V/A Mento Madness CD review [V2]

Music Reviews
V/A Mento Madness CD review [V2]
Jun 22, 2004, 17:22


The less-mannered, rural cousin of calypso, mento forms the ragged folk roots of most later Jamaican music; in other words, what the blues is to rock 'n' roll, mento is to ska and reggae. A fusion of European and African traditions dating to the 19th century, mento was at first recorded only sporadically in the 1920s, and then only by Jamaican jazz artists looking to spice up their repertoires. It wasn't until the 50s, when these recordings for Stanley Motta's MRS label were made, that mento saw its full flowering on disc. By that point, due to the international success of Harry Belafonte's “Calypso” LP, mento artists were pretty much forced to market themselves as “calypso” in order to sell records.

So what does mento sound like? Well, yes, a raw, more primitive version of calypso, but also much looser, with lots of lead banjo, bamboo sax or clarinet, rumba box (a variant of thumb piano), and with woodblocks for percussion. Spare, upbeat party music that sounds like it's being played by field hands and street musicians rather than the hotel bands who sold their slick calypso albums to your rum-'n'-coke-chugging aunt; such souvenirs would only end up with her Percy Faith LPs at the Salvation Army later on. (But hey, we just found one of the MRS 10”'s comped here in a local thrift, so maybe that means acts like Harold Richardson & The Ticklers or Lord Fly actually got the occasional paying gig…) Everything on this disc is great, but one cut worth singling out is “Monkey Talk” by Hubert Porter with George Moxey & his Calypso (sic) Quintet, which seems to have been the lyrical blueprint for Elvis Costello's recent evolution-themed hit, “Monkey to Man.” Ska and reggae aficionados interested in hearing where it all comes from should start right here. [V2]

-Peter Aaron

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