Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Justin Pallack
I mean this as the highest complement: No-Maddz are Jamaica’s oddest band. There’s nothing usual about this group, who do, in fact, make reggae songs, but should not be reduced to that, or any other rigorous musical category. Having begun their journey together as a poetry group in high school, they’ve progressed into a Beatles-like musical democracy, wherein four very different personalities bring their distinct individual styles together to form an eclectic, unpredictable whole. (Recently, the group added a fifth, full-time member, Kris Upnah, on drums).
Among the influences that have taken hold in their sound is mento, the Jamaican folk music which developed parallel to calypso in Trinidad during the early 20th century.
Central to mento is the rhumba box, which functions something like an acoustic bass, providing the low end upon which banjos and vocals (typically of the slack, double entendre-laden variety) are balanced. Likewise, there are no drums in mento; instead percussion is created through shakers and other hand-held items, like household food graters.
These days, mento survives mostly as nostalgic, ol’ time entertainment for tourists at Jamaica’s North Coast hotels. But its antiquated techniques are also being revived by Everaldo Cleary, better known as “Evie,” who has helped bring the rhumba box back into style as a member of the No-Maddz. Evie’s yellow, black and green rhumba box, with ‘No Maddz’ and ‘Pukupoo’ scrawled on the front, has become a part of the band’s identity.
After a beachfont photo shoot in Montauk, NY, we spoke with Evie about his rhumba box, the age-old cheese grater vs. nutmeg grater debate, making “mento on steroids,” and why he’s embraced these throwbacks as both a musical and fashion statement.
LargeUp: The rhumba box is not an instrument you see very often today. What you can tell us about it?
Evie: Well, in my native vernacular of Jamaica, we call it rhumba box. R-h-u-m-b-a. In Brazil, they call it marímbula. The rhumba box is one of the prominent instruments in mento music. Mento is one of the first Jamaican forms of musical expression, the first label. It also [gave] inspiration to calypso, soca, back in them times. One of the pioneer bands of mento music from Jamaica is the Jolly Boys. They have been a mento band for over 60 years. I think in Jamaica musical expression started out from pantomime. They didn’t know what to really categorize the form of musical expression. Mento came right after that. We had the banjo, which is that type of guitar with the round part looking like a drum tom. Mento back then was a very slack music, [with] highly sexual and suggestive lyrics, but very witty. A child would be singing, “I wonder what they call this night food, I wonder if it tastes so good,” not knowing what they were really talking about. The poetry was off the chain. That’s where the rhumba box originated from.
How did you get interested in playing it?
Evie: The interest in the rhumba box came maybe three, four years ago. Rick Elgood, who was, or still is, affiliated with the Jolly Boys, wanted to do a docudrama or a movie on the band. They wanted actors for it. And the befitting, prophetic choice would be No-Maddz. We’re like a mento band on steroids. You get the element of a throwback from our expression of music.
Rick approached us, and we were interested. We went as far as meeting the Jolly Boys, and decided who was going to play who. The universe left me with Johnny, who is the rhumba box player. We were at the Trident Castle in Portland, Jamaica, having an acquaintance kind of meeting, and I was asking how should I play it, if I should approach it like a drum. I knew of the rhumba box, but it was my first time messing with it. Growing up, I have a lot of drumming experience. It’s really a bass instrument — like a bass guitar, in a box version. I used that concept and started plucking the pegs, and it became easy for me. Preparing to kick this gig in the teeth, that’s how I got close to it.
I [fell] in love with not just the sound but the look of it. I know if I am from the present generation and I barely know of it, others barely know it. [The No-Maddz] are cultural ambassadors. We hate to see any form of the culture wither out. You don’t have to wither something from the past to move forward. Locally, that’s kind of our issue. We need to maintain the work of our ancestors by keeping it alive for younger people to see it. But also still move forward with innovation. If you are climbing a ladder, you don’t need to get rid of the steps each time you pass it. By the time you reach the top you won’t have a ladder. That was the philosophy behind keeping it as an image.
The challenge is, at many live shows, they don’t know how to mic the instrument. You have some shows that can not provide five mics just for the No-Maddz band. So I will take it with me anywhere just for the picture, sit on it and keep it for the subliminal. I played it for this morning TV show on Television Jamaica, and spitting a verse at the same time. I don’t think that was done ever in history. But it’s more of an acoustic-friendly instrument. At an acoustic No-Maddz show, you will definitely see that.
LU: Where did you get your rhumba box?
Evie: The [movie] gig fell through, but we had the [Jolly Boys’] instruments at our home. We returned the banjo but the rhumba box I held hostage, pretty much. I didn’t want to give it back. Johnny and Rick were pressuring me for it. We were even on the same show one time, Rebel Salute, and he had to use a different rhumba box, I was using his. The thing about the rhumba box is it takes so long to flipping work in. The plucks are literally made of iron, and the box Johnny gave me was probably 70 years old. The roundness in the bass was incomparable, and not easy to attain.
We came up with a little deal. I realized that it is Johnny making the rhumba boxes. He made one specifically for me, and asked me what I wanted on it. We told him we wanted “No-Maddz” and “Pukupoo” on it. That was the agreement for me to release that hostage: To get the ransom of another rhumba box made by Johnny. You couldn’t ask for more. These are original people of the artform making it. That rhumba box had a lot of museum value, so they wanted it back. I realized that. I wanted to say I had a rhumba box from the Jolly Boys. But it was even better when he made this one. I’m still working it in. We eventually had to pay $100US for the box.
It’s not like you can find it in a regular music shop. In Jamaica, there is a shop that actually makes this thing, I was told by another mento practitioner. Johnny was making his own rhumba boxes over the years. On the North Coast of Jamaica, the mento bands are mainly cabaret or tourist acts for hotels nowadays. They are a relic kind of musical expression. But the Jolly Boys broke out of that when they did the cover for Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” They became this old band that is famous. They did a tour with Sade. I would gather in Brazil they make this. This type of music is also Brazilian friendly. It’s traveling all the way from there, if I should bark up a musical tree. Brazil is close to African influence as well. Some people say No-Maddz, you have a sound that fits the Brazilian market. We have a percussion-led feel even though we have lead guitars and bass. It’s percussionistic, if there is such a word.
LU: I see you also carry a kit of other percussion tools when you perform.
Evie: I think you are talking about my spoon, which is from the kitchen, and a grater, which is also from the kitchen. The grater now, internationally people recognize it from it’s ability to shred parmesan cheese and dem kinda ting. In Jamaica, we [use it to] shred any food hard enough to be shredded — dry coconut, cassava, yam, plantain. It is the original Nutribullet. In mento music, it was also used as a musical sound and instrument. It is very close to the maracas, the shaker, but you have more control over it. It’s more flexible.
In 2010, we came in contact with Puma and did that Puma campaign with Usain Bolt that gave us a real push internationally and locally embedded us as an international hit. We were preparing for this gig we had on TV called “Change a Life,” which was for Ramon, Abigail and Debra. Kids who needed a surgery overseas they couldn’t afford, so they had this performance, that was broadcast nationally. It was an opportunity for the island to see this underground band everybody [was] talking about. So we kicked it in the teeth. At that point, I was using a nutmeg grater, which was smaller and could fit in the palm of my hand. I’m into the element of surprise. As a thespian, surprise is good. You’re hearing this sound, but you don’t know what I’m playing. It’s hidden in the palm of my hand, and I’m scraping this spoon and there’s a sound. It brought intrigue to our live presentation.
Puma came into the picture but they wanted to see the instrument, so they suggested a bigger grater. At first, I didn’t dig it. The big grater was not so sexy. But I delved into it and, after going through a lot of graters, many kitchens, I realized the sound got better. The olden people were using a fork instead of a spoon. I found the spoon to be way better. The smooth edge the spoon has gave me room to create a more melodious sound. I didn’t think that would be possible. The more I scraped the instrument, the grater got smoother and smoother. The grater I have now is well worked in. I hold it dear to my heart. It can’t shred anything now, just [make] music. If I should get a next one, I will have to go to the metal shop and sand it down.
Growing up, me and my brothers grated coconut every Sunday morning. I shred out my knuckle for years. We used to fight for that as brothers. I looked forward to grating the coconut. I love coconut. Coconut is like a superfood. It’s a complete meal and it’s very big in Jamaica. It wouldn’t be hard for me to have the pattern on the grater, because growing up shredding the dried coconut was pretty much the same musical pattern. Pity then, I didn’t know what I was doing. But your subconscious and your conscious constantly record things. You’re learning even when you’re not learning.
LU: You’re holding a wooden box, with a spoon but also a golf ball. Is that something you use as well with the grater?
Evie: No. I kind of like golf. I was coming from practicing some golf. I think it’s going to be my over 40 sport. The box is a case from glasses I bought in South Korea. The brand name is Sagawafujii. I fell in love with the glasses, and a few years after, dem say they like the energy and sent five more glasses for me and the band. That is the case from the original one I bought. It comes in a little mini coffin, and I decided to put the spoon in it. It gives the spoon a little prestige.