Mento: Reggae’s Forgotten Past

Sticksman music, with sticksman lyrics and sticksman instruments...

In 1946 or early 1947, Ken Khouri strolled into a repair shop in Miami to get his car radio fixed. There was a strange man from California in the shop, who, left destitute, was pawning off all his belongings. Among them was a Presto disc cutter. Khouri, who’d served in the war as an electrical technician, was seduced, and returned to Jamaica with the device.

The Jamaican record industry started there. All ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall that emerged from the island owe its existence to that moment.Not mento. Mento is sticksman music, with sticksman lyrics and sticksman instruments, which survived for at least half a century outside the studio and in the cane fields of St. Elizabeth and Clarendon. It would be played at ‘nine-night’ funeral wakes, gospel meetings at abandoned crossroads, and on corn night, when the ripe sheaves were harvested and mento played till day.

The music would be played with rudimentary accompaniment – a banjo, a tin can, a crude ‘rumba box’ and, in one case, a bamboo violin. Dr. Dan Neely, an ethnomusicologist who has written the most complete history of the genre, explains: “There was this guy called Jonathan Brown who used to play a bamboo violin. It was a knot of really large bamboo and he’d soak it. He’d then pull strings out of the bamboo itself and he’d take another piece of bamboo and play the strings with it. I’ve talked to people who’ve said it was amazing because it sounded like a real violin.”

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The Jolly Boys – Pomp And Pride

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The song that propelled mento – or calypso, as it was marketed – into the stratosphere was ‘Rum And Coca-Cola’, a Lord Invader tune covered in 1945 by the famous Andrews Sisters. The tune – originally a lament at Caribbean girls running after ‘the Yankee dollar’, was given a jaunty refurb and peaked as a top single in the US that year. Previous to that, however, mento had discovered its niche as a tourist export – bands would play in coastal hotels and would take their names from the hotels that they patronized – see The Hiltonaires, or The Silver Seas. If this seemed like a loss of musical dignity then you should meet Albert Minott – a current member of The Jolly Boys interviewed in this feature – who would entertain alongside mento bands by dressing up as an African tribesman, and still has a blackened grin from when the kerosene from fire eating bored into his teeth.

Mento is the father of reggae. Many people think ska begat reggae, however in truth ska’s frenetic off-beat bears scant resemblance to reggae’s more sedate two-and-four time, which mento shares. Dr. Neely explains: “This is something that really irks me in the scholarship on reggae. There’s a very definite idea that one influenced the next, whereas there’s virtually no musical relationship between mento and ska. Mento is actually much more akin to reggae.”

Speaking to Clash, Lloyd Bradley, reggae historian and author of seminal reggae book Bass Culture said that he felt Lee “Scratch” Perry’s ‘Super Ape’ contained some of the purest mento influences he knew. Other examples he cited were early Perry-produced Bob Marley and Burning Spear.

Ironically, what propelled reggae and ska into the consciousness of everyday Jamaicans was also mento’s death knell: the sound system. Why hire four musicians when all you needed was one sound man? Mento soldiered on, but it is testament to its waning trajectory that Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Studio One reggae paterfamilias, had the following attitude towards mento when approached by Dr. Neely: “Mr. Dodd was very frank with me. He said, “Man, I don’t know shit about this music. I just recorded mento because I knew it would sell – you tell me what I need to know.”

Mento musician names would be often prefixed – in typically bombastic Jamaican fashion – as Sir, Lord, or Count – Lord Fly was one example, a proponent of the jazzier end of the genre who bought his first saxophone with his wages as a cab driver. Lord Flea is another international mento superstar. When he died in 1959 he got a funeral cortege five blocks long.

Junkanoo, kumina, revival, maroon – the list of traditional Jamaican music goes further than mento. What is clear though is that mento and reggae are unique in sharing that two-and-four rhythm. Someone tell reggae. Or just quote it that Sir Lancelot ‘Shame And Scandal’ lyric: “Your daddy ain’t your daddy but your daddy don’t know.”

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With a career spanning back to the 1940s, a biopic in the making, a comeback album, and the fact that most of them have never left Jamaica, many made the Buena Vista link with The Jolly Boys. Their new album features excellent covers of The Clash and Amy Winehouse and they are soundtracking an advert for Old Jamaica Ginger Beer on TV this summer. Vocalist Albert Minott, 73, met us to discuss his passion:

Are you looking for love in London?
Me doctor says he can give me a face lift if I wan’ it! I’m waiting to go to a dentist, fix my teeth – then I’ll be a new man and settle down.

Did mento pioneer the ‘slack’ lyrics in dancehall?
Yeh. Take the song ‘Doctor Teach’: “I’m not a qualified physician / I don’t know how to give this injection / She was bawling for paining…I no stop until I break the needle in two”.

What bits of your life will the film address?
When I was young the banana boat would arrive and we would cut bamboo and make a raft – we’d row up and say, ‘Hey pa! Throw something!’ They’d throw coins over, and we’d dive for them to put in our wallet to keep.

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Mento Fact Box

First famous mento artists:
Slim and Sam [1930s/40s]

Essential mento record:
Boogu Yagga Gal – ‘Jamaican Mento’

Jamaican politician who used mento as a political puppet:
Edward Seaga

Mento as one of the first expressions of rasta:
Lord Lebby – ‘Ethiopia’ [1955]

The man who killed mento:
Headley Jones, who built the first sound system in Jamaica

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Words by Miguel Cullen

Delve deeper into the world of Mento at the website HERE.

Clash Magazine Issue 52

This article appears in the 52nd issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from July 1st.

Find out more about the issue HERE. Subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.

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