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Portland Jamaica’s Marvelous Mento Music!

What the hell is Mento?

First, a quick Mento lesson (with a little help from wikipedia.com): Mento is a style of Jamaican folk music that predates and greatly influenced ska and reggae music. Mento typically features acoustic instruments such as acoustic guitars, banjos, hand drums, and the rumba box – a large mbira or thumb piano shaped like a box that you sit on while playing. 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 certain aspects of everyday life in a light and humorous way. They also said that “Mento is used to mock members of a social group or to convict them of some wrongdoing”. Some of my favorite song titles are: “Bitter cassava killed Joe Brown“, “Donkey wants water“, “Love in the cemetery“, and, of course, “Big bamboo“.

Mento is often confused with calypso, a musical form that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Although the two share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms. The differences stem in part from the different colonial histories of the two West Indian islands, as Jamaican music does not have the same Spanish influences as other Caribbean musical styles. In fact, some of singer Harry Belafonte’s massive 1950s hits, such as “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” were actually mento songs, but they were promoted as calypso because tourists couldn’t tell the difference between mento and calypso.

If you love Jamaican reggae music but think you’ve never heard mento before, give Peter Tosh’s “Whatcha Gonna Do” another listen (the mento song “Charley’s Cow” but with new lyrics). You can also find lifelines in many songs by Bob Marley and The Wailers, Bunny Wailer and other well-known reggae artists. It was not uncommon for ska and reggae artists to mix mento tunes with their more modern songs. If you already know what mento is, you will hear it often.

The most recognized Mento Band today?

Hailing from Port Antonio, Jamaica, the Jolly Boys are today the world’s most respected mento band. Since their formation over 56 years ago in 1955, they have performed in all the famous hotels across Jamaica. Most often they performed with a dance group. One such troupe was led by Albert Minott, who was then an occasional member of the Jolly Boys and is now their current lead singer. Imagine British colonial ’40s and ’50s tourists swaying to this fun and laid-back Jamaican folk music and Minott’s trademark fire-eating and hand-walking antics – sweet.

The Jolly Boys (then known as the Navy Island Swamp Boys) were also favorites of Errol Flynn and regularly performed at private house parties at his Port Antonio home on Navy Island (owned by Flynn). I imagine Mento’s sleazy lyrics, boasting sexual outbursts, 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 made him feel “jolly” when he heard them play.

Although artists have come and gone in the group over the decades, the current Jolly Boys are: Albert Minott (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).

Best of all, 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 form of music in person. They are the house band at the GeeJam hotel in Portland, Jamaica. If you can’t see them live, you can listen to their mento music online or catch a glimpse of them in Denzel Washington’s “The Mighty Quinn.”

Don’t miss your chance to enjoy this unique Jamaican music. You will not regret it!

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