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
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
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
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.
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.