Jolly Boys and Mento in Jamaica
by Shivu Rao (May 2002)Mento music, as represented by its best known practitioners the Jolly Boys, signifies one of the first original recorded contemporary Caribbean island music styling of the 20th century. Many different types of music styles (for example Jonkunno, Quadrille, and the simple plantation work songs, to name a few) collided together to create a vibrant musical fabric of the Caribbean, and some would argue, particularly, in Jamaica.
Mento as a musical style had many parents, among them Trinidadian calypso, old Christian hymns, southern blues and later even jazz. Mento is originally thought to have emerged as a style of island folk music on Jamaica in the early part of last century. The original term, 'mento,' took on new meanings over time as the style enjoyed a brief time in the spotlight in the 1940's and the 1950's, before it faded out in timely conjunction with the political and cultural awakening of the Jamaican people. This awakening came as part the people's pursuit of self-government and political autonomy from her British rulers, culminating in full independence in 1962.
In the 1960's, mento as a musical style was not able to find new relevance in the midst of a period when new ideas, a new self-concept and ultimately a new and unique Jamaican identity were being actively pursued. When Jamaica became independent, it heralded the golden age of Jamaican music, which predominantly included ska and rock-steady; these later took the ultimate form of reggae. The rise of the new styles came in place of the older ones - mento fell into the cultural background in Jamaica. However, the place of mento needs to be affirmed by the knowing public one of the roots of reggae (if ska and U.S. rhythm and blues its direct lineage). Many of the rhythmic ideas in mento (for instance, the upstroke guitar which emphasized the 2nd, 3rd and 4th count, while drum punctuated the 2nd and 4th count in a bar) were embraced by reggae and became some of its key signatures that formalized the genre. Since the high point of its cultural significance long ago, mento has been not as prominent as reggae and appears 'dated' in form and composition to fans of modern dancehall reggae, 'reggae hip-hop' and soca.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF JAMAICAN MENTO ('Island Folk') MUSIC
Over the long history of African slavery in the Caribbean and the deep South (from around 1690 to 1850's), the practice of sharing stories, of people, faith and indiscretions in the form of songs and chants around the evening fire and other major gatherings at Christmas and Easter was a way cultural information was passed down through time. This ensured that tales of woe, faith and humor would be preserved in the oral tradition. The tales usually focused on the role of the spirit, the solace provided by the church and the need to protect the righteousness/morality of the Church as an institution, along with secular tales of the human experience. The Church was the first institution that embodied the ideals that any slave or person could aspire to. Therefore, it was a desirable position in the community to be able to sing songs or play an instrument in order to be able to impart cultural knowledge.
A more secular focus in the content of music in the Caribbean began to emerge as the period of slavery ended in the early to mid 19th century (in Jamaica slavery was abolished in 1833). According to historians, freed slaves and similar blacks from larger, mainly agriculture-based islands (like Jamaica) ventured to other parts of the Caribbean including Costa Rica, Haiti and Trinidad in search of non-agriculture-based work, such as construction or factory labor (which paid better than farming).
As a result, Latin (mainly samba) and polyrhythmic Calypso patterns of Trinidad influenced the Jamaican music scene as returning workers brought back musical ideas from foreign lands. The main instruments that made up the mento bandstand were the drum (Jamaican bongo or tree drum being first and foremost), acoustic guitar, banjo, rhythm box, and a variety of percussion instruments. Direct Cuban musical influence on mento took the form of incorporating the rhythm box or giant thumb piano ('Marimbula') into the range of instruments used in mento (something the Jolly Boys refer to as the 'Kalimba'). The choice of instruments used varied according to the choice of the artist or more often, availability - there was no fixed rule. Overall, most experts say that the mento style is more similar to calypso and other Caribbean styles rather than the complex melodic structure of Latin music. The emphasis of mento musical structure is based on the a few key stylistic and structural elements - the upstroke of the guitar and rhythm and melody are tightly coupled in accent and delivery; the form of rhyming verses which tell a story and lastly a catchy chorus that was melodically different from the verse.
Due to its mainly localized range and appeal, early mento evolved slowly in the last century (i.e. without major western influence) and was relatively unaffected by Latin or early 20th century western music and had a heavy colloquial flavor. The description of mento as being early Caribbean 'street folk' music is apt. Themes that were sung of were for most part 'happy' and not religious in nature (the common themes being sex, Jamaica, inter-island differences or rivalries and human caricatures). Thus mento music served as an active cultural sub-text and it pointed out these resilient peoples' ability to "tek bad tings mek laugh" in what must have been an unimaginably destitute hard life.
As the evolution of mento was a localized phenomenon, this is one of the reasons for its lack of an official historical record. Songs relating local events, personalities and issues were staple for mento songs. Villages and towns around Jamaica developed their own sub-styles of mento and each had its own special lyrical emphasis to suit the topical interests of the day in local communities. The largely local thematic focus of mento's lyrical content, echoes back to similarities in slave musical beginnings. As slaves were disallowed from travel and learning about geography, the early songs and stories dealt with the limited reaches of their world. Similarly, the focus of early mento had a constrained geographic worldview to be relevant to the average mento listener (largely poor and uneducated non-whites). This point is good to remember when thinking of why the history of mento is so poorly recorded - it was a musical stance, for most part, borne out of the oral tradition of the slaves and did not have the support of the white establishment.
MENTO MAKES ITS MARK
The first major exposure accorded to mento was in 1954 when the song 'Mento Meringue Merengue' aired on Jamaican radio after being recorded on the islands first recording studio. The track is said to have a Calypso-based rhythm track and was said to have been recorded with "a harmonica, coconut grater, and a home made wooden trumpet." The popularity of this song caused a minor flurry of mento recordings being released on 45-rpm vinyl. The signatures of the style had already been established by this point - singing in lyrics in unison about sex as a viable pass-time were standard village mento fare among other hilarious topics.
THEM JOLLY BOYS
The Jolly Boys operated in a brief window of time during the 1940's and 1950's and were subsequently largely forgotten in the wake of the global spread of reggae. They were primarily a quartet that sang traditional folk songs for tourists in the Port Antonio area in their patented mento style. Port Antonio, the town, rests by a relatively unspoiled part of Northeastern Jamaican coastline where at one point banana cultivation was big business.
Here, the Jolly Boys were said to have performed for the tourists at the famous Trident Hotel. The content and style of the music made it the ideal 'tourist music' for that late-colonial time of the forties and fifties. The classic elements that were the clear-cut composition style, amusing lyrics and delivery and the choppy upstroke of the guitar and banjo made for an upbeat experience. The music was repetitive; the lyrics when not beautifully concise and street-smart, was often lowbrow and meant to be amusing and was delivered in a casual island-style - a perfect mix. The Jolly Boys were in fact said to have played for Errol Flynn's parties at his residence.
Of the themes prevalent in mento, songs about a universally engaging subject were the main topic: sex. As it has been discussed many places before, the life in ghettos and other rural towns, living situations were characterized by lack of an educated populace who lived in poverty. Sex was very much part of social life and was talked about openly and naturally became a central topic of folk lyrics. Most of the Jolly Boys albums come loaded with traditional or slightly modified versions of old folk songs focused on sexual innuendo. The following two songs are examples of this emphasis:
"My ripe tomato, my ripe tomato
Surrounded by a bush (sic)
And to reach that tomato, you always have to push
My ripe tomato, my ripe tomato
You can pick my tomato
That is, if you have your right-size tool"
'Ripe Tomato' -Traditional (Sunshine and Water), RKO, 1990
Or this little gem -
"Lou Lou have one boyfriend, his name was Diamond Dick,
Some girls love his Diamond but Lou Lou loves his -
Bang Bang Lou Lou, Lou Lous gone away
Whos gonna do the bang bang when Lou Lous gone away?
Now Lou Lou have two boyfreinds, one was very rich
One was a son of a banker and the other was son of a -
Bang Bang Lou Lou, Lou Lous gone away
Whos gonna do the bang bang when Lou Lous gone away?
Lou Lou have another boyfriend, his name was Tommy Tucker
He took her to the drive-in to see if he could -
Bang Bang Lou Lou, Lou Lous gone away
Whos gonna do the bang bang when Lou Lous gone away?"
'Bring Back Lou Lou' - Traditional (Sunshine and Water), RKO, 1990
Even though sex was meditated upon mightily in the context of everyday living, it was often presented an in amusing, tongue-in-cheek manner to be sure. For example, the following verses present good examples of this lyrical style.
"I was courting a woman independently
She promised to make a baby for me
When the baby born and I went to see
Eyes was blue, it was a Portuguese
Now I have a little girlfriend named Caroline
She calls me Honeybunch all of the time
When I think things are going fine
She was shooting the shots with a friend of mine
Samson was strong man long ago
I don't know him, the story was so
They say he lie with Delilah on top of her bed
She found out his strength lies in the hair of his head"
'Woman's Smarter' - Traditional (Sunshine and Water), RKO 1990
Inter-island teasing or jibes became a classic folk music topic in mento. Here is a sample from a the song "Donkey Want Water" off Beer Joint and Tailoring:
"Some people say my donkey is bad because him come from Trinidad
Lead him come, lead him come and let him get some rum"
'Donkey Want Water' - Traditional (Beer Joint And Tailoring), First Warning 1990
MENTO AND JAMAICA IN THE NINETEEN-SIXTIES -
END OF ONE SOCIAL CONCIOUSNESS AND ANOTHER RISING
During the old days of slavery any locally produced song (folk songs) or other similar folk artifact was not regarded to be anything of substance. When this logic is applied to the fact that slavery thrived for over three centuries in the Caribbean it is easy to see that the role of popular local music (not of Christian-derivation) was relegated to insignificance. The stereotyped impression of any artistic creation of non-western origin was classified as being non-threatening and child-like.
Mento songs rarely made it to the radio and were quickly forgotten in the face of increasing Western/American musical influence as the 1950's came on. Several factors were responsible for this. Firstly, the advent of electric instruments on the island of Jamaica caused a new wave of musicians to turn to modern methods of music using electric instruments like the electric guitar and keyboard, and in the process ignored arrangements that used purely acoustic sounds. Also at this time, tea dances at which sound systems pumped out the latest music began to appear and attracted many to dance to the new Jamaican sounds in urban and some rural parts of the island. These dance parties allowed DJ's to MC and take charge of the party without a band. The arrival of the transistor radio, which was many peoples' access point to the world outside the island, helped transform the musical tastes of everyday Jamaicans for all time. The technology allowed listeners to tap into stateside radio stations (in Florida, for example) and newer 'R 'n' B' sounds. The writing was on the wall was that old folk music such as mento was aging as a popular form especially with the young and hip.
It can be said, in the post-independence era, rocksteady and ska, along with rhythm and blues and other 'sound sistim' music were heirs to the Jamaican popular music scene. Mento, with its laid-back lyrics and attitude, found itself to be the out-of step, non-threatening and more importantly, non-political; while the aggressive sounds of early reggae characterized the young independent spirit of the time of the era. Reggae, you could say, didn't take no mess and didn't make apologies either: it was ideal for use as a political forum. The credo of reggae can be summed up in a quote by Norman Manley, the first Prime Minister of Jamaica, who said (when talking about the 'burden' of freedom), "If you want respect, you must demand it, and if you demand it, you must fight for it."
Its time had come - the revolution needed a soundtrack. Reggae was it. It is great to know that before reggae came mento, which is still a rootsy and thoroughly entertaining experience in every way.
THE RETURN OF THE JOLLYS
These upheavals in Jamaican music did not mean the end of mento or the Jolly Boys though. This excerpt from the Rykodisc Records catalog tells the story of how the Jolly Boys were rediscovered by a popular audience.
"(In the late 1980s) Jules Shear discovered the Jolly Boys while staying at the Trident Hotel in Port Antonio, where the band still plays six nights a week. The acclaimed singer/songwriter was sufficiently captivated to return to Jamaica to produce their debut album. Since the release of (their album) POP 'N' MENTO, the band has toured the world, winning fans from New York to London to Tokyo. Indeed, these whirlwind tours were the first time band members Allan Swymmer (56), Moses Deans (72) (the only original Jolly Boy left), Noel Howard (49), and Joseph Bennett (53) had ever left Jamaica. Still, the Jolly Boys' unique Caribbean folk music stayed true to its roots. Despite the fact that it was recorded in a high-tech New York studio, SUNSHINE 'N' WATER retains a remarkably low-tech appeal."
On these recordings, Moses Deans plays the banjo and sings. Allan Swymmer sings lead vocals and plays bongo. Noel Howard plays acoustic guitar and sings. Joseph Bennett plays the Kalimba or rhythm box (giant thumb piano) and sings. This is the line-up that plays on all Rykodisc/First Warning recordings of 1989 through 1991 or so. These recordings were released as the following albums: Pop 'N' Mento (1989, Rykodisc); Sunshine and Water (1990, Rykodisc) and Beer Joint And Tailoring (1991, First Warning). There was also a live album released only in Japan called 'The Jolly Boys- Live in Tokyo' on Sony Recordings.
The liner notes on Pop 'N' Mento and Beer Joint And Tailoring offer a view into the casual and slow-paced life still around these days in Port Antonio. Many of the recordings were made live with minimal overdubs and session play done outdoors around a fire. The sessions were done in a causal way to preserve the easy air of the band and their mode of working. Frequent breaks to share stories were the norm. Island music needs to be created island-style. Singer/songwriter Jules Shear is the man behind the recordings - he was their champion from with the honest vision and backing. Thankfully, Shear saw that if mento, as perfected in its form by the Jolly Boys, if not recorded for all to enjoy was bound to disappear without a trace as all the progenitors of the style were dying off or ceasing to play. All mento fans everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude.
1. The Dread Library at University of Vermont (http://debate.uvm.edu/dreadlibrary/dreadlibrary.html)
The library at provided many interesting articles whose topics were relevant to the discussion here. In particular the following pieces were studied for their historical and sociological inputs -
- 'American Rhythm and Blues Influence on Early Jamaican Musical Style' by Brad Fredericks
- 'Harmony and Howling - African and European Roots of Jamaican Music' by Tim Marcus
- 'Reggae got Blues' by Kyle Trzaskos
- 'Jazz and Blues Feedback to Jamaica' by Alison Wadsworth
2. Campbell, Horace. Rasta And Resistance Lawrenceville, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.
3. Stolzoff, Norman. Wake The Town And Tell The People Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
4. Chang, Kevin O'Brien and Chen, Wayne. Reggae Routes : The Story of Jamaican Music Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
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