❉ This is an immensely enjoyable history lesson from Doctor Bird, writes Paul Matts.
“The High Note Mento Collection is superb. It is an important historical pointer to the true origins of reggae music, taken from the countryside acoustically as interpreted by The Jolly Boys, to the urban, modern sonic provided by King Vupp and The Prince Brothers.”
One of the most interesting aspects about music is lineage. Discovering sounds you love, and then tracing those sounds, or something close, back through the years. It can be as simple as going back to a basic, stripped down version. Many a Led Zeppelin or Cream classic can go back to the small catalogue of recordings made by Robert Johnson – just one man and his guitar.
One could be forgiven for assuming all modern music was derived from American sounds of the early to mid-twentieth century. Not so, of course. History is full of the music of ordinary people, stretching back centuries. The joy of dance, the cry of the rebel, the celebration of the festival. The strain of the relationship between the oppressed and their ‘superiors’. All of this can be found worldwide in folk music.
Like most music associated with popular culture, reggae’s great leap forward coincided with technological development in the 1950s. However, people felt the joy of music long before anybody thought to record it for posterity.
In the 1700s quadrille dancing, a form of English country dancing, was popular across Europe. It spread through its colonies and was introduced into Jamaica by European plantation owners. African slaves were made to play quadrille music on fifes and fiddles. When emancipation finally arrived in 1838, quadrille was adopted formally by High Society. But a looser form was taken by the plantation workers. Jamaica’s own, indigenous folk music was born.
‘Like most folk music, mento was a blend of music and dance, with songs mixing narrative and topical commentary.’ Suzanne Francis Brown
Termed ‘mento’, the music was made by guitar, banjo, maracas, fife, fiddle, a bamboo saxophone and a ‘rhumba box’. The latter was ostensibly a home-made rhythm box. All very rural, very rudimentary.
In the 1840s people began drifting to the cities from the countryside. Mento went with them. It led to a significant evolution with pianos, saxophones, clarinets and violins augmenting the mento sound. Mento groups provided the dance music in night clubs, as Kingston’s nocturnal life became more raucous. Urban mento was born. Vocalists joined in, sometimes singing, sometimes talking topical issues. Early toasting if you will. The sound was becoming far removed from the gentle, informal country dance introduced across the island in the 1700s.
Music sheets were handed out at Kingston’s night clubs, and in the 1920s some traditional Jamaican songs were recorded by a band leader from Trinidad called Sam Manning. The first official mento release in Jamaica was in 1951, Linstead Market by Louise ‘Miss Lou’ Bennett. It paved the way for a multitude of releases, which made their way to the United States. A ‘Calypso Craze’ was under way. Singing superstar Harry Belafonte (Day-Oh (Banana Boat Song)) had a huge hit album with Calypso in the late fifties – made up of mento-based numbers.
The craze died away quickly, however. Back in Jamaica, local money-makers began to cut their own records, and sold them from outlets in downtown Kingston. Among these was Stanley Motta, who recruited singer Lord Flea to record Medley Of Jamaican Mento-Calypso in 1951. It was released on MRS, Motta’s label. Another entrepreneur, Ivan Chin, released Local Calypso Quintets on his Chins label. Both sent their lacquers and tapes to Decca in London for pressing. The records returned, ready for sale, a month later. The Jamaican recording industry was underway.
‘These were the beginnings of an incredibly productive music industry that would not only bring the talent, experiences and emotions of the Jamaican people to the world but that would go on to exert incalculable influence on the popular music of the second half of the twentieth century.’ Harry Hack
The pioneering sound systems of Coxsone Dodd and Duke Read quickly shuddered to the rhythms of mento. The Ska revolution arrived in the early 1960s, fusing the island’s music with American rhythm and blues. Mento soon had to share billing with this and a series of future Jamaican musical evolutions. However, with its accent on an off-beat, mento was never that far away from the island’s musical heart. Further down the line, the vocal stylings of urban mento reappeared as deejay and dancehall reggae emerged.
Three High Note long players, by King Vupp, The Jolly Boys and The Prince Brothers respectively, are given their first digital release as part of this collection. A series of mento releases from the sixties and seventies are also included, showing that rural and urban mento had an outlet alongside dreads, dub and deejays.
With superb sleeve notes from Harry Hack and beautiful period photographs, this is an immensely enjoyable collection from Doctor Bird, a division of Cherry Red Records. It is also a kind of history lesson. As stated at the outset, musical lineage is one of music’s most interesting aspects.
King Vupp’s self-titled long player was issued in 1976. Vupp is a regular on High Note compilations, providing traditional balance to the cutting-edge reggae cuts. King Vupp’s ten tracks all have a steady, mid-tempo urban mento rhythms. The style can easily be confused with calypso music – the very word ‘calypso’ is frequently used in the titles of mento songs. The critical difference is that calypso music hails from Trinidad and Tobago, mento music from Jamaica.
Inevitably though, the album opens with a track called Calypso Rock. A shuffling rhythm backs a tale of weekend nights spent with a sweet calypso queen. ‘Wine and champagne – no need to complain.’ Bright brass, understated electric guitar and the occasional flash of electric keyboard work with Vupp’s tones.
The vocals have a slightly nasal, husky tone and are tuneful. It’s easy to get lost in the holiday party vibe but closer attention to the lyrics reveal many a dark tale, caution and doctrine. Bamboo Bed tells of the terror of domestic violence, and Funeral is a cautionary tale about looking too closely at beautiful women. Not for fear of heartache, but for the violence that can follow if that woman is too close to an over-protective man. And to corrupt policemen. The recorder and flute that float around give the cut flavour.
The difficulty facing the Rastafari in Babylon, in following the rule of the white man, is tackled headlong in Dread In A Babylon. It is a call to arms for the Rastafari. ‘What Garvey say, Black man should obey’, Vupp declares. It wasn’t just down to dread sounds to fly the activist flag in seventies Kingston, you know.
A standout cut is African Book. It is tuneful, highly melodious and rolls along rhythmically. Its slower tempo allows reflection on the words – how to dress, behave and be proud. The lively Up Tight Saturday Night closes the album in fine Saturday night style.
One of mento’s most enduring acts are the Jolly Boys. Formed in 1945 and reportedly given their name by Errol Flynn, original members Noel Lynch (guitar), Moses Deans (banjo) and ‘Papa’ Brown (rhumba box) began working in Port Antonio and Montego Bay. The band remain ‘together’ to this day, though the original members have now sadly passed away. There is some confusion, however. A second version of the Jolly Boys was formed in St Anns Bay, Jamaica, when their percussionist, Allan Swymmer, moved to the area. It was this version of the band that recorded The Jolly Boys At Club Caribbean. Both ‘Jolly Boys’ appeared to have happily co-existed, incidentally.
The Jolly Boys’ sonic is much closer to the traditional, rural mento sound. Acoustic instruments are used, even on an album issued on High Note in 1979. Again, this Sonia Pottinger-produced album has ten tracks, kicking off with the smouldering and glorious Jamaica Farewell. There is space in the music, which features snappy banjo, warm percussion and rich, smooth vocals. Interestingly, it is the only song to feature a writing credit. The remaining tracks are all credited to ‘unknown’ – something common in folk music.
The infectious title track – Club Caribbean – is up next and is the work of true masters of the mento form. It feels very live, though a studio cut.
Postcard style humour is on offer with Big Fat Wife! The banjo riff gets the track up and running, giving the track a driving force maintained throughout. The ballad I Know You’re A Child features gorgeous acoustic guitar work. Dip And Fall Back, with its strong chorus and masculine vocal is a tune that could easily translate into roots reggae, as could Hurry Up. The latter has a cooler, slower groove which does not require the presence of deep bass and the rock-solid beat of a drum kit. The Burundi touch on Love One Another, courtesy of the rhumba box, is extremely effective. The slightly sombre but emotive The Beautiful Garden closes the album in fine fashion, with another wonderful vocal performance.
The rustic sound is captured accurately by Sonia Pottinger, using the simple instrumentation well with the rich vocals. It is an earthy sound. A genuine sound. Made using instruments’ natural frequency.
The first disc has four bonus cuts. The first two are interesting in the context of mento music since they feature the bamboo saxophone of Sugar Belly. An authentic mento instrumentalist. Both tracks are indeed instrumental, Easy Mento being a version of African Book, the second a version of Rucumbine. Winston and the All-Stars Lizard In Bed is the nearest thing to reggae on the first disc. A group based around the organ of Winston Wright, of The Dynamites and Tommy McCrook’s Supersonics amongst others. Great track.
Another familiar Jamaican musician, Bobby Ellis, leading his Soul Syndicate through the vibrant, urban mento of Ali, closes disc one.
The Prince Brothers are no strangers to High Note compilations. Their rich, smiling vocals instantly stand out. They were indeed brothers – Neil and Rupert Prince. The style varies a little, and Ram Jam isn’t exclusively a mento album. The instrumentation is mainly urban, and the use of a full drum kit is prevalent. Released in 1980, Ram Jam features several of the group’s best-known numbers, and another famous track, Jerimiah, is included among the bonus cuts.
The title track is one such tune. A gospel-esque opening gives way to the subtle bounce of the rhythm, with horns decorating the backing. Ram Jam was issued as a 45 in 1977 on the Carib Beats label, but it made sense to include this version on the group’s sole long player.
The modern urban mento production continues with Hold Him Joe, complete with tasty, understated guitar and bass guitar work. The first deviation from mento comes with the roots-reggae tear-jerker Come Back To Me. The brothers’ harmonies are beautiful and soulful, and even on a sombre ballad such as this, bring a smile.
Sweet Jamaica is another ubiquitous Prince Brothers’ song. A gospel opening is utilised once more to introduce a lively, cheerful mento-calypso giving a ‘Hip-hip hurray’ to the Island.
More variation exists with the rhythm and blues gospel There Goes The Bells Of Old. Roots reggae influences Fi Me Something and It’s Too Late. The latter is a hidden gem if ever there was one. Any reggae superstar would be proud to record this number. The merging of mento and roots reggae on this album make a rich mix.
The up-tempo party mento of Everybody Whining Their Body provides visions of exotic dancing in Kingston’s night clubs. The soulful R&B of My Heart Cries Out closes the set – further showcase, if it were needed, of the Prince Brothers’ vocal charm and dexterity.
Ram Jam is a cracking album. Urban mento is part of its content but sits comfortably next to American R&B and roots reggae. Two bonus cuts from the group, the delightful mento classic Jerimiah and the muscular grind of Dally With A Chinaman are also included, further underlining the group’s variety.
The remaining cuts are a selection of High Note mento releases between 1966-68, entitled High Note Mento: Jump Up & Calypso. Urban mento swings from full ‘wall of sound’ style on The Dingle Brothers Thank De Lard to the classy subtlety of Great ’68 by Marva Moore.
There are three tracks from Aston Campbell, a member of The Conquerors. Two tunes are credited to Aston and the Fugitives and one to Aston and Yen. Count Lasher, a Jamaican singer who operated in rural and urban mento, and later in ska, contributes two numbers.
Of particular interest is Little Flea by Patsy Todd. Milicent ‘Patsy’ Todd became a teen ska star in the early sixties and was a golden girl on the island with hits like Give Me The Right with Derrick Morgan and When I Call Your Name with Stranger Cole. A great cut, incidentally.
The High Note Mento Collection is superb. It is an important historical pointer to the true origins of reggae music, taken from the countryside acoustically as interpreted by The Jolly Boys, to the urban, modern sonic provided by King Vupp and The Prince Brothers.
The latter show how easily it sits next to the other Jamaican music. And quite right that is, for music is global, multi-cultural and should never be defined by genre. Even sub ones. It is ever evolving, and long may that continue.
Check out the mento influence in dancehall, if any more proof were needed.
❉ ‘The High Note Mento Collection’ (DBCDD069) released 8 January 2021, by Doctor Bird/Cherry Red Records. RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.