Sarfraz Manzoor of London’s Guardian, writes about the resurgence of Jamaica’s Jolly Boys. Named by Errol Flynn in the 1950s, they were once the toast of Jamaica. Now, after nearly five decades playing second fiddle to reggae, the band is enjoying a remarkable revival. Here are excerpts, with a link to the full text below.
A barbarously sticky afternoon in Jamaica and I’m in Kingston inside a windowless room with a low ceiling and brown carpet on the walls watching five old men. They are all in their 70s – except the ones in their 80s. And they are all wearing hats. The 84-year-old Egbert Watson hunches over a banjo; Joseph “Powda” Bennett, 73, clasps a pair of maracas; Derrick “Johnny” Henry, 71, rests on a rumba box; while Allan Swymmer, 82, hits the bongo. They all watch the last man, 72-year-old Albert Minott, who is seated in front of them, dressed in pale slacks, a bright orange shirt and a tweed fedora and cradling an acoustic guitar. He has a thin face and when he sings we hear a dark, gravelly rumble of a voice and see more gaps than teeth – a reminder of his years as a fire-eater.
Minott is the lead singer of the Jolly Boys, a band that has, with a changing cast of members, been in existence for more than 60 years, leading some to dub them the Jamaican Buena Vista Social Club. The music they play is known as mento and it is a sound that pre-dated and influenced everything from ska to reggae to dance hall. To these musical forms, they are what bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, yet the Jolly Boys are unknown outside Jamaica and forgotten inside it. And that is why I am here with them, because this evening the Jolly Boys will be playing the most important show of their lives.
They will be performing at a hip Kingston venue in front of a young audience unused to mento: if the band do well it could reintroduce their music to a new generation; if they fail the music and the band may remain in obscurity. Minott looks at the other members and nods. Swymmer hits the bongo and Powda shakes the maracas and as Watson introduces the jangling chords of the banjo and Johnny picks at the rumba box the mento sound comes alive. It is as if the Jolly Boys have conjured up a musical time machine that is transporting them back, way back, to when it all began.
It was Errol Flynn’s idea to call them the Jolly Boys. Back in the winter of 1946, Flynn purchased Navy Island, a small swathe of land a few hundred yards from the coast of Port Antonio on the northeast side of Jamaica. The Hollywood star found himself in Jamaica after his yacht had been caught in a storm and he had quickly fallen in love with the island. During the next decade Flynn often staged wild parties at his home and his favourite entertainment was a local mento band called The Navy Island Swamp Boys. Flynn loved the euphoric atmosphere the band created and nicknamed them the Jolly Boys.
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“Mento was country folk music,” says Albert Minott. “I remember my grandparents would tell me about slavery and about how when the slaves were broken and tired they would sing mento songs in the sugar cane fields.”
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Thanks to the actor’s endorsement the Jolly Boys became a familiar sight at Port Antonio’s hotels, often accompanied by a floor show featuring dancing and a stage act. Minott was a teenage fire-eater and acrobat who would entertain guests when the band played. It was during a break from one such performance at the Jamaica Inn in Montego Bay that he introduced himself to the band and told them that he too was a singer. When one of the band became sick, Minott was offered a chance to join the band for six months. That was in the early 1960s.
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With Jamaica looking like the centre of the world and the Jolly Boys at its heart, the future seemed as bright as the Caribbean sun for Albert Minott and his band mates. What they didn’t know was that they had been simultaneously sowing the seeds for the death of the very music they loved. The decline of mento had, in fact, begun during the late 1950s when electricity started to become widely available in Jamaica. Sound systems meant that a party only needed a DJ and an amplifier rather than an entire band; at the same time, imported singles from New Orleans and Chicago began to eclipse the local home-grown music. When Jamaica became independent in 1962 it prompted a search for a new musical voice and this sound was reggae, in particular the politically conscious rebel sounds of Bob Marley.
For Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records and the man who brought Marley to world attention, mento meant nothing. “I was never in love with mento,” he tells me. “I thought it was soft and touristic – it felt benign and old fashioned, and I wanted stuff that was more edgy.” “They forgot about mento,” says Minott, sadly. “When I was young, mento had been everywhere, but then came ska and then reggae and then dance hall and they forgot about us.” Bands like the Jolly Boys were by this time derided. “We would play all day and all night,” recalls Johnny Henry, “and drink too much rum, but we didn’t get the respect or the money we deserved.”
“With independence mento began to be seen as Uncle Tom colonial music,” explains Rick Elgood, a filmmaker who is working on a documentary history of mento music. “They were seen as the establishment, aligned with the tourist board and in contrast to the people who were playing what was considered real Jamaican music. It seemed nothing more than quaint folk ditties and ribald tales.”
As work slowed down for the Jolly Boys, Minott was reduced to performing at a carnival sideshow at Coney Island, singing Island in the Sun while a female midget danced with a male giant. “I have been through some hard times,” he says. “I have been playing music for 50 years and I have given so much to my country, but I was not treated well in return. I kept wondering, ‘When were we going to get a break?'”
Jon Baker is a British music producer who lives in Jamaica, where he owns GeeJam, a state-of-the-art residential recording studio where artists such as Gorillaz, Drake and Amy Winehouse have recorded albums. When GeeJam opened as a hotel two years ago, Baker asked the Jolly Boys to be the house band. “I had known of the band for about 20 years because they were part of the Port Antonio circuit,” says Baker, “but the truth is that I had not really given them a second thought.”
It was only when the global recession led to GeeJam’s bookings falling through the floor that Baker gave serious consideration to working with the Jolly Boys. “The honest truth was that I had no studio bookings for 2009 and I had started to get friendly with the band. I thought that these guys are not going to be around forever so why not invite them to the studio? It was only then that I was totally captivated by Albert and his charisma and charm.”
“We weren’t making any money,” recalls Minott, “and I thought I was going to go under. That was when Mr Baker stepped in and saved us.”
Baker encouraged the Jolly Boys to put the old mento tunes down on record. “This music goes back to post-slavery,” says Baker. “Most of it was around before the ability to record music, and it was spread by memory. It was never documented and that was why we recorded the old mento, because there are not many recordings around.”
The more he listened to Minott’s distinctive voice the more Baker became convinced that listening to the Jolly Boys ought not to be an exercise in musical nostalgia. He set himself the challenge to re-introduce mento music to Jamaica and the world. “I had never given these guys the respect they deserved because they came out of that hotel cabaret circuit with the loud shirts and the foreign audiences,” he says. “But if you go back to the music, mento is the true sound of Jamaica and these guys are the oldest and greatest exponents of it.”
“Ours is the original Jamaican music: if reggae is the stem then mento is the root,” says Powda Bennett. “There could have been no ska, no dance hall without mento, but the young – they don’t know anything about it.”
That was what Baker set out to redress. His plan was to get the Jolly Boys to record a new album featuring some surprising cover versions. “The original mento songs were full of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and so it did not seem all that strange for the band to be covering more contemporary songs.”
Among the songs that the Jolly Boys are covering in their new album, Great Expectation, are “The Passenger”, “Golden Brown” and “Rehab”. “When Mr Baker asked me to do these new songs I asked myself if I could really do it,” Minott says, “but he says just listen to the songs and when I did, boy, I knew I could put them into a mento style.” Baker also helped the band to star in a television advertisement, currently airing in Britain, for Old Jamaica ginger beer, which features their version of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire”. The tagline for the advert is: “You can’t beat an old Jamaican.”
“They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” laughs Minott, “but these old dogs are learning some new tricks, I tell you.” Despite being in his 70s, Minott starts every morning with 12 push-ups and half a dozen chin-ups; he can still walk on his hands. “When I sing I feel like I am 21,” he says, his eyes shining, “to see an audience out there, I feel so young when I play mento.”
The rehearsal is over and it will soon be show time. During the afternoon sheets of hot rain have lashed down, clearing the sticky air at the Redbones bar and restaurant. It is an open-air venue and Jon Baker has taken the precaution of buying 50 umbrellas. They will not be needed.
Some time after eight, in front of a whooping crowd, five old men walk on stage. They are dapperly dressed – Albert Minott in a violently pink shirt with tie and braces and a peaked cap; Powda in a lime-green shirt with a black waistcoat, bow tie and audacious top hat – as they pick up their instruments and start the set. It comprises traditional mento tunes and the crowd, hipper and younger than they are used to, listens to it respectfully. The band leave the stage and return 15 minutes later for a second set that sees them performing their interpretations of, among others, “Blue Monday”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Hanging on the Telephone”. The crowd applaud and cheer enthusiastically. And then Albert Minott starts singing, “They try to make me go to rehab… I said no, no, no…” and the cheering turns ecstatic. The band’s version of the Amy Winehouse song is a rousing, storming success and by its end the crowd are screaming their approval as Powda swings his hips and Minott dances across the stage theatrically tugging at his braces. (For her part, Winehouse is flattered by the appropriation: “If it was good enough for Errol Flynn it’s good enough for me.”)
From the sides Baker looks on, smiling. His dream was to follow their upcoming British tour with a concert at the Albert Hall with the Jolly Boys playing alongside some of the artists whose work they have covered on the album. As they look out into the crowd the band are smiling broadly: five old men finally getting the respect they have been waiting 50-odd years for. With a combined age of 382 they may make the Rolling Stones look like the Jonas Brothers, but tonight it is as if the clock has been turned back and they are once again the young men of old. They leave the stage, a band with not only a great history behind them but also an exciting future still ahead.
“The lesson in our band’s story is that it is never too late,” Albert Minott tells me. “Maybe after all these years of not getting our due, maybe we will still have the last laugh.” And as the Jolly Boys disappear into the hot Jamaican night I cannot help but wonder if somewhere, out beyond the coast of Port Antonio, high above Navy Island, the ghost of Errol Flynn is not laughing along with them.
The Jolly Boys are in the UK for festivals (visit jollyboysmusic.com). Their new album, Great Expectation, is released on 20 September
The report appeared at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/25/the-jolly-boys-music-jamaica-mento
Image: The Jolly Boys: (from left) Joseph ‘Powda’ Bennett, 73; Albert Minott, 72; Derrick ‘Johnny’ Henry, 71; Allan Swymmer, 82, and Egbert Watson, 84. Photograph: William Richards