In the first of a series of interviews looking at the music of Jamaica, Chris Sullivan goes in search of the original Mento rhythms and the kings of the scene, The Jolly Boys, who are enjoying a Buena Vista Social Club-style rediscovery in Europe and the USA.

Discovered playing on the beach in Port Antonio, Jamaica, by record mogul Jon Baker of Geejam (the Gee Street/Island Records A&R man who also signed Queen Latifah, The Stereo MCs, PM Dawn and Beanie Man), The Jolly Boys have been plying their trade for 60 years, performing a style of music called Mento - a predecessor of reggae and rocksteady.

A bucolic mix of home-spun lyrics and gentle Caribbean rhythms played on a home-made marumba box, along with bongos, maracas, guitar and banjo, Mento’s most familiar hit is Day-O (The Banana Boat Song), a much-loved track that topped the world’s charts in 1956 when it was sung by Port Antonio’s very own Harry Belafonte.

Having recently released their album, entitled Great Expectation - which includes Mento versions of Perfect Day, I Fought The Law and Rehab - the band (whose oldest member is 82) has toured the US and Europe and played to the likes of Pamela Anderson, Kanye West and Mos Def.

Chris Sullivan travelled to Jamaica and interviewed lead singer/guitarist Albert Minott, who at 71 is the baby of the group…



How did it all start for you?
"It all began when I ran away as a boy in 1950. My father was very, very strict and he used to beat me with a thick leather strap. One day, I’d been playing cricket and forgot the time. I knew I’d have the strap and have it hard, so I ran away. When I was 12, to get by, I used to pick bananas, cut cane and hang out by the cruise ships and shout to the tourists: ’Hey ma! Hey pa! Throw something over!’ They would throw a coin into the water and we’d dive in and find it. Then a friend taught me how to be an acrobat and we used to walk on our hands, do somersaults and do the fire dance to earn money from the cruise ships that came to Port Antonio."

What’s the secret of fire dancing?
"Oh, a lot of people ask that but I can’t give my secret away. But that was a wild show, shooting the flames high into the air."

Did you ever get burned?
"Once. They had this big fan in the hotel, and I wasn’t concentrating, so when I blew it out, the flame came back and burned me bad. But I finished my act and went to the hospital afterwards. But I still do the fire dance now if people ask me."

"A good song has a nice rhythm and a good melody that you can sing along to with lyrics that mean something to you personally."

Can you still walk on your hands?
"I still do the dance as well as another - when I put a glass with red wine and a candle floating in it on my forehead and do a slow ballet. I used to do all those things at Frenchman’s Cove in Port Antonio and run from table to table. But they all used to come to Frenchman’s and they used to tip big. Real BIG."

Wasn’t that a hang-out for a lot of Hollywood players?
"Oh yes. We used to do our dance for people like the Aga Khan and Baron Heini Von Thyssen at these beach parties where you’d get all the Hollywood stars like Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum. We used to see Errol Flynn all the time. He came to Port Antonio in the early 50s and lived on his boat, Zaca, with his wife Patrice. The boys used to row up on a boat and play for rum and a few dollars. He loved The Jolly Boys [in fact, the Australian actor gave the band their name]."

Didn’t you also meet Dean Martin?
"Yes, I met him. He was a big star. Elizabeth Taylor used to come here all the time with Richard Burton."

I also heard JFK came here secretly with Marilyn Monroe…
"That was the big rumour, yeah man. But it was all a secret."

How did you join The Jolly Boys?
"The original band leader, Moses, asked me to play rumba box now and again in the 60s. Then, 12 years ago, I came and started singing and playing the guitar with them."

And now?
"Well now we’re having another bite of the cherry, maybe our last. The other guys, like Powder and Johnny, have been abroad before but I have only been to the US. So going to England and France and America and playing in front of lots of very nice people is very nice."

I’m surprised you’ve not been signed before.
"Well Mr Baker saw something and is now showing our talents and people are starting to recognise what we have. Big up to Mr. Baker."

How do you feel about these new songs?
"I love, Rehab, and Riders On The Storm and You Can’t Always Get What You Want are great in the Mento style. I was very happy to use classic Mento rhythms and feel with these new songs. It is really great."

What constitutes a good song for you?
"A good song has a nice rhythm and a good melody that you can sing along to with lyrics that mean something to you personally."

How do young people take to you?
"Young people like it. I feel that dancehall has been going a long time and is very rough but, Mento is gentle and a bit sentimental, so it is more accessible."

What are your ambitions? Where did you always want to go in life?
"Well, all I wanted was to have a nice home and earn a little money so I could look after my daughter and pay my bills. All I hope to do is a good day’s work for a good day’s pay and come away with a big smile on my face."

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