Think of mento as Jamaica's version of old-time music: a cheerful, bawdy merger of European melodies and African rhythms, often featuring a (4-string) banjo. Before ska, reggae and rocksteady, Jamaicans jammed to this indigenous folk music. Interest in mento has spiked recently due in part to three very enjoyable albums.
First there's Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band's "Sweet Sweet Jamaica". It’s the most traditional sounding of the three. The rustic mix of instruments (slightly out of tune!) paired with the patois vocals (slightly off key!) gives it an authentic rawness. The group was founded by Lanford Gilzene (AKA “Culture George”) who sings and plays guitar. Donnett Leslie sings and plays the shaker. Rhumba-box player Courtney Clarke provides low end. The oldest member is 80 year old banjo player Wesley Balds who taught himself to play by ear as a child. The recording is 100% natural – no overdubs, reverb or mixing. Song topics include timeless tales of innuendo, sexuality and double entendre, performed the way you might have heard them in rural Jamaica many decades ago. This is folk music. Who cares if it's off-key? There's no lock for that key to open anyway.
A little more contemporary sounding is “We Will Wait” by Blue Glaze Mento Band. This album is bolstered by some guest appearances from reggae greats Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, Stranjah Cole and Uziah Sticky Thompson...none of them strangers to roots music. Despite these high-profile sit-ins, "We Will Wait" retains an all-acoustic mento sound with touches of gospel and reggae. Lead vocals are handled with ease by the talented Vernal Morgan. This is a solid album from start to finish. Notable tracks include some of my favorite mento songs: “Slide Mongoose”, “Mommy Turn Out De Light”, “Parson Don’t Bury the Man”, “Night Food”, “Mo By Chinaman” and “Lizard in my Bed”. I especially enjoy the influential 4-string banjo playing of Nelson Chambers, who unfortunately passed away before the album was released.
Mento’s most well known practitioners are The Jolly Boys, now featuring the charismatic Albert Minnot as front man. In 2010 they released “Great Expectation”, a collection of rock and pop covers that has been dubbed a “modern mento” album. Great Expectation was conceived and produced by Jon Baker of Port Antonio-based GeeJam Studios, who chose songs ranging from Amy Winehouse to Steely Dan to The Stooges for the Jolly Boys to take on. Baker recruited musician, ethno-musicologist and mento scholar Daniel T. Neely to lay down the banjo parts and add some of his expertise to the project. The result is a contemporary sounding album that has played a big part in bringing mento to a wider audience.
I hope that listening to these recordings will not only provide you with enjoyment, but lead you on a path of discovery to the many other mento gems of the past; as well as those that are yet to come!
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