70-Somethings: Jamaican Mento Group the Jolly Boys, who now cover Amy Winehouse and Iggy Pop, once played For Errol Flynn
Eleven years after he sold his UK-based hip-hop label Gee Street Records to Richard Branson's V2 Records, Jon Baker expects his recently launched GeeJam Recordings to successfully impact the US market with an unlikely flagship act: septuagenarian Jamaican mento group The Jolly Boys.
GeeJam, a full service label/management company with offices in New York and Kingston, has partnered with eOne Music for the Jolly Boys' album "Great Expectation," scheduled for release on May 3. Recorded at Baker's GeeJam Studios in Port Antonio, Jamaica (utilized by Drake and Amy Winehouse, among others), his co-production alongside Dale Virgo, nimbly weaves mento's defining instrumentation (banjo, maracas, thumb piano) into spirited, signature interpretations of contemporary hits including Winehouse's "Rehab" and Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," and New Order's "Blue Monday."
Jamaica's first recorded music, mento is characterized by topical, often risqué subjects addressed through artful double entendre, like its Trinidadian counterpart, calypso. "All Jamaican music, ska, reggae, dancehall, come from mento," declares the Jolly Boys' lead singer Albert Minott, 72. "My grandparents told me when the slaves were tired they would sing mento songs in the sugar cane fields."
Detractors view Baker's "modern mento" concept as gimmickry but he staunchly defends its significance in establishing the genre among a broader audience. "Mento interpretations of familiar songs opens up the entertainment factor," says Baker. "Mento was once Jamaicans' social-political mouthpiece with songs about everything from excessive rum drinking to corrupt politicians, topics that are heard in their modern repertoire and that's an important linkage."
A near capacity crowd of 600 heartily cheered mento's modern and traditional strains when the Jolly Boys performed at New York City's Hiro Ballroom on February 24, which commenced the US campaign for the Jolly Boys' "Great Expectation."
"People compare them to the Buena Vista Social Club: incredible musicians with an incredible sound; once people hear it, they dig it," says Ed Micone of Paradigm's New York office who is handling their bookings, which includes dates at nightclubs, casinos, performance arts centers and festivals throughout the US and Europe.
The Jolly Boys' have honed their musical craft since the 1950s when they were called the Navy Island Swamp Boys performing at star-studded soirees hosted by American actor Errol Flynn in Port Antonio. Rechristened The Jolly Boys by Flynn, the group has existed in various configurations ever since, performing at hotels within Jamaica's resort areas.
Their enduring career and mento's historical importance steer the marketing for "Great Expectation" says Chuck Mitchell Vice President, Jazz, Classical and Adult Music at eOne.
On February 18 a five-track digital EP "Classic Mento From Port Antonio" was released on iTunes to acquaint listeners with the Jolly Boys' roots and generate interest in the forthcoming album's modern mento expression. "Great Expectation" will be serviced to triple A, alternative and world music formats, public broadcasting and non-commercial outlets," says Mitchell, "and we're looking into branding and licensing to get this music heard on television and in movies, associations that extend beyond the core world music crowd."
Another enthusiastic partner is Chris Hutton owner of the Dublin, Ireland, based investment company Shamrock Solutions, which funds albums through capital raised by the UK's Icebreaker Management Services. Shamrock has done over 100 album financing deals in Europe, says Hutton, and has now moved into the US market with Baker as their stateside representative. "This project has fantastic potential," says Hutton. "My kids love the Jolly Boys and so do my 80-something year old parents which is indicative of their widespread appeal."
With Baker's 30 plus years in the music business, which includes an association with punk impresario Malcolm McClaren in late-70s London and running Chris Blackwell's Island Jamaica imprint in the mid 90s, he brings a discerning eclecticism to the various Jolly Boys projects which include a forthcoming reality TV show and a docudrama about Minott's life, "A Jolly Boy".
"They are part of a greater narrative about Jamaica's heritage that has been overlooked," observes Baker. "This music is getting people's ears as something that time almost forgot but is now reinvented in a more accessible way."