* * * * and a half by Echoes (London)

"Mento is the folk music of Jamaica. It shares many similarities with Trinidadian calypso – chiefly the shuffling rhythms, catchy melodies and satirical lyrics, which offer a wealth of insights into the everyday life [and humour] of rural Jamaica in the fifties. Whilst largely ignored outside of the Caribbean in its purest form, there’s a charm about these early recordings that’s irresistible – both in terms of lyrics and delivery but also instrumentation, since where else would you find musicians playing guitars and banjos, rumba boxes, bamboo saxophones and maracas, and maybe even marimbas and clarinets? The vocals still sound fresh, and the sound quality’s surprisingly good given these songs were first voiced more than fifty years ago.
You’re highly unlikely to hear any of them at a dance or on the radio of course, except that doesn’t mean they’re without relevance, in fact far from it. The tracks included here provide the very definition of “foundation” and this double CD set is essential for anyone wishing to get a deeper understanding of where today’s reggae and dancehall is coming from, since you can trace mento influences in so many records dating from the sixties, seventies and eighties. For instance, the Meditations weren’t alone in borrowing from Hubert Porter’s Man Smart, Woman Smarter and let’s hope Josey Wales gave Lord Flea a co-writer’s credit for Water Come A Mi Eye because the lyrics are almost identical! Wigglers’ songs like Linstead Market and Don’t Touch Me Tomato have resonated down the generations too, whilst the opening track by Louise Bennett, Day Dah Light, is a revelation – not least because it’s a prototype version of Harry Belafonte’s Day O [The Banana Boat Song] and the album it spawned, released all of two years later, in 1956, became the first LP to sell a million copies. Other names that might also raise a flicker or two of recognition include Laurel Aitken, Count Lasher, Lord Messam & His Calypsonians, Baba Motta, Lord Fly and Chin’s Calypso Sextet… The songs and verses are as wonderful as the names who play them; Bruno Blum’s liner notes are marvellously informative, and if you can get to grips with the time factor – since this kind of music will sound ancient to some – then you’re in for a rare and rewarding treat."