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Portland Jamaica’s Marvelous Mento Music!
What on Earth is Mento?
First, a short mento lesson (with a little help from wikipedia.com): Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that predates and has greatly influenced ska and reggae music. Mento typically features acoustic instruments, such as acoustic guitar, banjo, hand drums, and the rumba box – a large mbira, or thumb piano, in the shape of a box that can be sat on while played. The rumba box carries the bass part of the music.
Mento draws on musical traditions brought to Jamaica by African slaves. The lyrics of mento songs often deal with aspects of everyday life in a light-hearted and humorous way. It has also been said that “Mento is used to ridicule members of the social group or censure them for some misdeed”. Some of my favorite song titles are “Bitter Cassava Killed Joe Brown“, “Donkey Want Water“, “Love in the Cemetary“, and of course, “Big Bamboo“.
Mento is often confused with calypso, a form of music that originated in Trinidad & Tobago. Although the two share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms. In part, the differences stem from the differing colonial histories of the two West Indian Islands, as Jamaican music doesn’t have the Spanish influences found in other Caribbean musical styles. In fact, some of singer Harry Belafonte’s massive hit records in the 1950s – like “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” – were really mento songs but were promoted as calypso because tourists couldn’t distinguish between mento & calypso.
If you enjoy Jamaican reggae music but think you’ve never heard mento before, take another listen to “Whatcha Gonna Do” by Peter Tosh (the mento song “Charley’s Cow” but with new lyrics). You will also find threads of mento through many songs by Bob Marley and The Wailers, Bunny Wailer, and other well-known reggae artists. It wasn’t uncommon for ska and reggae artists to blend in mento melodies to their more modern songs. Once you know what mento is, you will hear it frequently.
Most-Recognized Mento Band Today?
The Jolly Boys from Port Antonio, Jamaica, are the most-recognized mento band in the world today. Since their formation more than 56 years ago in 1955, they have performed throughout Jamaica at all the famous hotels. Most often they performed alongside a dance troupe. One of these troupes was led by Albert Minott, at that time an occasional Jolly Boys member and now its current lead singer. Imagine tourists in the British colonial ’40s and ’50s swaying to this fun & laid-back Jamaican folk music and Minott’s trademark fire-eating and hand-walking antics – sweet.
The Jolly Boys (known at the time as Navy Island Swamp Boys) were also favorites of Errol Flynn and performed regularly at private house parties in his Port Antonio home on Port Antonio’s Navy Island (owned by Flynn). I imagine mento’s saucy lyrics, which boasted about sexual escapades, drinking and good times, would have been right up Errol Flynn’s alley. In fact, legend has it that Errol Flynn named the group The Jolly Boys because they gave him a “jolly” feeling when he listened to them play.
Although artists have come in and out of the group over the decades, the current Jolly Boys are: Albert Minott (lead vocals and guitar), Joseph “Powda” Bennett (vocals and maracas), Derrick “Johnny” Henry (vocals and rumba box), Allan Swymmer (percussion), Egbert Watson (banjo), Donald Waugh (banjo), Lenford “Brutus” Richards (guitar), and Dale Virgo (percussion).
The best part of it all is that the Jolly Boys are still performing after 50+ years so, if you want to learn more about mento music, you can still enjoy this old-time music form in person. They are the house band at GeeJam hotel in Portland, Jamaica. If you can’t see them perform live, you can listen to their mento music online or catch a glimpse of them in Denzel Washington’s movie, “The Mighty Quinn”.
Don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy this uniquely Jamaican music. You won’t regret it!
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