In Jamaica, before there was ska, rock steady, reggae and dancehall, there was mento. One of the great musical styles of the Caribbean, mento is not only the name of a musical style and a type of band, it is also a song form, a rhythm, and a dance. From its evolution in the ballrooms of the late nineteenth century, through the nightclubs, hotels and festival stages of the twentieth and beyond into the present day, mento music has been an enduring part of Jamaica’s cultural landscape.
And yet for a century, mento music and its performers have hidden in plain sight. Early in the music’s history, its socially aware and often bawdy lyrics spoke to the lives of the people of the countryside and downtown, but they didn’t square with the sensibilities of uptown Kingston. In the 1930s, a “polished” version of mento was presented in nightclubs and hotels for tourists. Marketed to capitalize on the popularity of its Trinidadian cousin, Jamaican “calypso” delighted foreign visitors – especially in the 1950s – but it did little to inspire local interest as new musical forms like ska began to emerge. And while mento became a symbol of cultural identity in the years after Jamaican independence in 1962, the contributions of its many players were overshadowed by reggae’s international superstars. Despite its persistence and stylistic diversity over the years, it seems mento’s only constant has been its invisibility.
For this reason, few truly know about mento’s history and its many characters. However, Pimento and Hot Pepper, the first documentary to focus on this music, changes this. Through in-depth interviews with practitioners, critical commentary from experts, and rare archival audio and visual materials, the film tells a new story about old Jamaica. It explores characters like the itinerant street singers Slim and Sam, who gave the people a voice; artists like Lord Flea and Count Lasher, who helped the country’s fledgling record industry spread its wings; songs like “Night Food” that generated national controversy and polarized popular opinion; and contemporary bands like Blue Glaze Mento Band and The Jolly Boys that have carried the music’s torch into the modern era.
More than just the music of the beaches and countryside, mento is the sound of original Jamaica. It tells a story about her history, people and culture. Pimento and Hot Pepper gives a new voice to this story, one which will inspire music lovers to take a fresh look at a past that’s always been there, playing in plain sight.