Jamaican Mento Music
The Origins & Style, Plus A Video

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Jamaican Mento Music
by Kesha Stewart

What is available on ITunes, shared with guests at hotels across the island, played live by the Jolly Boys and the Mighty Beestons, and had its beginnings in Jamaica in the 19th century? Mento music of course! 

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What Does Jamaican Mento Sound Like?

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Mento combines the rhythmic, vibrant sound of acoustic instruments such as the maracas, banjo, rhumba box (bass kalimbas - the player sits on the box, reaching down between his/her legs to pluck the prongs) and even the common grate (commonly found in Jamaican kitchens). 

Together these instruments create an uplifting rhythm that was first recorded on dub plates or 78 RPM vinyl records. Its first exponents included street singers – so called because the street-sides were their stage- such as Slim and Sam, Bedassie and Williams who were known as mento singers. 

This unique Jamaican music borrows from at least three influences; African (work songs from slavery), European (dance forms such as quadrille) and even Jamaican folk music (pocomania). 

It was therefore easy to integrate mento into Jamaica’s musical fabric from its inception. It had wide commercial appeal, attracting audiences who, captivated by the sound, would gather in marketplaces and street corners to hear the singers perform live. 

They would also purchase records from the performers who were basically walking record shops. Night clubs helped to create interest in the music as they too would play mento music for their patrons.

Interestingly:

  • Mento's lyrics are typically comedic. Usually portraying the issues relating to Jamaican life. 
  • Mento's vocalists had a wide range of styles and pitches with the most mento – sounding being the, the nasal, rural sound that some mento singers possessed. It's a sound with strong echoes of African heritage.
  • At its peak mento was popular in both the USA and the UK.
  • Mento act, Lord Flea, appeared on American TV shows, two Hollywood films and released an album for Capitol Records.
  • Alerth Bedassie and Everald Williams emerged from being street singers to operate as The Chin’s Calypso Sextet in the 1950’s.

    They had hits such as Boogu Yagga Gal. In a nutshell Boogu (pronounced Bu-gu) and  Yagga (pronounced Yah-ga)  Gal (patios for Girl), refers to a female who behaves in an unladylike manner (rough, coarse or uncouth).

Modern Development In Jamaican Mento Music

  • The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) helped to drive the resurgence of mento by releasing an album in 2000. 
  • In 2002, “Stanley Plays Mento”, a collaboration with The Blue Glaze Mento Band, was released.

    This CD comprised classic mento tracks, from Bob Marley, and some of Stanley's reggae-mento songs; Broom Weed, being a memorable track.
  • In 2004, Louie Culture recorded "Donkey Back". Dancehall vocals and rhythms were successfully merged with a mento theme.
  • In April 2006 the "Chaka Chaka" dancehall riddim broke, featuring harmonica, banjo, fiddle swoops (played on guitar), a bass line simple enough for a rumba box, and a pre-reggae beat.
  • In 2010, The Jolly Boys returned to recording with an album, video and web site; they subsequently toured Europe and the US. 
  • Also in 2010 Tallawah Mento Band, released a strong CD. In 2011, The Blue Blaze Mento Band released a guest star filled compilation. 
  • In 2013 Larry and the Mento Boys released an 18 song CD & the double CD golden-age collection called “Mento Not Calypso”.

YouTube Video Of Jamaican Mento Music

By now you may be itching to try mento. Go ahead, its available for downloading on iTunes. If you are in Jamaica why not give a listen to the Mighty Beestons from my hometown Beeston Spring in Westmoreland?

Not home, no prob below is a simple, unadulterated video from Youtube.com, enjoy.

Note that they play regularly at the Sandals South Coast Resort.

Posted: April 25, 2017

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