have decided to do a documentary on mento and the bands that have contributed to its popularity. The two first met to discuss doing a music video with The Jolly Boys, which morphed into a bigger project - a whole history of mento called Pimento and Hot Pepper. The film has been showncased in eight international festivals so far.

"There must be 20 or more bands that appear throughout the production; sadly, many of the long-standing musicians in the documentary (either filmed recently or from past clippings) have since passed," said Monsted.

He explained that some mento bands had a pure folk or acoustic sound, while others had an almost big band sound and that hopefully the entertainment value and role mento bands play will keep attracting musicians to keep it alive. Seven years ago, The Jolly Boys caught the attention of a new audience after doing a mento cover of Amy Winehouse's Rehab.

"As for a rebirth, I am not sure, although it is encouraging to see some of the younger replacements that have appeared lately," he said.


Surviving mento bands


Amid the surviving mento bands and players is Clarendon-based Blue Glaze Mento Band formed over 50 years ago (in 1967). The band is still actively rehearsing and performing, and according to Paul Washington Stone, the current bandleader and banjo player, October is the busiest period for them.

"It is on and off, in terms of the bookings we get. We are not associated with any one hotel but we do festivals, private parties, weddings, people will call now and then but we haven't travelled outside of Jamaica for the past eight years," said Stone.

Some of the original founders have passed - in 2004, Vincent Pryce, clarinet/flute player who was one of the first generation of mento bandleaders and banjoist Nelson Chambers (1944-2010) known for developing a unique style of playing mento rhythms. Currently, Austin George Petgrave (flute), Vernal George Morgan (percussion and vocals), Samuel Freckleton (guitar), Gartel Brown (drums), Paul Christie (rumba box) along with Stone are keeping the music alive in the south. Christie is the youngest member at 51 years old.

"Younger persons don't gravitate to mento or the idea of being in a band that plays that type of music. As a matter of fact, many of the present-day recording artistes do not know the real root is mento, that it is a foundation," said Stone. "We still keep the culture alive and plan to keep it going for as long as we are able to."

Stone bemoans the fact that dances like the Contra Style Quadrille (performed to mento music from start to finish) are also lost, and said the main challenge is the lack of sharing the heritage to the youth.