The Jolly Boys - Great Expectation

by Charly Richardson Rating:5.5 Release Date:2010-09-13

Mento is a light-hearted Jamaican folk music with African and European influences. Once wrongly described as "Jamaicans playing calypso badly", its cheeky and lively sound had its heyday in the 1950s and went on to influence the development of ska, rocksteady, reggae, and beyond. It was at this time that The Navy Island Swamp Boys were championed by actor Errol Flynn, who had a home in Port Antonio. Flynn would invite them to play at his raucous parties, dubbing them The Jolly Boys, a name which has stuck for some 60 years. In fact, the one surviving original isn't even in the band anymore, and the mantle has been handed over to younger contemporaries. Well, when I say younger, they range from 73 to 84.

Last year British producer Jon Baker, owner of the Jamaican studio GeeJam, and Mark Jones from label Wall of Sound invited the Jolly Boys in to record some old mento tunes. They were then given a bunch of cover versions to work on and the resulting album, Great Expectation, is - the press release claims - "the birth of modern mento". And here lies the problem. I have been a huge mento fan for years, and am continually frustrated when so few people, even professional musicians or friends of Jamaican descent, have no idea what it is. I really wanted this to be a killer album, mainly so I could use it to taunt: "see I told you mento was cool, nana na-na na", or something along those lines.

But Great Expectation isn't really mento. Yes, it has the familiar instruments such as the rumba box, bongos, maracas and banjo, but assuming they are playing mento because of the instrumentation is like saying that a sax player on Smooth FM is playing jazz, when everyone knows it's just smooth-porn shite. Anyways, despite their age, Joseph "Powda" Bennett and Allan Swymmer play the bongos and maracas with great gusto. But for some inexplicable reason, clumsy drum programming is crudely shoved in too. And, although Derrick "Johnny" Henry's glorious rumba box (like a giant thumb piano which you sit on and pick at) can sometimes be heard, it is also, quite criminally, replaced by programmed bass at points. And furthermore, most of the songs are downtempo and minor, when traditional mento is largely uptempo and major (although this could have something to do with their age!). Indeed, their name could be seen as misleading, for most of this album is not particularly jolly. In fact when compared to 50s mento, it is positively dull.

Still, that doesn't mean there is nothing to enjoy here. Amy Winehouse's 'Rehab' is given a glorious makeover with syncopated acoustic guitar and banjo, Nyabinghi-style bongos, sumptuous lead vocals from Albert Minott, and enthusiastic backing vocals all-round. Only those with a heart of stone will fail to grin from ear to ear when listening. Similarly, the cheeky vibe of the Clash's 'I Fought the Law' is perfect for a Jolly Boys makeover. The Nerve's 'Hanging on the Telephone' is pleasingly upbeat, and Minott's voice niftily reinvents the melody in the verse, giving it a pseudo-ragga makeover. Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' has eerie, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly-style whistling, but the superimposed drums quickly grate. The chorus of Steely Dan's 'Do It Again' works surprisingly well, but Iggy Pop's 'Nightclubbing' is a terrible choice, and the remaining songs are not exactly inspiring.

Great Expectations really is a double-edged sword for both The Jolly Boys and the listener. Clearly, they are still great players, but this whole project just smacks of novelty, if not outright exploitation. I'm not suggesting Baker and Jones kidnapped The Jolly Boys and made them work as slaves on mediocre cover versions; after decades playing for tourists and little else, clearly they jumped at the chance to expand their audience and tour the world, who wouldn't? But as a band whose 50s recordings were played 100 per cent live in the studio (and sound bloody great), multi-tracking a pop-style album with electronic instruments was simply a poor choice, and for this only the producers and executive producers can be blamed.

Of course, token cover versions are more commercial than traditional mento songs, but it feels like The Jolly Boys have not been given sufficient room to cover the songs in their own way. The tacky, lazy production makes the songs sound like incomplete ghost tracks which aren't really mento or pop. The production team seem to have no idea about what real mento should sound like, or even what The Jolly Boys are capable of. And if Baker and Jones' aim was to re-invent rather than revive mento, well they simply should have done better. Still, if this helps the world rediscover real mento, then I'm happy.

Charly Richardson

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