zondag 4 augustus 2013

"Earlier" Jamaican (folk) music

Mento is known as the earliest recorded Jamaican music genre. It was according to historians (and several sources I found) already recorded in the 1920s, and would remain popular up to the 1950s. It is seen as a - rural and acoustic - precursor to the later genres originated in Jamaica since the late 1950s/early 1960s: ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Mento shared similarities with Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso genre, but is a different genre with an own history and origin. Musical similarities between mento and calypso should be attributed to a shared African-Caribbean origin, rather than one being an off-shoot of the other: similarities go back to before: the African roots, combined with some (British/European) colonial influences.


The confusion of terms can partly be attributed to the selling of mento songs as “calypso”: for commercial, marketing reasons, especially in the 1950s. For some reason “calypso” as a Caribbean music term was more known in the US than “mento”, and in the 1950s – when mento and calypso reached more commercial success outside of Jamaica, especially in the US – many mento songs were called “calypso”. Also Harry Belafonte (US resident of Jamaican origin), who became the very first artist world wide to sell over a million copies of an album, presented what were actually Jamaican mento songs as “calypso”. Most well-known (and very well-known at that) of that album is the song ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day O)’: actually a Jamaican-originated mento song, but known better (if: wrongly) as calypso.


This confusion of terms aside, it is known, or at least said by serious historians, that mento was the first recorded Jamaican music genre, in the 1920s. “Recording” can have different meanings though, not so much a mistaken confusion (as in mistaking mento for calypso), but correct, varying meanings. Recording in a professional music studio, with the goal of selling music to a public - or in colder economic terms “put on the market” - was in the 1920s not that common in Jamaica, a bit more in richer countries like the US, though it was upcoming. (The first “phonograph” recording device was invented and put to use for commercial records in the US since about 1887, especially increasing by the 1910s: since then records came more massively on the US and European market).

However, “recording” music does not necessarily involve direct commercial purposes. Recordings of traditional, folk music were also made by cultural anthropologists and other social scientists, with often modest equipment: for scholarly/scientific or research purposes. These are known as "field recordings". Focussing on Jamaica this is also interesting, especially since such academic, “anthropological” field recordings have been made also from early times, since the 1930s, both by Jamaican and foreign anthropologists. These recordings were of religious, spiritual and folk music at mostly religious African-based or Afro-Christian (religious) gatherings, whereby the music tended to have spiritual/religious and community functions, and not commercial or “pop culture” functions.


This brings me to an interesting compilation album I recently encountered: ‘Jamaica Folk Trance Possession’ with as subtitles both ‘Roots of Rastafari, 1939-1961’ and ‘Mystic music from Jamaica’. This CD was released in 2013, and can be bought on common channels such as Amazon (see: http://www.amazon.com/Jamaica-Folk-Trance-Possession-1939-1961/dp/B00BL319YQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1375651914&sr=1-1&keywords=Jamaica+folk+trance).

It consists of such early anthropological recordings of Jamaican folk music, from – as the subtitle says – between 1939 and 1961. Before common popular music formats, radio and commercial goals (for instance the 3-minute rule/convention for pop songs that developed later), this album thus consists of excerpts of research “fieldwork” – as it is called in scholarly terms – of anthropologists recording what happened to go on at musical/spiritual meetings related to folk religions and community gatherings among Afro-Jamaicans.

These religions - or spiritual movements - were often clearly African-derived, and in turn would influence mento. The recordings include examples of Kumina (Congo-based) folk traditions, early mento, Afro-Christian Revival Zion or Baptist sessions, Pukkumina or Pocomania (African-based) music, music of the John Canoe festival, and early Rastafari gatherings and Nyabinghi music. I find interesting also that Count Ossie (influential Rastafari-adherent Nyahbinghi drummer and musician) is included in the musicians on some recordings. Further it included work songs, and traditional songs starring the famous folk poet Louise Bennett.


The liner notes - in an accompanying booklet - further say that these are the oldest Jamaican recordings that exist. That is quite a statement, and, if true, it would make this compilation album all the more historically relevant. Mento might have been recorded since the 1920s, but unfortunately these recordings seem to have been lost, since the liner notes also say that the oldest existing recording of a mento is on this album: its mento opener (a Jamaican folk classic) ‘Linstead Market’, recorded in 1939.

These liner notes – written by Bruno Blum - are a general historical and musical overview, and here and there quite informative, but I can not evaluate if they are totally correct. Largely what is said is confirmed by other sources and scholars I know, though there are a few doubtful – or better said “controversial” - aspects. The author Bruno Blum traces for example in his account the roots of Ras Tafari to the (Afro-Christian) Zion Revival churches, which shared with Rastafari an own (African/Black) interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. Yet, I understood from other sources that it is not the only root of the movement, as some pioneering Rastas indeed had connections to Revival Zion churches, whereas others, at least according to some historians, distanced themselves more from such Revival religious aspects (including Leonard Howell, as well as Rastafari inspirer Marcus Garvey).

Besides this, many Rastafari eschewed from early on practices like spirit possession or evoking the spirits of the death, albeit of direct African origins, keen as these were on separating life from death. The same reason a part of the Rastas did and do not visit funerals, not only of some distant “generals” as a few reggae songs relate, but some not even of loved ones. This is not common to all Rastas though. It is similar to the “priests” in the Jewish tradition (from the Levi priest order) who eschew contamination with the dead and death and do not dwell close to death (or e.g. cemeteries). An example of how a Biblical/Old Testament influence outweighs African traditions.

This last issue is not just a sidepath, since it is interesting in light of this that Congo (music) traditions so strongly influenced Rastafari’s Nyahbinghi traditions. Congo drumming often has the spiritual function of evoking the spirit of foreparents (i.e. the dead). This all seems contradictory, but makes sense when the symbolic and factual are properly regarded in their own worth : Rastas who do not visit funerals (of e.g. a biological brother or aunt, or even of a loved and respected elder Rastafari) don’t refuse to do so necessarily because they do not care about those deceased: they do not like death..


Back to the CD. Its academic context might be – for some music listeners – something to get used to. It appeals to rationality, historical analysis, thinking, and not just to – as many prefer – just “feeling” the music. The weak and distorted sound quality - due to its relative antiquity and probably the used equipment - does not help either. The somewhat soft and distorted sound and vocals, including background murmur and noise, are far apart from the clarity, and modern, noiseless recording of popular music nowadays recorded in studios (or current Jamaican music).

Still, overcoming this I really got intrigued by these recordings. A certain rational mind-set helped me in this case – or as some say, using the “logical, rational” left brain half (I actually think you have to use both - the emotional and rational brain halves - in most of life’s activities…but that is another issue..).

Furthermore, sometimes helped by my imagination, when the sound quality is not so good, I still notice and even feel the “groove” on most songs on this album, which tend to have a strong drum- and percussion-focus (as some would expect). Simply turning up the volume also helped me to get “inna di riddim” better. Besides a drum and percussion lover, I am also a "call-and-response" singing lover, another African retention recurring throughout these songs/recordings. Also other interesting types of harmony singing can be heard. This gives in some way an interesting musical history lesson. Often I really found it engaging and danceable as well.


Historically certainly interesting is also that the album liner notes claim that the album includes the oldest known Rastafari song (lyrically) ever recorded. ‘We Are Going Home’, by the Ras Tafari Youth Group (and no..it can at present not be found on YouTube). The sound quality – again – is not very clear, and the sound somewhat distorted, but you get an idea.

The liner notes also said something which I considered very informative: the relation to Congo rhythms, via Kumina, that would help shape the Nyahbinghi rhythms among the Rastafari. These first-recorded Rasta chants, however, were accompanied by music/rhythms influenced by Baptist church ceremonies, though the lyrics (and of course the Rastafari movement) criticized this colonially shaped Christianity for being racist.

Nyahbinghi (as said Congo/Kumina-based) can be found as well on this compilation - including the “heart beat” rhythm base -, played by Rastafari-adherent Count Ossie. Interestingly, Blum points in the notes at specific African origins in NtorĂ© rhythms from the Kivu region (Eastern Congo) – especially maintained in the eastern parish of Jamaica of St Thomas - that influenced Nyahbinghi music.


What also was educational to me was that the notes explained how at Baptist church ceremonies musically, in chanting, while keeping the beat with the feet, the off-beat was accentuated with a hand clap: the same off-beat that would later define ska (and rocksteady and reggae). It shows how far back in folk music own, distinct Jamaican rhythms go, and that the skanking “afterbeat” that would set Jamaican genres apart from e.g. US Rhythm & Blues since about 1960, indeed has a long tradition in local Jamaican folk music. Both in the Afro-Christian Baptist music, but also in the “heart beat” of Nyabinghi drumming: after the two “heart” beats an off-beat followed on the third beat: some see this as a precursor to the emphasis on the third count of a 4/4 bar in ska, rocksteady, and reggae.

Relatedly, the characteristically “shuffling strum” of the guitar (or banjo) in mento – sounding as “kerchanga”, “kerchanga” - also is considered as a precursor of the skanking guitar and organ licks in later reggae.


A few mento songs close off this 'Jamaica Folk Trance Possession..' compilation album of field recordings. Mento had not really that rhythmic “off-beat”/"afterbeat" focus as ska and some older folk forms had. Yet with its other musical characteristics it also influenced what would become ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Several musical artists, for instance Laurel Aitken, were active both in mento and later in ska and following genres. There is a continuity there.

Also, several Jamaican artists of the ska, rocksteady and reggae era, especially those that grew up in rural areas (where mento was more present), made initially such (much more acoustic) mento songs (like Leonard Dillon of the Ethiopians) or at least let some of their songs strongly be influenced by mento, e.g. Peter Tosh. This is also said in the recently (2013) appeared biography of Peter Tosh, written by John Masouri (‘The life of Peter Tosh : steppin’ razor’), although Masouri also makes occasionally the mistake of calling mento influences on Peter Tosh songs “calypso”.

Also, what is known within Roots Reggae as the “country style”, of groups like the Maytones, and to degrees also the Gladiators, the Itals, and Culture (all groups with partly rural connections) – and occasional songs of other groups – show influences of mento. Several folk mento songs/lyrics are redone by later reggae artists.

Mento partly influenced ska and following (sub)genres (rocksteady, reggae, up to dancehall). Other local Jamaican influences shaping these genres came from other, older musical traditions mentioned (Pukkumina, Kumina, Nyahbinghi, Revival Zion etc.), of which specific African origins can be traced, more specifically in origins (Congo for instance) than some may think.

All this makes these historical recordings valuable.

The only thing that seemed to be missing - or absent: “missing” implies that the album aimed to be comprehensive, which it did not state as such -, is music of the Maroon communities in Jamaica, the formerly escaped slaves. These Maroons' relative isolation and freedom enabled the maintenance of relatively more African cultural (and musical) traits. Apart from this, I have read that Maroon musical aspects also had an influence on Jamaican popular music development, although not in too many sources. In another field – that of food – there is a Maroon influence on wider Jamaican culture and society: the Jerk Chicken and other Jerk dishes. This despite the fact that the Maroons still partly maintain a self-chosen isolation/separation within Jamaica. But like I said: that - food - is another field. There are, in any case, some interesting videos with Jamaican Maroon music on YouTube..

Possibly there is another CD/compilation album on Jamaican Maroon music..

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