Boogu Yagga Gal – Jamaican Mento (Heritage HT CD 45) – Liner Notes. This cd is no longer in ‘print’ but is readily available if you look for it, particularly online.
Notes – Richard Noblett, supplemented by Daniel Neely, Herbie Millar and Ron Geesin.
Re-printed here by permission of Ron Geesin. Transcribed by Mike Murphy September, 2009
Although Jamaica is usually associated with Reggae, visitors’ first experience of live music will probably be of a Mento band, either at the airport or by their hotel’s pool or bar, or at one of the Government sponsored festivals found throughout the island. Mento is commonly refereed to as Jamaican Calypso but, although containing certain elements of Trinidad’s music, it is a distinct musical form which was the first commercially recorded Jamaican popular music.
Mento is a traditional secular dance style and genre of music typically played by small rural groups of musicians playing fife, banjo, guitar, maracas, a bass lamellophone called a rumba box and less often, violin, piano, clarinet, and PVC pipes as bass.
Its origins are somewhat obscure. Although clearly of African descent, it has obvious European influences. Cultural historians see Mento as deriving from an African-Jamaican adoption and adaptation of the popular European dance, the Quadrille, which arrived in Jamaica via the slave owners. Performed by slave musicians, generally on fiddles and fifes, it gradually spread throughout the Island. After emancipation in 1838, the Quadrille in Jamaica was danced in two ways: the Ballroom and Camp styles. Jamaican high society danced the Ballroom style to the formal choreography but the Camp style could be considered more rural with a looser choreography, broadly seen as incorporating African elements.
The Quadrille consists of five figures gradually accelerating in rhythm but, by 1900, Walter Jekyll reported that the popular dances of Jamaica were ‘the Valse, Polka, Schottische and the Quadrilles in five figures’. This fifth figure, see as the origin of Mento, is also reported by Jekyll as the most popular, or as they would say ‘sweet than most’. Although writer Ivy Baxter says the word Mento was known at least as early as 1800, Jekyll never used the word but most of the examples he gives of the fifth figure are well known Mentos and a part of every band’s repertoire. Thus a distinctly Jamaican element was added to a European form, as a means of self-expression and local social and cultural identity.
TRADITION AND MODERNITY
The use of the Banjo in many of these recordings is significant , bridging the gap between the early North American finger-styles and the later, more rudimentary, jazz plectrum styles. Here, the rhythmically complex single line work with plectrum sometimes reminds one of an extra tuneful W.African ‘Kalengo’ (hourglass/talking drum).
By the time these 1950s recordings were made, Jamaican musicians had incorporated a wide variety of music. Groups that reflected and older performance tradition, characterised by home-made musical instruments and exclusively local repertoire and dance, were no longer the only ones playing Mento.
A coexistent ‘dance band’ style had emerged that incorporated new, foreign repertoire and instruments (like Clarinets, Saxophones, trap drums, and Piano) to supplement the older tradition. These dance bands seemed to have greater aspirations: many of the bands in higher demand traveled throughout the island and later, as they grew in size, throughout the Caribbean.
There were many reasons for this development. In addition to the increased American military presence in the Caribbean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the expansion of shipping routes throughout the area, an important reason was the introduction and spread of radio, which quickly became a disseminator of musical taste. Another reason was the increased local availability of imported foreign recordings. Both American Jazz and Trinidadian Calypso were popular in Jamaica, largely because both were recorded, distributed and marketed throughout the British Empire and United States.
Other styles from around the Caribbean were also influential: labour migration between Jamaica and Cuba’s eastern provinces brought son to the island which had a significant impact on Jamaican music as did Rumba, for example; migration to Panama and Nicaragua resulted in the exchange of repertoire and tradition, an influence still to be seen today in these regions.
in addition, by the time these recordings were made, tourism had become a cornerstone of Jamaica’s economy. Following World War II, tourists looked away from Europe for holidays and as the 1950s approached, tourism exploded. Famous people and commerce were attracted to Jamaica and when the Jamaica Tourist Board was established in 1954, it became clear that the government had made a commitment to the tourist industry. Jamaica was marketed as a destination both exotic and familiar.
Local entrepreneurs followed suit. In fact, many of the recordings made in the emergent recording industry weren’t marketed as Mentos at all, especially those produced for tourists. By the 1950s Calypso was a style more familiar to holiday makers. Consequently, recordings were often labeled Jamaican Calypsos, mainly to capitalise on the international popularity of Trinidad’s national music. Most, if not all, of the musicians on this CD made a significant portion of their individual livings working in tourist entertainment.
THE EARLY JAMAICAN RECORDING INDUSTRY
Although recording in Jamaica started later than other Caribbean Islands, its recorded music history starts much earlier, certainly pre-dating the Ska era when it is popularly believed to have commenced. Jamaican repertoire had been recorded in 1918 by the Trinidadian musician Lionel Belasco. A Jamaican artist had probably been recorded as early as 1924 in New York and a group of Caribbean artists, which probably included Jamaicans, had recorded for Victor in 1927. However, the first mention of Mento on records is found on the recordings of the Trinidadian, Sam Manning, who recorded ‘Mentors’ between 1925 and 1933 for various recording companies in the U.S. Therefore, by the time Mento came to be recorded in Jamaica in the early 1950’s it had a long history and, indeed, was about to be superceded by a new form of Jamaican popular music.
The beginning of the Jamaican recording industry resulted from the pioneering efforts of entrepreneurs Ken Khouri, Stanley Motta, and Stanley Chin, all of whom were associated with local stores. It was Stanley Motta, founder of a chain of electrical appliance stores on the Island, who started recording local artists in Jamaica. Born October 5, 1915, Motta began his working life as an apprentice at his uncle’s garage. At the age of 16 he opened his first radio-parts shop at 10C East Street, Kingston. Three years later, in 1934, he became a pioneer in his field by introducing the popular Sylvania lighting systems to the island, and subsequently established a successful electrical appliance shop at 109 Harbour Street. Motta’s first recordings featured Lord Fly (Bertie Lyons) and it is believed that this is the first Jamaican recording although the guitarist Ernest Ranglin claims to have recorded Hawaiian guitar music on wax cylinders for another entrepreneur before the Motta 78s. Motta’s first recordings were probably made straight to disc. Since no processing facilities were then available in Jamaica, all acetates or soft waxes were sent to the UK where the recordings were mastered and pressed. The finished shellac 78s were then sent back to the island.
For later sessions Motta probably switched to tape recording as a first stage and used connections made through the Jamaican Jazz musician Bertie King, resident in London since 1935, to get his records manufactured. When King returned to Jamaica in late 1951 to lead a band at the Hotel Casablanca in Montego Bay, he recorded the Ticklers in Motta’s small Hanover Street studio. The recordings were then sent to London to be processed and pressed by UK major Decca, through the auspices of Emil Shalit’s London based Melodisc company, which had previously issued Jamaican music recorded in London. Released in Jamaica in summer 1952, the Tickler’s record ‘Healing In The Balm Yard’ became one of the first really big Jamaican hits and the MRS (Motta’s Recording Studio) label went on to become the major recorder of Mento. Motta devoted considerable time and effort to the marketing of Mento abroad and for the tourist trade, producing records for local hotels as well as for his own label.
Motta’s great rival in recording Mento was Ken Khouri but although he was not as dedicated to Mento as Motta and only issued a few sides, his long career with Federal Records means he has a far greater significance to the rise of the later generation of Jamaican recording artists. Khouri had become involved in recording almost by accident when he bought a disc recorder around 1949. He used this home-based system to record people’s voices for 30 shillings and soon found the demand for music so great he started that as well. He moved out of his home to a club at Red Gal Ring in St. Andrew and made an agreement with Decca in London to make records from the discs. He recalls that, ‘The first song I did was Lord Flea’s ‘Naughty Little Flea’. I contacted Alec Durie of Times Store to help me distribute records and we started Times Record Label. Durie advertised the records in the Saturday newspapers. This first attempt was a real gamble. But when I got to King Street the Saturday, I saw a line two blocks long.. We sold out in less than two weeks. I ordered 5,000 more records and we sold them for between four and five shillings.’
Khouri’s memory is faulty here unless he is referring to an earlier recording not issued on Times. The first record on the label is credited to the jamaican Calypsonians with Lord Flea (Norman Thomas) on vocal ‘Time So Hard Old Lady’ / ‘Solas Market Water Come From Me Eye’ which was recorded early in 1954. this success encouraged Khouri to start manufacturing records himself. He contacted a factory in California which sold him two presses and sent an expert to teach him about the record business. In late 1954 he started Records Ltd. at 129 King Street. By November of that year he had available the first locally pressed records on the Island. These were not local recordings but records manufactured under franchise from Mercury Records in the US. He then acquired a mono recording machine and, with Grahame Goodal’s help, converted a ‘maids quarter’s’ into Jamaica’s first recording studio. The small wooden building with a zinc roof was right beside the pressing plant. Recordings were mainly done at night. In 1957 Records Limited moved to 220 Marcus Garvey Drive and became Federal Records Manufacturing Co. Ltd. Khouri probably had the proposed but ill fated Federation of the West indies in mind and saw wider Caribbean possibilities. Soon he purchased some old Ampex equipment which had a new feature of reverberation. It was still monaural format and everything had to be done in one take. If a singer was recording and an instrumental solo was needed, the singer had to get out the way quickly and smoothly to allow for the solo.
With the exception of Count Lasher’s all the recordings on this cd were originally recorded and pressed by Records Ltd., the majority for the third pioneer in this era, Stanley Ivan Chin. Owner of Chin’s Services, he is less well known, and issued his recordings on the Chin’s label which were probably mastered in England and pressed in Jamaica. Many of these records were also issued on a Melodisc subsidiary called Kalypso where they appear to have been pressed by Levy’s a pressing plant associated with the English Oriole label. The English Kalypso label is not to be confused with the Khouri label, Kalypso which issued recordings of Count Owen in Jamaica. Kalypso is a label name with a complex history, the details of which are still being worked out.
The Jamaican recording industry changed for good when Dada Tawari (spelt a number of different ways) opened Caribbean Recording Company (CRC) around 1957 as this operation had mastering facilities. The price of producing a record fell and the whole process became local. The stage was set for the massive explosion in Jamaican music which characterised the following decades. Mento continued to be recorded and CRC issued many on it’s Caribou label, most notably by Count Lasher (featured on this cd) and, of course, the great Laurel Aitken whose career encompasses the history of Jamaican music.
If the early history of Jamaican recordings is a tortuous story most of the artists who recorded at this time are shrouded in mystery.
Along with Lord Flea and Lord Fly, Count Lasher is one of the best known artists with a long recording career that started with MRS and stretched into the early Ska period. Suprisingly little is known about him but it is suspected that his real name is Terence Perkins. Nothing yet is known about the accompaniment leader Charlie Binger.
Lord Lebby is known for his cover of Louis Jordan’s ‘Caladonia’, a seminal Jamaican R&B recording released in the UK.
Chin’s Calypso Sextet gives the appearance of being the most rural of the groups. The vocalist is variously credited as A. or E. Bedasse about whom nothing is known*. It’s almost certainly true that there is only one vocalist , possibly using a pseudonym. He is identified as ‘Alert’ Bedasse in ‘Calypso Pepperpot’. Significantly, the composer credits on all Bedasse recordings here are E. or E.F. Williams. He is also credited on the Ticklers MRS recordings, reputed to the the first Jamaican hit records, and on other MRS recordings. This is almost certainly Everart Williams who was recorded by the BBC in November 1953 singing ‘Greetings to the Queen’ during her tour. His compositions whilst not conforming to current notions of political correctness, are sophisticated and show a degree of self-conciousness artistry. these are not simple dirty songs but contain complex imagery reflecting the concerns of a society in transition.
* Much more, since the original release of this Cd and accompanying notes, is now known about Alerth Bedasse.
These cd notes were transcribed October 6, 2009 by Mike Murphy – Thanks to Ron Geesin.