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Tuesday, March 28, 2006


The Golden Age (1950s)

The Secret History of Mento Music

Mento music had its beginnings in Jamaica in the 19th century, and was uniquely Jamaican fusion of African and European musical traditions. In the 1920s, a number of mento songs were put to vinyl by Caribbean jazz artists. In the 1930s, Slim and Sam, a mento duo who performed in Kingston, gained renown and are remembered today. But it wasn't until the early 1950s that true mento recordings first began to appear on 78 RPM discs. This decade was mento’s golden age, as a variety of artists recorded mento songs in an assortment of rhythms and styles. It was the peak of mento's creativity and popularity in Jamaica and the birth of Jamaica's recording industry.

These recordings reveal mento to be a diverse musical genre, sometimes played with reckless abandon and other times with orderly precision. In addition to mento's African and European roots, by this time it has also encompassed pan-Caribbean influences, as well as American jazz. Although it was informed by a world of music, mento is clearly, uniquely Jamaican. And as Jamaica's original music, all other Jamaican music can trace its roots to mento.

Some styles of mento would evolve into ska and reggae. (As a matter of fact, some mento songs are still being recorded inna dancehall stylee today.) Other styles, while purely mento, seem to have done less to contribute to the development of later Jamaican music.

During this time, Trinidadian calypso was the Caribbean’s top musical export, and the term "Calypso" was used generically applied to Jamaican mento as well. Far more often than it was called by its proper name, mento was called "calypso", "kalypso" or "mento calypso". Adding to the confusion, Jamaica had its own calypso singers that did not record mento, such as Lord Creator. (The Trinidad-born Creator later became a ska singer for Studio 1.) And mento artists would often perform calypso songs in the mento style, or record a mento song with calypso influence. Some mento artists followed the calypsonian practice of adding a title such as "Count" or "Lord" to their name. But make no mistake, mento is distinctly different sound from calypso, with its own instrumentation, rhythms, pacing, vocal styles, harmonies, and lyrical concerns.

The Classic Rural Sound

The classic mento sound is the acoustic, informal, folksy rural style. Still sometimes referred to as country music in Jamaica, its easy to imagine farmers and their families celebrating harvest with a mento dance. Typical instruments included banjo, acoustic guitar, a home-made saxophone, clarinet or flute made from bamboo, a variety of hand percussion and a rumba box. Often, these songs had a proto-reggae beat, and sounded like an acoustic antediluvian form of reggae. (The mento proto-reggae beat was especially reminiscent of reggae where the dub echo doubles the guitar chop. Bob Marley's "Sun Is Shining" from "Kaya" is an example that leaps to mind.)

The frequent use of banjo in mento may come as a surprise, since this did not carry over into later Jamaican music. This is strange, considering how great this instrument sounds in mento, and how many different ways it was played. It strummed the rhythm similarly to the role of guitar in reggae. It was a lead instrument, sometimes played very precisely and sometimes very loosely. It could riff wildly, or be played as orderly and pointillisticly as a music box. Sometimes it chimed like a steel drum, other times it sounded like a mandolin. But banjo always brightened up the song.

One thing mento banjo doesn't sound like is the banjo playing heard in bluegrass or other American musical traditions. In mento it was a whole different approach.

Acoustic guitar was typically a strummed rhythm instrument. Banjo or winds most typically handled any soloing.

The bamboo sax had a distinctive, organic sound. The Sugar Belly page has information, pictures and even video of this instrument in action.

The rumba box is a large thumb piano built from from a wooden box. A large circular sound hole is cut into the front, over which are a number of tuned metal tines. These are plucked to produce bass notes. One of reggaes hallmarks is a sparse, thunderous bass-line. The rumba box provided much the same for mento, albeit in a more rudimentary form. Depending how the tines were plucked, the rumba box could also produce a rich and unusual percussive sound. The rumba box is typically sat on as it is played.

The type of percussion heard on these recordings is another important feature of mento's unique sound. A full drum set would have been impractical, too expensive and a poor fit for such a rural, acoustic and informal music. Instead, if drums were present on a rural recording, a single hand drum was typically used. But as is often the case in mento, less is more. The single drum could really open up the music, by playing a solo or by its playing throughout a song. Sometimes, a second percussion instrument would be added, such as maracas (which were typical) or wood blocks. Hand drumming developed further in later Jamaican music, as African-influenced Rastafarian nyabhinghi drumming became an important ingredient in reggae.

Additional instruments (such as harmonica, fiddle, wood blocks, maracas, fife or penny whistle, and others) were also part of rural mento and found their way into many recordings from this era. It seems to be a rule that if a mento song features harmonica, it would be a fantastically upbeat recording. Likewise, if it featured fiddle, it sounded very country to my ears.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the popularity of R&B in Jamaica would effectively filter out banjo, bamboo instruments, clarinet, rumba box, flute, fife and penny whistle from later Jamaican music.

The Urban Mento Style

With lineage back to the Caribbean-jazz bands of the 1920s, a there was a second style of mento. This was the more urban, polished, jazzy dance band style. (This term came from Dan Neely's liner notes in the compilation CD, "Boogu Yagga Gal") If you are looking at a mento label and the word "Orchestra" appears in the artist's name, its most probably a dance band recording.

In dance band mento, home-made instruments were replaced by professional saxes and clarinets and bases. Along with clarinet, piano was often a featured instrument, as the music became overtly jazzy. Percussion was less rustic, and sometimes had a Latin feel. Almost all of the rural style's rough edges were smoothed out. In the 1960s, a calypso inflection was often heard in urban reggae, replacing the jazz sound. Dance band mento seems to have largely died out by the 70s, while the original rural style continued. However, the musicians of this style of mento contributed greatly to the jazz that was such an important element of ska.

The Lyrics

Mento's lyrics are typically a lot of fun. As a whole, they portray the issues, large and small, of life in Jamaica. Some songs are about Jamaica itself. Others described Jamaican foods and recipes, are just one way that mento gave you a real slice of Jamaican life in the 1950s. (There were so many songs about various fruits, it could be considered a sub-genre!) The trials and tribulations of Jamaicans migrating to England was a popular topic. All manner of relationships between people are explored, as is the problematic and comic relationship between man and animal. Humor was integral to most mento songs. This includes sometimes ribald lyrics, filled with double entendres, which delighted Jamaicans and tourists alike. This songs were very popular, and can be seen as the beginning of what grew into the explicit slackness lyrics in reggae. (Though, by today's standards, this naughtiness is quite mild.) There were also songs describing and commenting on the latest news stories. This may be the earliest song writing tradition in mento, along with adapting Jamaican folk songs. Two mento lyricists stand out: Count Lasher and Everart Williams, who each wrote a bushel of classic songs. There are very few of what could be described as a traditional love song in mento. Also refreshingly absent are self aggrandizing lyrics. Mento artists had enough to say without singing about their own preeminence.

In addition to songs of Jamaican origin, many Trinidadian calypso songs made their way into the mento repertoire. But while a number of songs found their way to Jamaica's shores, the calypso practice extemporaneously improvising lyrics did not.

Recording more than one vocal performance to the same musical backing is a quintessentially reggae practice. But it appears to have originated in mento, where this was not uncommon. This practice seem to go back as far as the beginnings of recorded Jamaican, as old folk and mento melodies would sometimes acquire altered, or an entirely new set of lyrics. Those who have acquired these recordings described on the Can I Buy Mento Music? page can compare "Naughty Little Flea" from Lord Flea’s "Swinging Calypsos" to "Nebuchadnezzar" from Laurel Aitken’s "The Pioneer of Jamaican Music". The lyrical content and vocal style couldn’t be more different, but the music is essentially the same. Or compare the two Lord Composer clips, Galag Gully; Matilda and Hill and Gully Ride; Mandeville Road. As in reggae, this practice does nothing to take away from the enjoyment of these recordings.

The Vocals

Mento's vocalists sang in a variety styles and pitches. But if there is one style that sounds most mento of all, its the nasal, rural sound that some mento singers possessed. Its a sound with strong echoes of African heritage. Listen to the intonation, phrasing and melodic approach that Harold Richardson displays in the opening line of, "Don't Fence Her In", or in, "Glamour Gal". That is a great mento voice. Then, listen to Alert Bedasse, the lead singer in Chin's Calypso Sextet on such songs as "Adam and Eve" and "Not Me Again". You will hear a very mento voice. (You will also hear bamboo sax, a very mento instrument.) Some reggae singers posses something of these vocal qualities, but never really matched this sound.

To read further on this article the reference link is:-


Kunstemæcker said...

cool stuff. Only downside was the length of the post, waaayyy too long. Didn't read it all.

but again, cool stuff.

iriegal said...

thanks for your comment kuntemaecker. If you do have is some interesting read.