Melding a unique traditional folk style with unexpected new elements

Trends come and go, but the Jolly Boys have been playing mento music—a Jamaican folk style that was a major influence on reggae and ska—for nearly 60 years. The veteran band extends and expands that tradition on Great Expectation, a new collection that trades its usual fare for mento interpretations of songs by the likes of Amy Winehouse, the Clash, Johnny Cash, the Doors and others. “It’s like a dream come true,” says singer and founding member Albert Minott, 73.

Various incarnations of the Jolly Boys have played for decades in Port Antonio, Jamaica, performing often in hotels—where they became favorites of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals during their visits to the country. In recent years the Boys have been regulars at Geejam Studios, a residential recording studio and resort hotel. That’s where studio founder and former Island label executive Jon Baker fell in love with mento. “This music talked about politics, rum addiction, sex,” Baker says. “I saw this music was very similar to rock ’n’ roll.”

While watching the Jolly Boys perform in the bar at the Geejam Hotel, Baker also recognized that he didn’t have forever to capture the aging group on record. “I realized that three of the faces I had known around the ’hood weren’t there anymore,” he says. So he teamed with Jolly Boys percussionist Dale Virgo to produce Great Expectation, choosing songs they thought could help introduce mento to a younger generation. “We make sure it has the feel of the classic mento,” Virgo says, which means combining elements of African music, merengue, salsa and calypso, played on acoustic instruments.

The first song tracked was Winehouse’s “Rehab.” “We looked for a song that had a retro feel that could work,” Baker says. “We did ‘Rehab,’ and it was a no-brainer. After Albert learned the lyrics, he just went in there and nailed it.” Though Minott wasn’t initially familiar with some of the songs, you’d never know it from the finished product. “I try to do them to the best of my ability, to make them stronger, sweeter,” says Minott, who declares that he is ready for whatever attention the new album may bring. “What is to come, let it come, and if it is to come, let it come big. I’m going to stick with it.”

–Eric R. Danton

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