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Trojan Presents: Mento & R&B - 40 Roots Of Reggae Classics

CD1
Night Food - Chin's Calypso Quintet
Talking Parrot - Count Lasher
Strip Tease - Lord Power
Ethiopia - Lord Lebby
Limbo - Lord Tickler
Little Sheila - Laurel Aitken
Hoola Hoop Calypso - Count Owen
We're Gonna Love - Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards
Jamaica Is The Place To Go - Charlie Binger
One Kiss For My Baby - Lord Lebby
Boogie In My Bones - Laurel Aitken
Please Let Me Go - Owen Gray
Dumplin's - Byron Lee & The Dragonaires
Tell Me Darling - Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards
Fair Love - Owen Gray
Little Vilma - The Blues Busters
Too-Woo-Up-Too-Woo - The Jiving Juniors
Jenny Lee - Owen Gray
Worried Over You - Keith & Enid
The Wasp (aka Shufflin') - The Bubbles
CD2
Fat Man - Derrick Morgan
Jenny-V - Teddy Brown
Album Of Memory - The Magic Notes
S-U-K-I-N - Kes Chin & The Souvenirs
Whenever There's Moonlight - Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards
Now We Know - Derrick Morgan & Eric Morris
Verona - Jimmy Sinclair
Times Are A Going - Martin & Derrick
Ba Ba Black Sheep - Cecil Bird & Sir Dee's Group
A Thousand Teardrops - The Rhythm Aces
Girls Rush - Lloyd Clarke
Last Night - Byron Lee & The Dragonaires
Referendum Calypso - Lord Laro
You Said You Loved Me - Lloyd Robinson
I'm Sorry - Jimmy Cliff
My One Desire - Owen Gray
Independent Jamaica Calypso - Lord Creator
Sugar Dandy - The Jiving Juniors
Behold - The Blues Busters
Come Back My Love - Basil & Yvonne

The long and distinguished history of recorded music in Jamaica did not, as some assume, start with Bob Marley & The Wailers, nor even with the Ska beat which brought the island's music to international attention in the early 1960s. its origins lie in a style which sprang from rural roots to sweep Jamaica in the post-war years: Mento, a largely acoustic brew incorporating influences that included folk songs, religious music and African percussion. A typical Mento band would include guitar, banjo, hand drums, a type of miniature piano called a rhumba box, and perhaps a flute and saxophone. Bands would perform at country dances, weddings and for tourists who were visiting the island in increasing numbers as wartime austerity subsided.

In the early 1950s a few far-sighted individuals decided to capture this vibrant music on record. Probably the first was Stanley Motta, the owner of a phonographic and electrical shop in Harbour street in Kingston, the nation's capital. In 1951 he built a studio at the back of his shop: in  fact it was little more than a tape recorder and a microphone. The odds were stacked against Motta's dream of owning a record company: there were no mastering or pressing facilities locally and he had to ship his tapes to England, where Emil Shahit of Melodisc Records had them pressed by Decca and sent them back to Jamaica by sea. As these were the decidedly non-unbreakable 10" 78rpm discs, their survival rate cannot have been high.

Other fledgling producers gamely entered the business. Dada Tewari, the son of a moneyed Kingston business family, opened a similarly crude studio in Hanover Street around 1952, and Ivan Chin set up his Kalypso label around the same time; he concentrated largely on his studio group Chin's Calypso Sextet, led by singer Alerth Bedasse. Ken Khouri, a Jamaican of Syrian origin, claimed to have been the first producer on the island but this is open to debate. However, he was probably the first to do the job properly: purchasing professional equipment from the States, he employed Graeme Goodhall, an Australian who had come to Jamaica to work for the island's only radio station ZQI (later RJR). The studio at 129 King Street boasted soundproofed walls - though Goodhall's assertion that he achieve this by filling the wall cavity with rubble, carpets and dead dogs may be taken with a pinch of salt. Following a move to the Bell Lane industrial estate later in the decade, Khouri's Federal Records offered the first local mastering and pressing facilities.

Mento's subject matter included sex, romance, current events and politics, a mixture comparable to that of Ragga, two decades later. Its would-be stars boosted their image by adopting aristocratic titles. Thus Terence Parkins, born in 1924, became Count Lasher, an appropriate nom-de-disque for this talented and charismatic man. Noel Williams, born in 1930, became Lord Lebby, waxing some rollicking Mento, unrestrained R&B and the first recorded song about repatriation to Africa before he repatriated himself... to Chicago. Singer-guitarist Owen Emanuel (b. 1933) styled himself as Count Owen on his discs for Ken Khouri and other producers, and while we aren't sure of Lord Power's real name, his was one of the longest careers of any Mento artist, as he recorded for Bunny lee in the 1970s. Charlie Binger appeared on record under his own name; his 'Jamaica Is The Place To Go', which gives our first disc its title, captures the essence of the cheery, upbeat Mento tourists loved.

By the time Charlie's disc came out on Stanley Motta's MRS (Motta's Recording Studio) label in 1959, Mento was no longer the music of choice for Jamaicans. Throughout the decade. mobile discotheques called sound systems had been entertaining the people. Some were little more than a radiogram fitted with an extension speaker, while others such as the mighty rigs of Tom The Great Sebastian, Duke Reid, King Edwards and Sir Coxsone Downbeat, boasted piles if big speakers that literally shook the earth. These 'sounds' played a variety of music, including some Mento, its cousin calypso, British and American Pop and Jazz, and even Jim Reeves. But above all, American R&B got paying customers through the gate. Fats Domino, Rosco Gordon, Amos Milburn and Louis Jordan enjoyed tremendous popularity on the Isle Of Springs. The richer operators such as Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd would scour the States for the best and most obscure records to elevate their sound system's status. However, by 1958, the music of the USA was in transition. Rock & Roll and teen pop tune replaced the shuffling sounds of R&B, so the supply of new music available to Jamaican operators was drying up - and without it, you were dead in the water. So the 'sound men' decided to make their own recordings, using musicians from the islands thriving live circuit.

The bulk of early Jamaican R&B tunes were vocals, of which most of the best from 1959 to 1962 are on these CDs. The singers included Lorenzo 'Laurel' Aitken, who had been a professional musician for years, starting out working for the Jamaican Tourist Board at Kingston harbour, 'welcoming the tourists with a big hat on' as he put it. Born in 1927, Laurel became a proficient singer, pianist and guitarist; he emigrated to England in 1960, but not before he had laid down a clutch of classic singles.

Aitken was older than the other foundation stars in the rhythm & blues style such as Owen Gray, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott, Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards and Eric 'Monty' Morris. All took part in the talent contests organised by radio personality Vere John at the Palace Theatre in Kingston, where they competed for the few pounds of prize money and also hoped to catch the eye of record producers. Those producers were drawn mainly from the ranks of sound system operators. Simeon Smith, of Little Wonder Sound, was an early contender with his Smith's label; he hit big in 1960 with 'Fat Man' by the tall, cool-voiced Derrick Morgan, and especially with a sentimental ballad 'Worried Over You' by Keith (Stewart) and Enid (Cumberland), backed by Trenton Spence's tenor sax. When issued on Melodisc's Blue Beat label, created by Emil Shalit to issue Jamaican music, it stayed on catalogue for almost two decades.

Another sound system man whose star shone briefly was a Mr Chung, operator of the Sir Cavalier's set; he issued the teenage Jimmy Cliff's first single, the crudely appealing 'I'm Sorry', and discs by Martin & Derrick. Another minor soundman, Charlie Moo, had success with 'Girls Rush' by Lloyd Clarke, a singer who maintained a solid career for more than a decade.

Leading sound operators Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd and King Edwards also started to produce records, but not every producer came from the dancehall. A notable exception was Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican and old Harrovian. In 1959 Blackwell formed his R&B Records and Island labels. His most prestigious signing was Wilfred 'Jackie' Edwards, a honey-toned crooner who scored a string of successes. Most were his own melodic celebrations of young love such as 'Whenever There's Moonlight' and 'Tell Me Darling', on which Jamaica's world-class guitarist Ernest Ranglin played plucked figures behind Denis Sindrey's lead. The zestful Owen Gray scored a huge 1959 hit for Blackwell with the zippy 'Please Let me Go', as did Laurel Aitken with the steamy 'Boogie In My Bones'. More surprisingly Lord Lebby, normally noted for Mento, bawled a brace of raucous, churning R&B tunes which were not big hits but which have since become regarded as classics.

Another Chris Blackwell production was 'Too-Woo-Up-Too-Woo' by The Jiving Juniors, a vocal group built around Derrick Harriott and singer/pianist Herman 'Hersang' Sang. Derrick must have been the hippest kid in school: his knowledge of obscure American records was extensive, and he and his group were exemplary doo-wop singers. Derrick claims that he was the first Jamaican singer to own a record label, Crystal; launched in 1960, some of its released were made in the States, such as 'Sugar Dandy', cut in New York 'with the same musicians as the Shirelles and Chuck Jackson', as he proudly tells it.

Though submerged by R&B, Mento and Calypso still existed, and in 1962 Lord Creator (Kenton Patrick) scored a massive hit with 'Independent Jamaica' for the Creative Calypso label: when Chris Blackwell emigrated to England in 1962 it would be the first release on the UK version of his Island label. By the time of Jamaican independence that year, the nation was ready for the new, distinctly Jamaican sound of Ska, signing the death warrant for Mento and R&B. Created under difficult conditions, they were exploratory and chaotic but always full of verve, talent and imagination. Half a century on, this sound still has the power to leap from your speakers, grab your ears and shake your hips. it's an important yet often-neglected piece of musical history. And history lessons have seldom been so interesting.

Mike Atherton - April 2011
 
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