“Mento Music: Jamaica, Belafonte, and the Golden Age”
For decades the Jamaica Cultural Development Council (JCDC) has held a Festival Song Competition in celebration of Jamaica’s Independence. The JCDC has also featured contests for Jamaican Mento Bands. Authentic Jamaican music was promoted early on, by plan, to help to build Jamaica. In his doctoral dissertation on Mento music, Neely describes "A Better Village Plan" developed by the Pioneer Clubs which produced "Jamaica Welfare’s Song Sheet #5" (2008, p. 205). These song sheets helped to spread a musical message throughout Jamaica and helped to influence Jamaican music to present date.
The documentation and communication in the form of sheet music, provided songs to the citizenry of Jamaica like “Linstead Market,” “Mango Walk” and “Emanuel Road.” The sheet music was reminiscent of the "tracts" sold on the street over two decades prior by a famous Kingston street duo known as "Slim and Sam." These tracts were the written music to be played by families and friends, often in the form of parlour music. The "Jamaica Welfare’s Song Sheet #5" even included songs written by Slim and Sam and were the songs that were to be the training tools for Mento bands in competition. According to Witmer (1987), the sale of tracts by Slim and Sam were quite significant, “… with Slim and Sam and early twentieth century itinerant songmen, we are dealing with a genuinely indigenous Jamaican urban popular music expression.” These songs were uniquely Jamaican, unlike a prior attempt described by Neely (2008, p. 201) by Jamaica Welfare in the 1930s to relate much more English and American songs like "My Bonnie."
As Mento bands refined their own tunes, they integrated the sheet music into their final product for presentation at community gatherings, in hotels, and in the 1950’s onto vinyl. Many of these songs have been played and played by The Skatalites in more "modern day" recordings.
Jamaican Mento music entered the scene after Trinidadian Calypso music’s popularity in the 1920’s and 30’s. One of the earlier Jamaican Calypsonians is Lord Fly. Garnice (2013) references a 1948 Jamaica Gleaner article that documents Lord Fly as active in the 1920's where he worked with George Moxey at The Silver Slipper Club in Kingston, Jamaica. Fly sang and played the saxophone and was one of the very first artists to record for Stanley Motta. As a featured artist, Fly commonly recorded and performed with The Dan Williams Orchestra up to the approximate year 1952. [This is where the genius of the website “Mentomusic.com” comes into play. In his careful documentation, Garnice (2013) communicated with the grandson of John Dan Williams who revealed that Dan Williams is the grandfather of singer Grace Jones]
In the 1950’s Lord Flea continued Mento’s momentum as a guest on national television in the U.S. The show was NBC's “Perry Como Show,” which aired on Saturday night February 9th, 1957. Flea was billed as "Lord Flea's Calypso Combo." Just a month later, Como was singing the “Banana Boat Song” on that same show. Lord Flea was hugely popular in the Golden Age of Mento in the mid 1950s. In 1956, Billboard magazine described Flea's talent: "Flea has a dynamic drive with the attention-getting sides. These can stir attention at all levels. But these two sides, performed by one of the most authentic and commercial groups around, could put many to shame" (1957, p. 58). This article hailed the success of the Capitol Records single "Shame Shame Señora" which had as a b-side, "The Naughty Little Flea." Dennis Howard (2011) describes the introduction of jukeboxes into Jamaica after 1955, "jukeboxes were scattered in bars all over Kingston." As a result, Jamaicans were exposed to the talents of their own with a new vehicle.
As Lord Flea was creating his own place in music, Harry Belafonte was next in line to push both Jamaican folk music and Calypso to a larger audience. Belafonte was born in New York in 1927 and when his parents separated, he moved to Kingston, Jamaica to live with his maternal grandmother. His mother Melvine Love had Harry return to New York in 1939.
With the first gold record in history in 1956 for the album "Calypso," Harry Belafonte soon became known as "The King of Calypso." The title of "king" for Belafonte was considered an insult to many Trinidadians and to Calypsonians like Lord Melody and Lord Kitchener who had earned their titles through organized competitions during Carnival in Trinidad. Supporters crowded into tents to watch the talents of their favorite Calypsonian who both wrote and sang their own music and displayed their talents by creating lyrics on the spot during competitions.
Belafonte scored hits on the Billboard charts and became hugely popular singing the songs of these Calypsonians. An example is "Boo Boo," which reached number 11 on The Billboard charts. This song was penned by Lord Melody and was crafted through years of trial and error in live performances. Belafonte was not the only one to sing “Boo Boo,” the song had been sung by many artists over the years, including The Monarchs. Belafonte’s charisma, talent, and timing is displayed on a 1957 episode of NBC’s Nat King Cole Television Show where Belafonte and Cole sang “Boo Boo” as a duet. The performance was candid and full of infectious energy.
Eventually the paths of Lord Melody and Harry Belafonte had to cross. In a 1986 interview from the film “Calypso Dreams,” Melody describes his first meeting with Belafonte: “I met him on the street and I said to him, I say, ‘Hi Belafonte.’ And he stood up. First time that man ever see me. He say, ‘Who are you?’ I say, ‘Melody.’ He said, ‘The Lord Melody?’ I said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Come with me.’ And from that time to about you know, six years ago, we was totally married!” (2003).
Lord Burgess (Irving Louis Burgie) was a writer for Belafonte. Burgess wrote Belafonte's signature tune, "Jamaica Farewell." Burgess also wrote the version of "The Banana Boat Song" (reworked from the original Mento folk version) that Belafonte popularized. This version of "The Banana Boat Song" reached number five on the U.S. Billboard Magazine charts in 1955. Ironically, Burgess himself was born in New York in the United States. Burgess is an important connection to Belafonte with the written Jamaican folk music lyric.
Burgess grew up in a Jamaican section of New York and he studied at Julliard. Lord Burgess was a singer himself and appears on many recordings. There is an excellent album on Stinson Records (SLP 42) entitled "Calypso Serenaders" which showcases Jamaican, Haitian, and other folk music of the Caribbean. One tune on this album is "Rum and Cocoanut Water," which features the pennywhistle of Herbert Levy. The entire song is laced with the pennywhistle. Lord Burgess also utilized Levy on his album "The Father of Modern Calypso" and Belafonte was joined by Levy on his November, 1960 CBS Television performance "Belafonte: New York 19."
With the influences of Burgess, Lord Melody, Levy, his own Jamaican bloodline, good looks and luck, Harry Belafonte's contribution to Jamaican Folk music mushroomed in the 1950's. Lord Fly had set the track and Lord Flea established a youthful backdrop to Belafonte's sophisticated presentation of Jamaican Folk music.
The conflict over the use and authorship of the Calypso and Mento folk music continued to follow Belafonte. In a 1986 interview in the film “Calypso Dreams” (2003), Belafonte provided an explanation:
When this “King of Calypso” stuff came out, the Trinidadians went crazy. Boy, they went nuts! “Ya call yourself “The King of Calypso” and you never come here and you never go up into competition. You never do jump up. You never go into the tent. You never do nothin’ and you tief (sic) the music and you call yourself King? How can you do that?” And I said “You’re absolutely right! I’ve never been in the tent. I’ve never competed. I never thought I could. I never wanted to. Those who possess the Calypsonian art are men of remarkable gifts and there is a speciality to it that I’m not privileged to embrace. The fact that I’ve been called The King of Calypso was not my manufacturing. Deal with those who market and sell you goods that you buy every day. What I did was to use the environment of Caribbean lore to put us on the map at another level that I thought was instructive and creative for us. And in that service if I’ve offended you, then I beg your forgiveness.”
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