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Jolly Boys musician Joseph 'Powda' Bennett dies in Jamaica at 76

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KINGSTON, Jamaica - Jamaican folk musician Joseph Bennett, who played a rollicking genre of traditional dance music with the long-running Jolly Boys, has died in his Caribbean homeland. He was 76.

Music promoter Jon Baker said Thursday that the musician and singer nicknamed "Powda" died of respiratory problems Wednesday at a Kingston hospital.

"He will always be lovingly remembered as that cheeky little fellow in the Jolly Boys who danced and shook his maracas," said Baker, co-owner of the Geejam resort and recording studio where the band recorded their breakthrough 2010 album "Great Expectation."

Typically playing acoustic instruments, the group's forte is mento, a Jamaican dance music created by the descendants of slaves in the late 19th century. It features banjo, maracas, a rough-hewn wooden box with metal prongs to pluck bass notes, and often bawdy lyrics.

Bennett played in various incarnations of the group since the early 1960s. At times, he was the group's lead singer but in recent years he played maracas and sang backup.

The group, originally called the Navy Island Swamp Boys, got its start performing at Hollywood star Errol Flynn's private island in the Port Antonio area and it has entertained tourists at beach hotels for decades.

With Baker's help, the group fused traditional sounds with rock and pop hits on their 2010 album, including Amy Winehouse's "Rebab" and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day." The concept was a hit and the band performed across Europe and the United States.

In a 2011 interview with The Associated Press, Bennett said international success coming so late in their musical careers tasted sweet.

"Over the years, we've stayed in the hotels preserving this mento. It's finally paying off now," Bennett said.

Daniel Neely, an ethnomusicologist who specializes in mento and played banjo on the "Great Expectation" record, said Bennett was a descendant of Jamaica's Maroons, escaped slaves who won their freedom by repelling invasions of their forest retreats. He said in an email that Bennett "grew up a practitioner of the area's important traditional drumming styles."

The Jolly Boys' frontman, Albert Minott, described his friend on Thursday as a "funny fellow who loved to joke, travel and entertain people."

Minott said the Jolly Boys are preparing for an upcoming tour of the Caribbean despite the loss of Bennett.

"We are really missing him already, but we will keep going," said the 76-year-old lead singer. "It's not over till it's over."

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David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd

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