The Freelance Mentalists.
Friday, May 07, 2004
Mento Madness!

Sometimes someone brings something along that manages to confirm everything you thought you knew while teaching you that you really didn't know shit all along. Praise Jah for Steve Barrow, his tireless advocacy, and his vast record collection. He's done this to me maybe half a dozen times or more already.

Barrow, if you don't know, is something like a Bambaataa of reggae, one of Jamaican music's greatest archivists and popularizers. My man is an ancient East London Marxist with a slight hump in his back from carrying around lots of pints and pickets and 45s. His teeth have seen better days. But just give the man a tape recorder and shut up. My overseas phone bills have spiked drastically everytime I've interviewed him, which I've done maybe 4-5 times now, a thing in itself which will, to borrow a phrase, never grow old.

Barrow is the guy behind the 4-CD Encyclopedia Reggaenica called Tougher Than Tough, the indispensible Rough Guide to Reggae(with Peter Dalton), all the best Trojan reissues, and virtually the entire Blood and Fire discography. He's been threatening to start up a rare dancehall reissue label with a group of Frenchmen, although one wonders if world politics have postponed that promising project. The brilliant new "Tree of Satta" on B+F is, I presume, a product of that (perhaps failed) interest.

Here, though, is something from further left: a prehistory of reggae. Yall know how I feel about prehistories, right?

This one is called Mento Madness, and it does a few things definitively:

1) it documents the rise of the Jamaican record industry in the 1950s through the singles output of a Sephardic Jew immigrant named Stanley Motta;

2) it captures the island sound of Mento, a hybrid played by bands with names like "Lord Fly with Dan Williams & Orchestra" that appealed to tourist and local alike; and

3) it links Mento backward to Jamaican folk songs and forward all the way to dancehall.

Not to mention, it fucking rocks.

To clarify, Mento rocks along gently, and was often confused by stupid North Americans for Trinidadian calypso. (Mento artists often played along, calling themselves things like "the Calypso Clippers", further confusing the few serious-minded types.) Occasionally you hear the chicka-chick guitar that ended up in roots reggae. Tempo-wise and attitude-wise, Mento sounds a lot closer to the exuberance of ska, the next evolution in Jamaican music. But the biggest musical surprise (at least for me) is how close Jamaican Mento rhythmically is to Cuban mambo. Some of these songs have a prominent clave being played along on sticks.

For those looking to tie Mento to folk music, check track 2, "Dry Weather House", set to the melody of the children's song about the stubborn donkey, "Tingalayo". I confess I haven't sat down to figure out the lyrics to that one yet. But I can say that there's lots of songs about bananas, banana markets, mongoose activities, dumb dogs, and dumber donkeys. They are are all great fun.

Now I know I have a reggae 45 of "Healing In The Balmyard", a song by Harold Richardson and the Ticklers that basically advertises the services of the local spirit healer, maybe even by Lee Perry, and there's a version by dem two bad DJ: Clint Eastwood & General Saint. But for those looking to discover the roots of dancehall, just click straight to the first track "Hill & Gully Ride/Mandeville", a medley by Lord Composer & The Silver Seas Hotel Orchestra. "Mandeville"'s cadences will be familiar to fans of T.O.K., whose "Diwali"-driven "Galang Gal" is just the latest version."Hill and Gully Ride" was one of Yellowman's famous hits thirty years later, and ebonics etymologists will no doubt note that this girlwatcher's anthem refers to the "hills" that go on top, while the "gully" and "ride" part, well you know.

The sexual innuendo and cunning patwa linguistics are a lot of the fun. Can you imagine a chart-topper called "She Pon Top" during the early 50s in the U.S.? Maybe? Well can you imagine a chart-topper called "Manassa with the Tight Foot Pants"? Ha.

My favorite song is "Monkey Talk" credited to "Hubert Porter with George Moxey & his Calypso Quintet". In a wonderful piece of island wisdom that seems really relevant to Our Unelected North American Leadership these days, Porter (assuming he's the singer) compares humans to monkeys, and it's the monkeys who are really getting dissed. "Human don't you call my name, human you should be ashamed, human some things that you do no well-thinking monkey would ever do."

Words to live by, and music that will undoubtedly change the way you hear dancehall, reggae, rock steady and ska.

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