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The Bob Marley & The Wailers and mento music

 

Page last revised: 4/21/12

 

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Introduction

Any discussion of Jamaican music will eventually come around to Bob Marley and The Wailers. Playing rural mento would have been the antithesis of what the young, urban Wailers were all about. The Wailers exemplified the trend of leaving the country behind for an uncertain life the in city that had become common for the island's restless youth. The thriving ska scene proved to be their salvation from the harsh realities of city life.

And, unlike other vocal groups of the ska era, not one voice in the Wailers had a rural Jamaican singing style. (Listen to the backing vocals of The Maytals by contrast.) Instead, their biggest influences were Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cook, James Brown and other American R&B singers.
 

 

 


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In spite of all this, there are threads of mento throughout The Wailers story, beginning with Bob Marley's upbringing, decision to be a musician, his earliest recording and The Wailers' tutorage and audition at Studio One. And for Peter and Bunny, these threads ran quite long. Rita Marley, Bob's mother Cedella, and the instrumental Wailers band are also part of this story.
 

Bob Marley's musical heritage

In the 1983 biography "Bob Marley" by Stephen Davis, we learn about the musical background of Omeriah Malcolm, Bob's maternal grandfather, as well as an unnamed great uncle. Though a farmer by trade, Omeriah played violin and accordion. Bob's great uncle "was a semi-professional musician who played the violin, guitar and banjo with several of the St. Ann quadrille bands that provided dance music for village dances... Doubtless, the first music Bob Marley ever heard was his great uncle's band jamming on classic quadrille tunes... [and selections] based on native Jamaican melodies."

As explained in Dan Neely's liner notes from the CD compilation "Boogu Yagga Gal", we know that Quadrille was an antecedent to mento. Likewise, this site documents the common practice of a mento act mixing in an occasional performance of a quadrille. It is no great leap to surmise that the "native Jamaican melodies" played by this band, featuring banjo, fiddle, fife and acoustic guitar amounts to mento.

Young Bob decides to be a musician

In the film documentary "The Bob Marley Story", Bob's mother, Celella Booker, recounts the first time young Bob showed an interest in music. He declared that he was "singing now", and performed a song he heard in Kingston. Accompanying himself with improvised percussion using two sticks, he sang the mento song, (Don't Touch My) Tomato. Born in 1945, a young Marley was at an age where he could have heard recorded mento as well live renditions of such songs.

By the 1950s. Bob became friendly with Neville Livingston, the boy who would one day be known as Bunny Wailer. Both lovers of music, they began to make their own instruments and play. As Bunny revealed in the 2012 documentary, "Marley",  "We played mento".



Bob's First Recording
 

In 1962, Bob Marley made his first recording, Judge Not, for producer Leslie Kong. It featured a penny whistle. This instrument was used in mento, and is not associated with ska or reggae. It's inclusion gives the track a bit of a rural mento feel. Playing on these earliest sessions is the great Arkland "Drumbago" Parks. Though best known as a master drummer in ska, Drumbago played and recorded mento in the years before ska.



The Wailers get signed to Studio One

Before The Wailers recorded, percussionist Alvin "Seeco" Patterson was one of the musical tutors for the vocal group, specializing in rhythm. (Joe Higgs was another of the group's tutors, specializing in singing and harmony.) Seeco then brought the Wailers to the attention of Clement Dodd. He even played congas for them as they successfully auditioned and became Studio One recording artists. He would later begin a long run as a percussionist for The Wailers, sometimes credited by his other name, "Francisco 'Willie' Pep".

Prior to this, Seeco Patterson had a career in mento. In Stephen Davis' biography, "Bob Marley", it's revealed that Seeco, "played with Lord Flea and various mento-calypso combos". Davis later describes the music Lord Flea played when Seeco was in the band as "mento jazz". By this, if Seeco recorded with Flea, it was on Flea's earlier dance band singles, explaining why he does not appear to be part of the later rural band that crossed over to America.

At Studio One, some of the Skatalites and other musicians that backed The Wailers had previously worked playing jazzy mento. The sax players for example: Roland Alphonso played on M. R .S. sessions beginning in 1952. Tommy McCook recorded at least some mento. Ernest Ranglin recorded jazzy mento in the 1950s and 1960s and continues to do so in 2005. It is likely that other Studio One musicians (especially the older ones) also played mento, escaping documentation thus far.



1960s

In 1965, one of the few female mento vocalists, Girl Wonder, recorded a single (Cutting Wood b/w Mommy Out De Light) on Coxsone Dodd's Port-O-Jam label, and was never heard from again. (This was a cover of a 1950s single by another female mento singer, Louise Lamb.) Here's a scoop from Dan Neely: he was told by Coxsone Dodd that Girl Wonder was none other than Rita Marley! This single can be seen on the More Middle Period Single Scans page.)

(Her cover of Mommy Out De Light both musically and lyrically closely follows the cover done by the 1950s American pop act Mickey and Sylvia. As such, this version is more R&B than mento.)

Like Bob, Rita Marley had mento in her bloodline. As revealed in Timothy White’s biography of Bob Marley, "Catch A Fire", Rita’s father, Leroy Anderson was a musician who played stand-up bass, tenor sax, woodwinds and congas. In search of work, he and his wife immigrated to England in the late 1950s, when Rita was eight. "The last anyone heard… had Roy going on to Sweden with a mento-jazz band and settling in Stockholm." In late 2008,I heard from Swedish reggae musician Peter Gerdin. He saw Leroy Anderson in 1994 at Tuff Gong studio and believes he had moved back to Jamaica by then.



Also in 1965, The Wailers recorded a classic ska track,
Rude Boy for Coxsone, with lyrics that grab from mento, American soul and Jamaican folklore. It's the couplet,

Now why you come wheel and turn me
Fi go lick a mi head 'pon you tambourine

that comes directly from mento. It's from a song that alternately titled "One Solja Man", or later, "Wheel and Turn Me". The first known recordings of this song come from the early 1950s. One was as part of  "Medley Of Jamaican Mento" by Lord Fly & The Dan Williams Orchestra. This 78 RPM single of urban style mento released on M.R.S. is believed to be the very first Jamaican record. The other recording was the folk style "One Solja Man" by Edric Connor on his influential LP, "Songs from Jamaica". Many other mento bands covered this standard, such as this rural mento example, "Wheel and Turn Me" by Lord Lebby and The Montego Hotel Calypso Band from later in the 1950s.

Also of interest is the line:

Ska quadrille, ska quadrille

Quadrille was a forerunner of mento, so this line makes reference to both mento’s descendant and forerunner. 

The Wailers remade this track for Lee Perry in 1970 as "Rebel's Hop". In this version, the mento and quadrille lyrics were replaced with quotes from American soul songs. It was The Wailers' Soul Revolution/Soul Rebel era, after all. And Lee Perry's house band could play like the band of Marley's hero, James Brown. But when The Wailers toured this song in 1973, the original lyrics were used. This was also the case when Bunny Wailer re-recorded the song as "Walk The Proud Land" in 1980.



Also in 1965, The Wailers, with Peter Tosh on lead vocals, recorded two more ska songs with mento roots (though in both cases, they were originally the calypso hits that migrated into the mento repertoire). In "Jumbie Jamboree", Peter Tosh changed the lyrics to describe the unruly fans at a Wailers' performance as a party of zombies. Additionally, the chorus is taken from the "why-o, me glad you come over" chorus of the the Jamaican folk song, "River Ben Come Down". Here is a mento rendition of "Zombie Jamboree" by The Happy Smilers

"Shame and Scandal" was a straight cover of this often recorded West Indian song. Artists as diverse as Maya Angelou, American folk great Odetta, British pop-ska hit makers Madness and American roots music/world music great David Lindley, for example, have also recorded Shame and Scandal. Here is a mento rendition of "Shame and Scandal" by King Barou.



In 1966, The Wailers recorded the wonderful Rasta Shook Them Up with Peter Tosh again on lead vocals. This song was based on an earlier song called Archie (Buck Them Up), which originally was a calypso. Around the same time that the Wailers recorded their adaptation, The Hiltonaires recorded a mento version of Archie Buck Them Up, which was released as a single and on an LP. (On the same LP, The Hiltonaires also recorded a version of "Nobody's Business", which, as discussed below, Tosh also covered. Perhaps Peter was a fan of this LP, or, more likely, this is a coincidence. )

Simultaneously, or shortly thereafter other renditions were released. Ernest Ranglin blazed a scorcher jazz-calypso-mento version of this song that alone is worth the price of the CD, "A Mod A Mod Ranglin". So did Jamaica's resident Trinidadian calypso singer, Lord Creator, rural mento act King Arthur and the calypso-y Dennis Sindrey, shortening the title, as Ernest Ranglin did, to "Archie".



In 1967, The Wailers were so impressed by the emergence of rock steady that they recorded a song in that style. It was called Rocking Steady, and in it, they sang about the first time they heard this new music that had become all the rage. This song is a cover of a Count Lasher hit. In 1959, Lasher was so impressed by the emergence of cha cha, that he recorded a mento song in that style. It was called "Calypso Cha Cha Cha", and in it, he sang about the first time he heard this new music that had become all the rage. This song, from 1959 was a hit for Lasher. The Wailers covered it and extended the music lesson of the original. This was the last time Bob Marley was involved with mento, though the other Wailers continued longer.

Also in 1967, Seeco Patterson makes his Wailers recording debut as a percussionist on the track Lyrical Satyrical. (The source for this is the excellent "Bob Marley and The Wailers - The Definitive Discography" by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson.) As explained above, Seeco previously performed as a member of Lord Flea's band and other mento groups. He would continue to do numerous other Wailers sessions throughout the band's existence and later toured as a member of the instrumental Wailers. By this, Seeco may have had a longer recording relationship with Bob Marley than any other individual, with the exception of his wife.

In 1968, Peter Tosh and The Wailers released Fire Fire. The melody was taken from a Jamaican folk song, "Mamma Me Wan Fe Work" as recorded by The Frats Quintet as the lead track on their first LP, "Authentic Jamaican Folk Songs" in 1958. Tosh provided lyrics that were new and very different from the original. (Thanks to Olivier Albot of France for pointing this out to me.) "Mamma Me Wan Fe Work" is also know as "Hebby Load".

Also in 1968, The Wailers recorded a number of tracks that would include percussion from mento artist Denzil Laing. These tracks, released on the JAD label were Rock To The Rock, Rocking Steady (Soul Mix), Mellow Mood, and Chances Are (Soul Mix). (The source for this is the excellent "Bob Marley and The Wailers - The Definitive Discography" by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson.)



1970s

In 1970, the Rita Marley led Soulettes backed singer Lloyd Wilkes on the LP, "Jamaica Magic". Selections include Island In The Sun, Yellow Bird, Day-O, and Jamaica Farwell. This LP can be seen here. Thanks to Olivier Albot of France for pointing this out to me, and also noted that the LP was produced by Ted Powder, who also produced 4 Wailers in late 1969 (This Train, Wisdom, Adam and Eve, and Thank You Lord).

By 1970, Bob have begun to work with future Wailers' band leader, bassist Aston Barrett. During that same year, Barrett recorded an instrumental rendition of Sly Mongoose, that also incorporates some of Linstead Market, released as a single on the Punch label.

In 1971, Peter Tosh, with Bunny Wailer's help, recorded Leave My Business. The liner notes of Tosh's "Honorary Citizen" box set mistakenly attribute this song to American blues and jazz vocalist, Bessie Smith. They are probably thinking of her hit, "'Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do", a different song altogether. Tosh's "Leave My Business" is of Jamaican folk/mento origin, as can be heard on Edric Connor & the Caribbeans' 1952 LP, "Songs from Jamaica" as well as in the mento medley by Boysie Grant and Reynold's Calypso Clippers.



In 1976, Peter Tosh recorded the mento song "Charley's Cow" (a.k.a "Mattie Rag") with new lyrics, as "Whatcha Gonna Do". It appears on the, Legalize It LP.

In 1976, Bob Marley recorded "Rat Race". The structure of the song's chorus owes to the old folk/mento song "Chi Chi Bud".



In 1978, Bunny Wailer covered Peter Tosh's
Fire Fire as Love Fire. As mentioned above, the melody was taken from a Jamaican folk song. Twenty two years later, it would be part of Bunny's live set.



1980s


In 1982, the instrumental Wailers lead by the Barrett brothers backed former Jolly Boys singer Donald Davidson and his wife on the LP, "Beautiful Garden", which includes covers of three Jolly Boys songs. For more on this LP, visit The Jolly Boys page.

In 1985, Bunny Wailer recorded "Cool and Deadly", a song based on "Emmanuel Road". Thanks to David Pablo Colton for pointing this out.



1990s


In 1992, Bob's mother, Cedella Marley Booker, released Smilin' Island of Song, a Jamaican folk music CD for children. It includes songs from the mento repertoire such as Chi Chi Bud, Matty Roll, and Banana Boat Song (Day-O).



Also in 1992, Bunny Wailer's Dance Massive LP was released. The title track quotes from numerous songs, including the melody of "Mango Walk", which is heard twice.



In 1994, Bunny Wailer also released a recording of the historically important Lord Lebby mento song "Etheopia", as "Here In Jamaica". The title and lyrics are updated, but the melody back-to-Africa theme of the original remains. It appears on Bunny's Crucial! Roots Classics CD. It’s interesting to note that Bunny Wailer, who famously recorded the quintessential back-to-Africa reggae song in "Dreamland" also covered "Etheopia", the first song with this theme in all of recorded Jamaican music. ("Dreamland" was written by Al Johnson and originally performed by El Tempos on Vee Jay records, as revealed in Bob Marley and The Wailers - The Definitive Discography by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson.) 



In 1995, Bunny Wailer then recorded "Conscious Lyrics", which borrows the chorus of "Emmanuel Road". (Thanks to Olivier Albot for bringing this to my attention.)



2000s


By 2002, it had been nearly three decades since The Wailers began honoring Jamaica’s first music by covering mento songs. It was that year when Stanley Beckford released his CD, "Plays Mento". It included mento renditions of three Bob Marley and The Wailers songs (Guava Jelly, Three Little Birds and One Love). Though it has become common for today’s mento bands to include mento covers of Bob Marley songs in their sets, this is the first time such had been recorded. With this release, the circle of recorded appreciation between Bob Marley and The Wailers and mento music had completed itself.

In 2004, a CD called "Hi Fi Calypso" by Karl Zero and The Wailers appeared in Europe. French television personality Karl Zero sang lead vocals backed by an instrumental Wailers line up that included that Family Man, Al Anderson, Tyrone Downie, Glen De Costa and Vin Gordon. In addition to several French songs and a Wailers' cover (Nice Time), there are a number of calypso-y Harry Belafonte covers (Jamaica Farewell, Man Smart, Woman Smarter, Jump In The Line, Coconut Woman, Mama Look A Boo Boo), calypso-y renditions of two Jamaican songs not popularized by Belafonte (Don't Touch My Tomato, Tingalayo) and a cover of The Jolly Boy's Take Me Back To Jamaica. Unlike the preceding tracks, the "Take Me Back" is rural mento, complete with banjo and bass that sometimes sounds like rumba box. A lyric is changed to, "Take me to Jamaica where I was not born", reminiscent of The Wailers rendition of "White Christmas", which included the lyrical modification "... not like the ones I used to know". Banjo is played by Nelson Chambers. Could this be in fact Neville Chambers of The Hiltonaires?

In 2007, a year before her passing, Cedella Marley Booker released cover of the Jamaican children's folk song Brown Girl In The Ring. It served as the title track of a children's music world music collection.  In the 1950s, Chins Calypso Sextet provided a mento version of this song (titled Let’s Play Ring: Show Me Yu Motion) as seen here.

In 2009, Bob's eldest son Ziggy Marley released "Family Time" an all-ages reggae album. It included Hold Him Joe as well as Wings of an Eagle, based on the spiritual Wings of a Dove, a song so often performed by mento bands as well as The Wailers. With this, the story of mento and Bob's family now spans four generations.

In 2011, Bunny Wailer recorded his first mento song: the rasta-mento of We Will Wait, the title track of a CD by The Blue Glaze Mento Band. The same CD also has a guest appearance from one-time instrumental Wailer, harmonica player Lee Jaffe.

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