PORT ANTONIO, Jamaica — The Jolly Boys, a trio of elderly Jamaican musicians who play a rollicking type of folk music nearly forgotten by time, are enjoying an unexpected revival after nearly 60 years of entertaining tourists on the island's hotels.
Playing on acoustic, sometimes home-made, instruments, the group's forte is mento, a Jamaican dance music created by the descendants of African slaves in the late 19th century. It features banjo, maracas, a rough-hewn wooden box with metal prongs to pluck bass notes and often bawdy lyrics.
But, these days, by fusing traditional sounds with rock and pop hits, including Amy Winehouse's Rehab and Lou Reed's Perfect Day, the septuagenarian Jolly Boys are bringing the jubilant sound of mento — the rhythm of the Caribbean island's dancehalls long before ska and reggae — to European arenas and hipster venues in the United States.
For Albert Minott, the group's 72-year-old guitarist and gravelly voiced front man, preserving the once vibrant musical genre and expanding its possibilities is a lifelong mission.
“Over the years, mento has been locked down in a cooking pot by these guys with their big amplifiers, big sound boxes. So it's been quietly cooking, simmering,” said the dapperly dressed Minott, his brown eyes brightening in his deeply lined face.
“But now,” he said, “we the Jolly Boys take off the pot cover, spoon out the mento and serve up the good taste to the young people who didn't know it. Nobody else can do it.”
Mixing a traditional mento sound with punk and pop hits was the brainchild of Jon Baker, a veteran music promoter and co-owner of Geejam, a high-end resort and recording studio where the Jolly Boys recorded their Great Expectation album that was released in the spring.
Baker said he got the idea when he finally listened with fresh ears to the Jolly Boys, the house band at Geejam. It was the beginning of the global financial recession in 2008, when the hotel side of the business was slow. For years, he had dismissed mento as “tourism music.”
“We could make a beautifully classic mento album and it would sell 2,000 records worldwide. So we thought of a way of taking the elements of mento but choose rock classics or basically go into my iPod and choose songs that were very influential to me and my growth,” Baker said in Geejam's recording studio.
The experiment has worked beautifully. Earlier this year, Minott and the Jolly Boys introduced mento to hundreds of thousands of music fans while opening up for Sade on a European tour. In Britain, the band has appeared on the live BBC music show Later With Jools Holland. They recently played at a three-day music festival in New York and are heading to Hong Kong this month.
“We are being selective now. They are not an 18-year-old
alternative band that can jump in the back of the truck,” said Baker, who was a hip-hop promoter and owner of the Gee Street Records label in the 1980s.
Indeed, two 80-something members of the Jolly Boys, percussionist Allan Swymmer and banjo player Egbert Watson, stepped down from the band's tours and recording sessions after the schedule proved too hectic. Watson is also battling Alzheimer's disease. Younger musicians now fill out the trio's sound.
Originally called the Navy Island Swamp Boys, the Jolly Boys got their start in the 1950s performing at Hollywood star Errol Flynn's private island in the Port Antonio area, which, at the time, was the playground of the swashbuckling actor, European bluebloods and American old-money socialites.
In 1989, American singer-songwriter Jules Shear saw the band during a visit to the now defunct Trident Hotel on Jamaica's north coast. He recorded an album of their music for world music fans. But the international response back then is nothing like what they are experiencing now.
Joseph “Powda” Bennett, a veteran Jolly Boy who is a member of Jamaica's Maroons — whose ancestors were slaves freed by the Spanish in the 17th century to repel invading British forces — said their recent international success has effectively made them the biggest Jamaican band around.
“Over the years, we've stayed in the hotels preserving this mento. It's finally paying off now,” said Bennett, 73, who has played in various incarnations of the Jolly Boys group which has had at least 18 members over the decades.
Next up for the Jolly Boys is an album of classic mento songs that they've performed for years. Minott says he wants his group to go to No. 1 in Jamaica.
Whatever the future brings, Minott and his two companions say they will enjoy the veteran group's late successes.
“There are places we go now that we didn't expect that we would ever know, places that as a boy you read about in a comic book — Russia, Germany, France, Spain, England. And now we go to all those places. Isn't that wonderful? To do that at this age,” said Minott, grinning. “Our grandkids brag about it.”
Photo: Jolly Boys