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Carlton James and The Rod Dennis Mento Band
Text and content courtesy of Daniel Neely

 

Last revised: 3/12/11

 


Brooklyn is now home to one of the bearers of the mento music tradition and the former leader of one of Jamaica’s premier groups: Carlton “Blackie” James, longtime singer and banjoist of the Rod Dennis Mento Band.

Carlton was born into a musical family in Springfield, St. Elizabeth in 1938. Both of his uncles (one a banjoist and the other a guitarist) were musicians and played in groups throughout the Parish – from Pisgah to Black River, New Market to Ginger Hill, Santa Cruz and beyond – and had quite an effect on the young man. When his uncles were away, young Carlton would fool around on their instruments and quickly decided that he should learn to play. Reflecting on these formative years, he fondly remembers how he learned “Hol’ Him Joe,” “Iron Bar,” “Banana” and “Linstead Market” from the older musicians in his district. “Those times,” he recounts, “we never hear about reggae, we hear about blues. But I don’t remember much of those blues at those times, mostly mento and quadrille. We play mento and quadrille still.”
 

 
 

Carlton James performing in NYC in 2006  and again in 2008.

 

Carlton James performing at 'Mento In May',
Kingston 2003. Photo by Daniel Neely.
(A larger image is not available.)

  Originally a farmer, Carlton briefly left Jamaica in the 1960s to find work doing seasonal agricultural labor in the United States, his earnings enabling him to buy a banjo. Upon his return to Jamaica, he left Springfield and settled in Spanish Town where he took to playing for parties and at church until fate intervened in 1973. As he was walking past Parade in Spanish Town, he heard a group of musicians playing and stopped to have a look. It turned out to be the Rod Dennis Mento Band, led by saxophonist Moses Boothe. Carlton approached the older Boothe and told him that he had a banjo. Boothe told him to go home and get
it. Sitting to play, they immediately hit it off and from then on he was a member of the band.

 

Before Carlton’s arrival, the Rod Dennis band had had a good track record. Likely formed in the late 1950s, the group started out under the name the “Red Devils.” By the mid 1960s, they were fairly prominent throughout their parish (St. Catherine) and in 1966 placed second in the National Festival Mento Band Competition. However, change was on the horizon.

 

In the late 1960s, they were playing in a competition in Mandeville when it was discovered that there was another group out there called the Red Devils. Not to cause confusion, the concert’s promoter rechristened the band “Rod Dennis.” Because it happened in competition, the group accepted the name and kept it.

Indeed, the Rod Dennis Band was looked upon favorably in the early 1970s, but with Carlton’s arrival in 1973 its stature quickly grew. The silver medal it won in the National Festival for the Arts that year was the second in two years, but only the third in nine. In the years to follow, however, the band became a fixture and perennial contender in the National Festival’s Mento Band Competitions. As it won gold, silver and bronze medals year after year, the band’s renown grew. Their success followed them throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with their most recent gold medal coming at the last mento band competition held, in 2003.

 

From The Gleaner, a 1990s photo of The Rod Dennis Mento Band. Left to right,
"Nattie" on guitar, Moses Boothe on sax, Ural Gordon on rumba box and Carlton James on banjo.

Throughout this time they were in demand at community-oriented events in St. Catherine, Clarendon Kingston and St. Andrew, their band offered an alternative to the ubiquitous sound systems. When Boothe grew too old to perform the duties required of a leader, he passed the responsibility on to Carlton in the early 1990s. Moses remained with the group as a performer and spiritual head until his death five years later.

Despite the loss of Boothe, the Rod Dennis band remained active under Carlton’s leadership, with long standing gigs at the Terra Nova and Hilton Hotels in Kingston, as well as at all manner of private and corporate functions. Over this time, they performed both solo and with an impressive array of jazz and reggae artists, including Monty Alexander, Stanley Beckford and the Fab 5. The group continued to maintain a close relationship with the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) and were, in fact, one of two bands asked to represent the tradition in the JCDC’s Mento Music Educational Initiative in 2000. In 2003, the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) hired the group to headline their inaugural Mento in May concert, the first in a prestigious IOJ series held each year at Kingston’s Devon House. Later that same year, the band could be seen in Trevor Rhone’s film One Love. A featured performer at Kingston’s new Emancipation Park in 2003, Carlton most recently appeared at Caribbean Tourism Week 2006 in New York City to help promote Freddie’s First, a documentary he appears in that looks at the musical connections between Trinidad and Jamaica.

In addition to their long performance résumé, the Rod Dennis Mento Band has also been particularly active over the last ten years as recording artists. After contributing a half a dozen tracks to the JCDC’s multi-artist "Mento Music in Jamaica" CD, they released three albums on their own, "Mento Gospel" and "Original Jamaican Music" through Penthouse Records and "A Mento Christmas" on Delroy Thompson’s Ayeola label. In addition, Carlton appeared on Monty Alexander’s recent "Concrete  
Below are some music clips from Rod Dennis Mento Band CDs.   [Click here for notes About the Audio Clips On this Site.]

"Chamilina"  (from "Mento Music In Jamaica")
  [Real Audio steamed]  [MP3 download]

"Old Rugged Cross"  (from "Mento Gospel")
  [Real Audio steamed]  [MP3 download]

"Santa Claus Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto"
  (from "A Very Mento Christmas") 

  [Real Audio steamed]  [MP3 download]

Jungle" CD (and he performed with Alexander at BB King’s club in March 2006.)

Arriving in New York in late 2003, Carlton been called a “legend.” Always on the lookout for good mento musicians in the New York metropolitan area, his roots run deep into Jamaica’s national past and he remains interested in preserving the tradition with other musicians and passing it on to the youth. 
 

email me at:
mike@mentomusic.com

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