This article from Jamaica’s Gleaner celebrates the unheralded talent of Jamaican mento composer E. F. Williams.
The songwriting talent of Jamaicans is well respected internationally. The names Bob Marley or Bob Andy may perhaps be the first to be mentioned whenever such a topic emerges, but there are countless others whose prowess in that particular field is held in perpetual reverence at home and abroad.
In many instances the poetic arrangements of their lyrics and the messages they convey, overshadow the musical arrangements of a song. Unfortunately though, there is another set who have made very important contributions to Jamaica’s popular music through picturesque songwriting, especially in its embryonic stages, but have never been given the recognition they deserve.
In the history of post-war Jamaican popular music lies the untold story of such a man, whose writing skills were, to say the least, incomparable, especially in terms of its humour, ambiguity and informativeness.
Going by the name E. F. Williams (E for Everard), the name might never ring a bell to most Jamaicans, perhaps because his tenure was at an inconspicuous period in Jamaican popular music (the mid-1940s to mid-1950s), and also, musicians and not songwriters, were placed in the limelight.
Nonetheless, it is an incontrovertible fact that without Williams’ contribution, Jamaica’s mento music would never have attained the status it did. Williams wrote some 80 per cent of all popular mento songs of that period, and he did so with the skill and guile befitting, or perhaps surpassing, a Mighty Sparrow or a Lord Kitchener.
In one particular piece, sung by Hubert Porter, he depicted the plight of tenants living in poor conditions, especially when it rains, yet had to contend with ruthless landlords:
When the rainy weather was raising cane
The dry weather house couldn’t take the strain
All the house began to leak
And the whole foundation squeak.
Dry weather house, them no worth a cent.
Man shouldn’t pay, someone pay mi rent.
Williams’ mento lyrics were tantamount to social commentaries about events taking place or conditions that existed at the time. He would refer to situations of daily life, like gambling, poverty, illegal activities, ghosts (duppies), sexually charged women and notorious characters.
Among those characters was the very naive but popular ‘Big Boy’, who in the Chin’s Calypso Sextet recording of the same name, requested a description from his teacher about a character named ‘Catty’.
Is Catty high, is Catty low?
Will Catty stand up to any blow?
Is Catty deep, is Catty wide?
Is Catty something that I can ride?
After consistent questioning, teacher got fed up with him and explained that:
Catty is the same as Pussy Cat
that is sleeping on the mat
NOT TO BE TAKEN LIGHTLY
Although his writings depict a high level of humour and ambiguity, Williams’ contribution to Jamaica’s music and culture should not be taken too lightly, because it formed the basis for the perpetuity of one of Jamaica’s national treasures – mento music, which is Jamaica’s first commercially recorded popular music, and, in a sense, the only indigenous music. Mento was home-grown, having its genesis in the slave plantation system of the island. The other seminal form of Jamaican music – ska, was born out of sheer imitation and experimentation with the American rhythm and blues and boogie rhythms in the latter half of the 1950s.
Not much is known of Williams’ early life, upbringing and general character. Alerth Bedasse, lead vocalist of the top mento aggregation, Chin’s Calypso Sextet and Williams’ earliest singing partner, described him as a genius who could write a song, in glowing poetry, about almost any event in virtually no time.
In a 2005 interview with me on KLAS Sports Radio, Bedasse described Williams as a school teacher who spent about 15 years in Cuba, returning in the late 1940s to do street singing with a partner, like Slim and Sam of the previous decade.
Bedasse joined Williams as his partner in 1949, and after numerous street-singing outings, Williams wrote his first song for recording purposes, one titled Night Food in 1952.
It provoked enormous debates from various quarters concerning its suggestive lyrics. In one dramatic scene, related in THE STAR newspaper of April 12, 1956, minister of trade and industry, Wills O. Isaacs, held aloof in Parliament, a copy of the not too dissimilar record, Night Food Recipe, and declared “Imagine things like these being played to our children”, to which Bedasse quickly responded in another STAR article of April 19, “Is it the calypsos that are really vulgar or is something wrong with the minds of the complainants?”
In addition, Williams wrote two songs on the matter, Why Blame Calypso and Calypso Opinion, which stated in part:
Calypso must be important fi true,
That it throw some people in a stew,
Some say that the words are very rough,
While many say that it’s good enough.
Bedasse was quick to add that when one compares mento lyrics with what’s happening in Jamaican music today, they could probably be played in a church.
FINE MENTO SONGWRITER
All the recordings of Chin’s Calypso Sextet, which grew out of the Williams-Bedasse association were written by Williams.
Williams also wrote a couple songs for Count Lasher, the only man who could challenge him as mento’s finest songwriter, and laid claim to writing the first song to include Rastafarian back-to-africa themes, Ethiopia (1955), as well as the Tickler’s Healing In The Balmyard in which a girl named
Jackie wanted to give Lor swell feet
Because she said the gal dress too sweet.
The balmer say you bring a cock
and a white calico frock
For the healing in the balmyard.
The age-old theory of man’s evolvement from monkeys was also showcased in Williams’ Monkey Talk, performed by the George Moxley Quintet. In the song the monkeys totally disagree with the theory:
Human don’t you call my name
Human you should be ashamed
Human some things that you do,
no well-thinking monkey would ever do.
These are but a few examples of Everard F. Williams’ songwriting prowess during the mento era.
For the original report go to http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20121007/ent/ent3.html