What is mento? Here’s a short answer: It’s a Jamaican music that is largely unknown outside of that is the grandpappy of reggae. For a ska or reggae fan, mento sounds familiar and exotic and unfamiliar. Mento recordings are difficult to come by, but worth seeking out. It’s music that lifts my spirits and relaxes my mind whenever I hear it.
Jolly Boys – Man Jamaican Group
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 mento’s recorded history pre-history, from the 1920s through the 1940s, a number of Jamaican songs were put to wax by Caribbean jazz artists. In the 1930 and 1940s, Slim and Sam, a mento group who performed in Kingston, gained renown and are recalled today. They’re remembered for their originals, and sold “tracts” — printed lyrics — at their performances. (The book “Reggae Routes” by Kevin O’Brien Chang and Wayne Chen lists the names of some of these originals, and has additional information and even a picture of Slim and Sam.)
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 had also encompassed pan-Caribbean influences, as well as from 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 a 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, it’s 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. Mento banjo had different approaches.
Although you can count on one hand the number of reggae songs that feature banjo, some guitar techniques heard in reggae, such as the picked rhythmic playing employed by many Jamaican guitarists sound as if they have their roots in the banjo playing of the island’s past.
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 reggae’s hallmarks is a sparse, thunderous bass-line.
The rumba box provided much the same for mento, albeit in a more rudimentary form. Depending on 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. Scaled-down souvenir rumba boxes were available to tourists in Jamaica during the 1950s and 1960s.
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, 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 ofthe 1920s, 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, it’s most probably a dance band recording.
In dance band mento, home-made instruments were replaced by professional saxes and clarinets and basses. Often, banjo was left behind in favor of electric guitar. 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.
Though mento bands recorded a handful of quadrille and mento instrumentals, most mento songs had vocals. 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. Some described Jamaican foods and recipes — 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. Though there a few serious or sad songs, the great majority were happy and positive.
Humor was integral to many mento songs. This sometimes includes ribald lyrics, filled with double entendres, which delighted Jamaicans and tourists alike. These 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, mento naughtiness is very mild. Yet, the popularity of these records led to a scare where the Jamaican government considered banning native ‘calypso’ records! There were also topical songs describing and commenting on the latest styles and 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 Everard 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. For example, “Hold ’em Joe” was first recorded by Lord Executioner in the 1910s. But while a number of songs found their way to Jamaica’s shores, the calypso practice of extemporaneously improvising lyrics did not. Mento songs aimed specifically at Jamaica’s tourists, such as “Take Her To Jamaica (Where The Rum Comes From)” where also part of the mix.
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. Old folk and mento melodies would sometimes acquire altered, or an entirely new set of lyrics. (The melody from “Rucumbine” proved to be especially reusable.) 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.
Mento’s vocalists sang in a variety of styles and pitches. But if there is one style that sounds most mento of all, it’s the nasal, rural sound that some mento singers possessed. It’s 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 (with the exception of the heavily mento influences Stanley Beckford) never really matched this sound.
The Venues and Festivals
Mento was everywhere in Jamaica, live and recorded, in the country and the city, uptown and downtown, at work, at dances, at funerals, at burlesque shows, at tourist resorts, as an added attraction at the movie theater, at bars, at the airport, at markets, at night clubs and at festivals and contests. Basically, any public gathering might include a mento band as entertainment. But it was at the festivals and competitions where one could have been treated to incredible multi-act bills.
For example, in 1953, the Ward Theatre hosted the First Annual All-Island Calypso Band Contest. Thirteen bands competed, including first place winner Lord Power, second place winner Lord Messam. There was a tie for third between Lord Food and His Firehouse Four and Clyde Hoyte and his Sunbeams . Sugar Belly won a consolation prize, as the controversial scoring was said to have penalized him. Power’s raucous set was lauded, but Messam’s set was said to be tame because he was too used to catering to the tastes of tourists. Hoyte’s set was said to be suited for a nightclub and Lord Food (I wonder if this is Lord Foodoos) performed “Mother Love”.
An even more impressive collection of talent was assembled at the 1955 Calypso Pepper Pot show, again a the Ward Theatre, as seen below left. Silver Seas, Lord Lebby, Lord Messam, Count Lasher, visiting Trinidadian calypsonians, renown Jamaican jazz band Eric Deans and His Orchestra and many more performed, including Lord Tanamo and Sir Horace, both of whom were not part of the advertisement. Judges included Louise Bennett, Mapletoft Poulle and Stanley Motta. The winner was Silver Seas for their song “Chinese Cricket”. Second place was Count Barry featuring lead vocalist Lord Lebby. Third place was has by Count Lasher for his performance of “History of Jamaica” and “Calypso Cha Cha.” Lord Messam won best costume and performed “If You’re Not White, You’re Considered Black”.