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The legend of mento

Published:Sunday | February 12, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Although Jamaica is usually associated with reggae music, visitors' first experience of live music will probably be a mento band, either at the airport or by their hotel's pool or bar, on a cruise ship docked in the harbour, or at one of the government-sponsored festivals found throughout the island.

Mento is commonly referred to as Jamaican calypso and although, to some extent, it resembles Trinidadian calypso, it is distinctly different in the beat. The music also holds pride of place as being Jamaica's first and, in a sense, most indigenous popular music.

Mento was, in fact, the first popular Jamaican music to be commercially recorded. The genre grew out of slavery and is stamped with its own flavour.

Slaves were not allowed to congregate and, of course, the idea of freedom of speech did not exist.

Communication came mainly through chanting in rhythms using lyrics brought to the West Indies were from Africa. European slave owners, often unaware of what was being communicated and, in some instances, that there was even communication at all. Plantation owners often thought the slaves were entertaining them. In fact, what the slaves were doing was incorporating elements of European melodies into their music in order to please their masters.

musical mixture

Using homemade drums, bamboo flutes, fiddles and fifes, a horse or donkey jawbone, a cow horn, plus a spoon or a fork drawn against a grater, they created an orchestra of sounds that represented the earliest stages of Jamaica's mento music.

The European dance rhythm, the quadrille, which arrived via the slave owners, was very much a part of the concoction, insofar as it relates to the shaping of Jamaica's mento music.

These were interwoven with the African melodies to create a sound that became uniquely Jamaican.

Another interesting feature of early mento music was the practice by slaves of taking their masters title of nobility for their own, referring to themselves as Lord, Duke, Count, Prince, King, etc.

The practice continued down the ages with later mento performers like Count Lasher, Count Owen, Lord Laro, Lord Flea, Lord Power, Lord Beginner, Lord Creator, Lord Lebby and others decorating their persona in this way.

With the passage of time, the bonds of bondage disappeared and the chanting of the slaves became a form of entertainment for the participants and their listeners. Crudely hewn homemade instruments were constructed, improved upon and used for the accompaniment of the chanters, relics of which remain in today's mento music.

It will forever remain one of the wonders of music, the sweet sounds that emanate from such primitively constructed instruments, the main ones being: a rumba box which acts like a bass, and on which the performer sits; a banjo, something similar to a guitar; a fife or a bamboo saxophone and a maraca - a hollow club-like gourd container filled with beans or beads, usually shaken and used as a percussion.

The origins of the name mento are quite obscure. Though early recordings in the 1920s and 1930s spoke of mentors, there is no substantial evidence to link these with Jamaica's model.

Unlike the American boogie and rhythm and blues, which impacted deeply on the development of early Jamaican music, authentic Jamaican mento music seemed to have made little or no contribution.

It was an entity of its own, having a life span of approximately six years between 1950 and 1956.

deeper genre

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, anthropologist and musicologist in his own right, who has done extensive research into early Jamaican folk music, and with whom I had an interview some time ago, reflectively commented, "It's quite different, but there are certain mento pieces that have traversed into the modern period like Rucumbine and River To The Bank Coverly.

"Now, where mento had rhythm, the music we developed from the American boogie, had beat. It's a deeper thing, deeper by way of extention."

Mento music gradually spread throughout the island and, by the 1940s, became the only source and supplier of music for dances and social events.

It was indeed the forerunner to the sound system that emerged in the mid '50s in Jamaica.

From 1950-1956, a plethora of mento singers emerged, but the more popular ones were Count Lasher, Alerth Bedassee, The Ticklers and Lord Flea. Lasher, whose correct name was Terrence Parkins, hailed from St Thomas and started his entertainment career shortly after leaving elementary school. After teaching himself the guitar and the piano, he came to Kingston and got immersed in mento music, performing for visitors on boats docked at the Kingston Harbour.

His daughter Shirley remembers him as a family man who was very interested and attentive to his children. A very witty person, he penned, probably the most well-known mento recording, The Talking Parrot, in addition to others like Water The Garden, Perseverance, and The Weeds.

Alerth Bedassee, who hailed from Maycrawle, Clarendon, came to Kingston as a 21-year-old in the late 1940s.

He and Everart Williams, the writer of about 90 per cent of all mento hits, had replaced the famed Slim and Sam as the island's leading composers, singers, and sellers of the tracks they sang on the streets. Eventually, Williams wrote a song titled Night Food, which they hoped to record for commercial purposes. That proved difficult because the song was considered lewd. They eventually found a small producer named Sanford who accepted the recording which was done at the Mottas' recording studios on Hanover street.

The late Ken Khouri, owner of Federal Records, did the mastering and reported later that the song became the fastest selling record of his time, with sales allowing him to construct the Federal Studios at 220 Marcus Garvey Drive in downtown Kingston.

Bedassee went on to record with the Chin's Calypso Sextet some classic mento hits for producer Ivan Chin.

Lord Flea, guitarist and vocalist, has the distinction of recording the album Swinging Calypsos in the late 1950s for the very popular and well established American recording company Capitol Records. He was the first Jamaican to do so. Capitol Records recorded superstars Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and many others. The album included well-known tracks like Naughty Little Flea, The Monkey, Shake Shake Señora and You Can't Cross Over.

He showered even greater glory on himself when he became the first Jamaican to appear in a full-length movie, Bop Goes Calypso which made him Jamaica's first superstar.

The Ticklers with Harold Richardson at the helm were probably the first of the mento stars at the turn of the decade with the very popular Healing In The Balmyard, Don't Fence Her In, Parish Gal and Glamour Gal.

Other mento singers like Laurel Aitken with Baba Kill Mi Goat, Hubert Porter with Dry Weather House, Lord Fly with The Little Fly, Lord Power with Penny Reel and Baba Motta with She Pon Top, were also very popular.

Mento music is making a resurgence with The Jolly Boys' album, Great Expectations, reaching the charts of several European countries. Stanley Beckford and the Blue Glaze band also contributed to the revival of mento music.

Because of groups like The Jolly Boys, mento music is still on the rise and is shedding that signs it was dying a few years ago.