The Jolly Boys returned to New York City for their first public show here in decades like a Model T with a new CD player in the dashboard. At Hiro Ballroom on Thursday night, they had material few people would expect from a band that was started in the 1950s to play a style that was already decades old. The Jolly Boys have been entertaining people in Port Antonio, Jamaica, since then, often as a hotel’s house band, with a shifting lineup; Albert Minott, 72, recently stepped forward as lead singer.
The Jolly Boys cling to a Jamaican style called mento, a precursor to ska and reggae born out of older rural music. Mento is kin to old calypso and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms. But it has its own variant beats and its own cheerfully rickety instrumentation, including maracas, banjo and, instead of a bass, a rumba box: the player (Derrick Henry, a founding member of the group) sits on a box that’s like a supersized thumb piano, with wide metal prongs to plunk.
The Jolly Boys have been discovered before. From 1989 to 1997 they recorded four albums of their Jamaican songs for American labels. Only one member at the time, Joseph Bennett, is in the current band, on maracas.
At Hiro, the Jolly Boys turned to rock songs, but played two old mento songs: three-chord dance tunes that lurched and swayed their way toward potential singalongs. Mr. Minott sang with a hearty rasp; Lenford Richards, on banjo, switched between brisk, tinny rhythm chords and sauntering lead lines.
Then came songs from the band’s current album, “Great Expectation” (EOne Music). They were an unlikely assortment, trading Caribbean idylls and social commentary for alienation and post-punk self-consciousness. The set included the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown,” a song about heroin and lust; the Blondie hit “Hanging on the Telephone;” Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”
Each song got a mento treatment, with its own swaying, ambling beat and prickly banjo counterpoint. Mr. Minott let loose gravelly shouts in “Blue Monday,” New Order’s bitter estrangement song; Lou Reed’s affectionate “Perfect Day” became a melancholy ballad with a whistled countermelody, and Mr. Richards translated the lead guitar solo of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” into a jittery Jamaican banjo excursion.
The songs were thoroughly incongruous, but not quite as gimmicky as a description might sound. Musicians in Jamaica have a long history of applying their rhythms to hits from abroad. By wrenching the songs so far away from their original versions, the Jolly Boys (and the British producers behind “Great Expectation”) forced them to be heard afresh. “The Passenger,” an Iggy Pop song, became a gallop along the open road; the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire” hinted at arson. Meanwhile, the band was pioneering something different in mento: angst. Still, since the Jolly Boys visit New York so rarely, more of their own material would have been welcome.