Sunday, August 30, 2015

Why Sly Mongoose?

Listen to the story why mongoose fly from Jamaica
Listen to the story why mongoose fly from Jamaica
Mongoose, the newspaper reported
Jumped into bed with the preacher’s daughter
Baptise her with his holy water
Slide mongoose

Slide mongoose, now your name gone abroad
Slide mongoose, now your name gone abroad
Mongoose went into Bedward’s kitchen
Shook up one of his fattest chicken
That’s the reason he fly from Jamaica
Slide mongoose

Slide mongoose, now your name gone abroad
Slide mongoose, now your name gone abroad
Mongoose fly from Jamaica
Slide right over down to Cuba
Wouldn’t stop til he reach America
Slide mongoose

Slide mongoose, now the world know your name
Brother mongoose, now the world know your fame
Mongoose told his high brown mama
Go away gal get another papa
I love your sister a whole lot better
Slide mongoose
(Sam Manning version, 1925)

"Sly Mongoose" is a calypso standard, probably of Trinidadian origin.

My favourite version is the first vocal version that was ever recorded.* It’s the Sam Manning single from 1925. Although Sam himself was Trinidadian, his version of the song is firmly set in Jamaica, including a reference to Alexander Bedward "the flying preacher", a historical Jamaican of legendary proportions.

"Sly Mongoose" was first recorded, in an instrumental version featuring piano and violin, by Lionel Belasco (another Trinidadian) and so he held the copyright on the tune. After Sam Manning sang it in 1925, lyric versions began to accumulate, and variations in the lyrics crept in -- sometimes becoming simpler, sometimes more complicated. There's a version from 1935 by the Nassau String Band (Bahamas),  and Lord Invader's 1946 version -- which is also an account of a calypso battle. American jazz performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker all recorded their "Sly Mongeese", because he slid over there too.

Original Jamaican music first came to be recorded in the 1950s, when it was called mento, and sometimes calypso ("to avoid confusion" -- because calypso became so popular, especially in the United States, and the mento singers and players wanted to capitalize on that, and not to stress their differences). Many different Jamaican performers have recorded different versions of "Sly Mongoose", a.k.a. "Slide Mongoose". The lyrics differ radically from one version to the next, but none of the genuinely Jamaican versions of "Sly Mongoose" that I’ve heard explicitly mentions Jamaica like Sam Manning does.

I love this song. Mento is an exuberant form, and this song is a particularly rambunctious mento.

Like so much mento and reggae (and calypso too, I suppose), the lyrics evoke a tangible reality but multiple meanings ripple away from the everyday scenario. In this case: a mongoose steals a chicken from a kitchen, but the song simultaneously alludes to all sorts of things that are harder to put your finger on  – religious overtones (holy water!), sexual innuendo (holy water, indeed), allusions to current or not-so-current events (Bedward the preacher), satire of manners (the racial and sexual dynamics of Mongoose’s relations with his “high brown mama”) and characteristically Caribbean surreality like the mongoose flying, or sliding, across the sea, from island to island to the continental USA. Manning’s version of the song (recorded in New York City, like most early calypso) includes America, which is such an important part of the story of Jamaican music.

The Sly Mongoose is a precursor to Bob Marley, an unofficial ambassador for the music, people, and vibe of the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular.

That's why "Sly Mongoose" is the theme song and mascot of this music blog.
Reproduction of Okeh Records catalogue, from the liner notes to
Sam Manning Volume 1: Recorded in New York 1924-1927
(Jazz Oracle, 2002)
"#65008 Sly Mongoose/Brown Boy: Both sung by Sam Manning, Accomp. by Cole Mentor Orchestra"

*more on this in future posts 

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