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Harry Belafonte and Mento Music


Page last revised: 4/26/2009


Anyone who has heard the music of Harry Belafonte may unknowingly be familiar with a number of mento/Jamaican folk songs.

Belafonte was born in Harlem, NYC in 1927 to parents of Caribbean decent. From age 8 to 15, Harry lived with his mother in Jamaica, where she was originally from. By his early 20s, Harry was back in the US, acting and singing in musicals and in nightclubs. When he was 27, he released his first album, Mark Twain And Other Folk Favorites for RCA in 1954. This collection of American folk songs contained one track from the mento and calypso repertoire, "Man Piaba". In 1956, he released his second LP, Belafonte. This was again a collection of American folk songs, along with a track, "Matilda", whose melody came from several mento songs. (It would not be uncommon for Belafonte to freely change or even replace the lyrics of the mento songs he recorded. But to be fair, this was a common practice of many mento performers as well.) That same year, he released his third LP, Calypso, which was comprised exclusively of Caribbean songs. It became the first album to break the million-copy sales mark.

It's easy to see why this LP became a phenomena. Belafonte had a trove of great songs from the Caribbean to choose from and knew how to present this music to the tastes of the American masses in the 1950s. By this, anything rough in the sound was smoothed out. Anything that was too alien was made more familiar, but was still an exotic treat compared to much of the other popular American popular music of the time. So great was the success of Calypso, that Belafonte returned to Caribbean music every few albums through 1971.

A good number of Harry Belafonte's "calypso" songs are part of the Jamaican folk/mento repertoire :





   Brown Skin Girl
 Come Back Liza (an adapted "Water Come to Me Eye")
 Day-O (a Jamaican folk song before it was a mento song)
 Coconut Woman (an adapted "Salt Lane Gal")
 Cordelia Brown
 Don't Ever Love Me ("Yellow Bird" with new lyrics, as Bruno Blum
      of France pointed out.)
 Emanuel Road
 Hold 'Em Joe
 Island In The Sun
 The Jack-Ass Song
 Jamaica Farewell (the melody  from "Iron Bar" with new lyrics)
 Judy Drownded
 Jump In The Line ("Shake Senora")
 Kingston Market ("Solas Market")
 Love Love Alone
     (part of the mento repertoire, but originally a calypso song)
 Marianne (part of the mento repertoire, but originally a calypso song)
     (the well used melody from "Dip and Fall Back", "What A Hard
     Time" and "Sweetie Charlie", with new lyrics). However, Dirk
     Wahlers of Germany and Bruno Blum both point out
     that Matilda was also recorded by Trinidadian King Radio around
     1939, though its unknown whether he originated the melody.
 Man Piaba (part of the mento repertoire, but originally a calypso song)
 Man Smart, Woman Smarter (sometimes also called "That's Right")
 Naughty Little Flea
 Star-O (a reprise of "Day-O")
 Zombie Jamboree

Perhaps coincidentally, or more likely not, a good number of these songs previously appeared on Edric Connor and the Caribbean's 1952 LP, "Songs from Jamaica", including a mournful version of what would become Belafonte's signature song, "Day O".

After these recordings hit big in America, mento performers were inevitably influenced by Belafonte's recordings. This is especially true when looking at the influence between Belafonte's and Lord Flea's careers. Belafonte recorded some of Flea's songs. Flea benefited from Belafonte's popularization of Caribbean music and got a record contract with Capitol and played a residency in New York City.

Even though listening to 1950s mento is of no interest to my parents, I recently made them a CD of Belafonte recordings of mento songs, and they enjoyed every track. Belafonte's formula for popularizing Caribbean music is still working five decades later.

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