When Bob Marley was getting set to become a legend, Jimmy Cliff was still more a rude boy than a lounge act, and white attempts at Jamaican music were still in the embarrassing stage, the Jolly Boys had been around for half of forever, playing something older an’ sweeter dan yu sister — mento, a Jamaican variant of calypso. The songs verged on the risqué, the rhythms were really more of a sway than a fat dance. It was music of sun and rum and a lighter, less complicated time — before the 1962 independence started the ball rolling and made everyone aware of the significance of everything going on. It was a time when songs could be about “dancing back to back, belly to belly,” when you could enjoy the loopiness of a song that venerates one’s mother by explaining that you only have one mother, but you can always get another wife. The Jolly Boys have been around for a span that seems to be centuries, going strong in the ’50 and still around in the ’70s. Jules Shear and Mike Lembo recorded them digitally on what appears to have been a whim; it’s the first time they’ve recorded an album, apparently. There’s really nobody like them at this point. It’s right up there with Alan Lomax documenting the blues artists of the ’30s and ’40s. The recording is excellent — they seem to have simply miked everyone and let the tape roll. Four voices, guitar, banjo, bongo, and rhumba box (providing a great bass end). For 47 minutes you get a nice selection of Jamaican mento standards (some of which will be familiar, such as “Shaving Cream,” “Big Bamboo,” and “Back to Back (Belly to Belly).” Alan Swymmer’s voice is rough, but he loves singing, and it carries beautifully. Pop ‘n’ Mento is almost a time and space device…it really does take you to another place and another time.
For nearly sixty years, the Jolly Boys and their tradition have persevered, largely due to their ability to draw from the community of original musicians who have been in the group’s orbit since the start. Today, the “foundation” group includes Joseph “Powda” Bennett on maracas, Derrick “Johnny” Henry on rumba box, Allan Swymmer on percussion, and Egbert Watson on banjo, with Albert Minott singing lead and playing guitar.
Mento was the music of the Jamaican dancehalls before ska, rocksteady and reggae came along. A people’s music typically played in the countryside on acoustic–often homemade–instruments, it dates to the late 19th century. Its lyrics often dealt with rude or slack topics, or addressed the social issues of the day. Although often confused with calypso (largely because calling it “calypso” was a handy way of marketing it to tourists who didn’t know any better), it has a rawness and rhythmic feel that is uniquely Jamaican.