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 homemade 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 frontman, 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 soundboxes. 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, released in the United States 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, framed by lush tropical forest and the Caribbean Sea.
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 next 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.
But while celebrated abroad as a Jamaican version of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, the group remains fairly obscure in their own Caribbean homeland, at least outside of their coastal hometown of Port Antonio, an off-the-beaten track place where time seems suspended in another era.
“We'd been down all those years. It was rough. The officials in Jamaica, they don't step forward to the mento. I don't see why they turn their back on it,” said Derrick “Johnny” Henry, the band's “rumba box” player who has worked as a fisherman when gigs were scarce.
The Jolly Boys, originally called the Navy Island Swamp 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 the 73-year-old Bennett, 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.
“The band is going to keep in motion, come out with some new songs, keep people smiling, keep them dancing, laughing,” said Minott, who claims he maintains his lean, muscular frame with morning exercise, healthy eating, and chasing women.
Daniel Neely, a New York-based ethnomusicologist who specializes in mento and played banjo on the “Great Expectation” record, said Minott's loose-limbed charisma is key to the ascendancy of the Jolly Boys.
“He's been performing for tourists since he was a child so he just has a superlative intuitive sense of how people look at a performer on stage. I've never really met somebody who performs like Albert does. He really, really knows how to work a crowd,” Neely said.
Sure to help raise the group's profile in their Caribbean homeland is a planned docudrama movie and a local reality TV show in the works about Minott, who intersperses his singing and guitar-playing duties with joyful soft-shoe steps during concerts.
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.”