Gilzene and The Blue Light Mento Band play Jamaican standards from the days before Reggae
Sweet Sweet Jamaica
By Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be so far gone or so hard hearted that they wouldn’t love Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band’s new album ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica.’ It’s not that Lanford Gilzene and his group of musicians is setting the world on fire with musical innovation or they’re playing Mento tunes in a new way. In fact, their music is downright archaic, and that is definitely part of its charm.
So, what could possibly be so great about an album of Jamaican standards from the days before reggae, ska and dancehall captured the world’s imagination? Gilzene and company are certainly not the world’s best singers; as on most of the tracks, harmonies and lead vocals enthusiastically jump in and out of key. The instrumentation is basic and more than a little rough around the edges. Gilzene and the Blue Light Mento Band are not a road hardened turn on a dime improvisational unit. There are no flashy solos or jamming on any of ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’s’ songs, and at times the most one can hope for is that the instruments are almost in tune with each other. The recording is simple – there’s no reverb, remixing or tweaking of levels to be heard anywhere. One can imagine the album’s producer instructing the engineer to just hit the ‘record’ button before sitting back and listening to Gilzene and company shake out another song.
Yet, the music that the collective creates is as magical and authentic as anyone is likely to hear anywhere in 2010. Their songs and the way they perform them hearken back to the days when musicians of all styles played to entertain an audience and help them forget their troubles for a few hours. Whatever Gilzene and company lack in technical ability they more than make up for with ‘feeling’ and an unaffected grace and presence that is rarely heard today.
Mento music is of course Jamaican folk music that grew out of the song traditions brought to the Caribbean by African slaves. It is generally an acoustic music that features steel guitar, banjo, hand drums and a rumba box. The rumba box is like an m’bira or thumb piano constructed in the shape of a wooden box. The player typically sits on the instrument while playing the tuned metal tines that are positioned over a large circular hole cut out of the front. The slightly ramshackle booming bass that Courtney Clarke, the Blue Mountain Band’s rumba player, coaxes out of his instrument contributes the overall rustic charm of the outfit’s sound. Filling out the band is the wildly eccentric banjo playing offered by the 80 year old Wesley Balds and Donnett Clarke’s truly unusual back up vocals and percussion work. Gilzene, himself, sings most of the lead vocals and plays basic melodies on his acoustic guitar.
Listening to the songs on ‘Sweet, Sweet Jamaica’, it’s easy to hear where reggae pioneers like Bob Marley, Culture and Toots and the Maytals received their inspiration. In recognition of the importance of Mento to the development of reggae, Toots makes a cameo appearance singing back up vocals on his own composition, ‘Sweet and Dandy’ from The Harder They Come soundtrack. Songs like ’10,00 years’ – a composition usually associated with Culture – remind listeners that many Mento tunes hide a serious intent behind the joyful music as issues such as poverty, inequality and personal tragedy are exorcised and explored. Mento songs often embrace a kind of lewd sexuality and double entendre as can be heard in the raunchy ‘Wata yuh garden’ – a track whose meaning needs no explanation. Other Jamaican standards like ‘Hill and Gully’ and ‘Brown Girl in the Rain’ also receive wonderful treatments here. Throughout the album, Gilzene sings with a commitment and depth of soul that makes these songs sound as if they were written yesterday rather than almost fifty years ago.
In some ways, it’s amazing that a record like ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’ could even be released today. Considered from afar, it seems like a doomed prospect. The musicians in the band are old, weathered and hardly MTV worthy. Furthermore, by some standards they don’t sing or play very well at all. Yet, there is a spark, an ineffable magic that makes the music that Gilzene and the Blue Light Band create irresistible. There’s nothing cynical or jaded about anything they do, and there are no media tie-ins, merchandise, DVDs or big tours planned to support the album. It exists simply to bring joyful, pure music into the world. And, what could be more compelling than listening to a group of friends getting together to sing their hearts out and to record music that reminds us of all the good things about being alive? From this perspective, ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’ is an unexpectedly perfect album that reminds and puts listeners in touch with everything that is good about music. Listening to it is healing, revitalizing, fun, and a Hell of a lot cheaper than therapy. The world needs more records like this.
This review originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot. Sign up for free updates