Reggae singer Robert "Bob" Marley won worldwide fame before his death from cancer in 1981 and remains a Jamaican icon. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine rated him #11 in its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Jamaica – Long Read

Island story told through Reggae

Photo by Friedrich Stark

Jamaica – Long Read Island story told through Reggae

Hello Jamaica, where the beat of reggae music was once the voice of just the urban poor but is also now the soundtrack for countless visitors enjoying a care-free sunny Caribbean holiday. From ska to ragga, Jamaican music has always told the island's story – from its first optimistic years of independence to its modern urban politics.

Kiki Deere
Kiki Deere Travel Writer

Her hips roll sensuously to the Caribbean rhythms, arms swaying to the beat. Around her has gathered a crowd of eager spectators, pushing each other gently for a better view. I poke my face through a small gap for a closer look. The pulsating sound of ragga, reggae’s naughty, raunchy younger brother, pumps out of a worn sound system and envelops the tiny square in the heart of Kingston.

Welcome to Jamaica, where such public shows are a common sight and music is the heart and soul of the people. Sound systems, essentially large mobile discos (see mini feature), kicked off in the 1940s, giving poor Jamaicans the chance to get together to listen to their favorite tracks and dance until the early hours. “Years back, they first played R&B,” says my Jamaican friend Roger. “There was food stands and beer stands on every corner and real money to be made. It was big business.” It still is, judging by the number of stalls I can see selling food and drink.

Roger’s speech has the musical Jamaican lilt and is peppered with “Ya no” (you know?) and “mon” (man). He says “dem” and “dere” instead of “them” and “there” and drops the letter “h” where it is needed and adds it when not. It is beautiful to listen to, but so relaxing that my attention wanders. I watch a group of young men leisurely cross the potholed street to join the crowd. Behind them comes a teenage girl carrying a patty, one of Jamaica’s much-loved meat and potato pastries. She wears a slinky top that shows off her figure to best advantage.

“You know the song: ‘Rise Jamaica, Independence Time is Here’ by Al T. Joe?” asks Roger. “When Jamaica became independent in 1962, that became one of the most popular records of the time. Everyone was singing and dancing. Our musicians copied American rhythm and blues, but gave it a real Jamaican feel. That was ska music, what they call the soundtrack of Jamaica’s freedom.”

They are fuelled by their love of music.

Roger has to meet some friends a few blocks away at Tuff Gong, a music studio and creative space in the heart of Kingston. The studio’s name is a combination of two words: “Gong” – Bob Marley’s affectionate nickname – and “Tuff” – which you have always had to be to survive here. It is where Roger spends most of his free time, hanging out with friends. They spend entire afternoons rehearsing tracks and trying to catch a break in Jamaica’s ever-more competitive music industry. Hopeful and full of faith, they are fuelled by their love of music.

We walk along a bumpy sidewalk that morphs into a stony path, soon swallowed up by the dusty road. Kingston’s sun-drenched streets are dotted with shady palm trees and lined with a rainbow of colorful wooden houses. A young man perches on a ladder as he splashes his house in a new layer of vivid yellow paint. His neighbors have used bright red for their frontage, but it does little to hide the neglect. A series of twisted telephone wires dangle from rickety posts, intertwined in a medley of knots. Every few meters, a wobbly street sign is precariously fixed along the side of the road. Shops and restaurants display their names on handwritten boards that are clumsily nailed over the threshold of bright-painted doors.

Out of the town center, towards the infamous suburbs of Tivoli Gardens, the area takes on a more ragged, rundown feel. Battered cars raise clouds of dust as they bump over narrow potholed streets. Children temporarily pause their ball games to stare with curiosity. The car windows are wide open, failing to alleviate the heat of the scorching midday sun, but spilling out loud music. A bright neon advert for Digicel cellphones is the only splash of raw newness.

In late May 2010, this neighborhood was completely shot up by vicious fighting between the Jamaican police and army, and factions loyal to Christopher “Dudus” Coke. “He was an alleged major drug baron, said to be responsible for countless murders, and at least 70 local people were officially killed in the fighting,” journalist Claude Henry tells me later.

A no-go area for their arch political rivals

Dudus was later captured (disguised as a woman) and extradited to the U.S. to stand trial, but the ferocity of the fighting was a testament to the ardent devotion and tribal loyalty of his supporters, not to mention the sheer firepower they had available. “Much of the crime and violence stems from when politicians armed the ghettoes in the 1970s in search of votes and supporters,” says Claude. “Tivoli has long been a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) stronghold, and thus a no-go area for their arch political rivals the People’s National Party (PNP), let alone the police.”

Roger leads me to a small blue painted house. “I need to get something,” he says. The rusty gate creaks open and I find myself standing on a rundown porch. I hear loud music playing from inside, and Roger gently taps at the window. A lean man wearing a ripped T-shirt opens the door and greets us with a smile. The small hallway is packed with magazines, music albums, toys and shoes strewn over the cracked wooden floor. A thick layer of dust takes the shine off a pile of CDs sitting on a windowsill. I spot a lifeless fly that has been swallowed up in the dirt.

We take a seat in the living room, a small area that is home to two battered sofas. A small window sits open, and a set of thin embroidered curtains dances in the gentle breeze. A young child screams to his heart’s content. His girlfriend enters, cradling the crying child, and hands Roger a CD. They speak patois, and I am quickly lost in their conversation. I look around the humble room, where the worn-out sofas are pretty much the only furniture apart from a low table supported by a pile of music magazines. My thoughts are suddenly interrupted by our host. “You like reggae music?” he asks me, nodding at the disc in Roger’s hands. He dissolves into laughter when I tell him I do. Roger leads the way to the door, and we carry on towards Tuff Gong.

The detour through the capital’s poorest areas prompts Roger to carry on with his history lesson. “In the 1960s there was a lot of crime, unemployment and violence on the island. People were frustrated at the situation. They sang more and more about their worries – that’s how reggae came to life. With reggae, the bass lines are much heavier. Reggae is the medicine of the people, a prayer and a hope that ‘Everything’s gonna be alright’.”

Music is the heartbeat of the country

With the words of one of Bob Marley’s most famous songs still in my ears, we come to Tuff Gong. Its head is Marie Bruce, a welcoming lady who is eager to share her passion for music and her love for the creative arts. “Music is the heartbeat of the country,” she says. “It is the voice and avenue for the people to express themselves. Jamaicans don’t tend to be the most vocal people when it comes to politics and standing up for their rights, as it’s such a controversial area. But they do express themselves through music on all of those issues. Reggae came out of inner city and areas where people struggled. This was an avenue for them to pour out their frustrations, their hopes, and their hurts.

“Bob [Marley] had a vision of a recording studio and production company and his wife, Mrs Rita Marley, bought this place shortly after he passed away,” says Marie. “It was a company called Federal that Bob visited with Johnny Nash to record a song together. They were turned away because he was a Rastafarian. Bob made a pledge that he would one day own it, and Rita made that vision happen.”

Roger hands over the disc to his friends, and tells me he can spend a few hours with me, giving his friends time to work on their tracks. We head towards the capital’s most famous sight: the Bob Marley Museum. Bob, as he is simply known as here, beams at us from a portrait above the entrance gate. Its side columns have been painted in the Rastafarian colors of green, yellow and red. The colors continue inside, where a large statue of Bob stands in the courtyard, clutching a guitar with one hand, while pointing towards the sky with the other. Along the outside wall, a series of black and white poster-size photographs tell the story of his life. One picture shows him posing with his wife and young children, all beaming at the camera, while in other images he is sprinting along a football pitch.

There are more pictures inside. Black and white photographs locked into picture frames hang unsteadily from the wall, while newspaper clippings spanning his career are on display. Framed vinyl discs hang as testament to his musical legacy. The dreadlocked museum guide breaks into a series of Bob’s songs, which he encourages us to sing along with him, before leading us to the leafy garden where he lights up a joint. “Before, nobody liked Rastas,” he says. “It was Bob who gave us a chance to speak out. Bob was turned away at lots of venues because he was a Rastafarian.”

This is where Bob was shot

Just how controversial Marley’s stances were can be seen nearby. “This is where Bob was shot,” says the guide, pointing out at a series of bullet holes that riddle the wall. At the museum shop, I buy a T-shirt and the Exodus album, which I will find myself listening to over and over again.

“Jamaican music is now a global commodity,” says writer Lindsay Johns. “Like [Olympic athlete] Usain Bolt, the music and its colorful performers are a distinctive – not to mention lucrative – part of the Jamaica global brand, full of yellow, black and green flags, reggae one-love bonhomie and edgy cool.”

Reggae’s sunny beat has helped attract the many thousands of holidaymakers who come every year. Most stay on the northern coast, home to some of the best beaches. I set off early one morning for the famous Montego Bay, accompanied by Scooby, another Jamaican friend. We zigzag our way through woodlands and verdant back roads, hearing reggae blasting out of street sound systems every few kilometers. The road passes colorful fruit markets and shacks selling wooden carvings that recall African designs.

We stop off to stretch our legs and eat at a roadside hut selling skewers of meat roasted on a smoking barbeque grill. In Jamaica, chicken and pork are marinated in an exquisite hot spice mixture called jerk. The cook hands me my jerk pork on a paper plate with a plastic spoon. “There is extra spice in that,” he says, pointing at a battered plastic container that has been sitting in the sun for too long. The pork has a spicy tang and the meat melts in my mouth.

The coast is lined with large resorts

We continue along more bumpy roads, hearing music everywhere, to arrive at Montego Bay in the afternoon. It is a seaside resort popular with the package holiday trade, and has a very different feel to Kingston. Tourists walk the promenade scanning the menus of open-air restaurants from which come the sound of live bands that also cater to their tastes. The coast is lined with large resorts, many with swimming pools and world-class golf courses. Sadly, Jamaica’s reputation for crime means many tourists opt to stay within the safety of their resort gates.

The area around Montego Bay was once rich with sugar houses, the estates of the plantation owners who controlled the island. Rose Hall, now a museum, is one of the finest, with wide balconies and stone steps leading to an elegant portico. The view from it is lovely: azure Caribbean waters and forested green hills. Inside, carved mahogany staircases lead to an array of rooms furnished in rich Georgian style.

The mansion is said to be haunted by the White Witch, the spirit of Annie Palmer, an English-born girl who married the plantation owner. Legend has it she was taught witchcraft and voodoo when a child by her Haitian nanny. She murdered her husband, along with a number of plantation slaves, and another slave later murdered her. This tale was put to music by country singer Johnny Cash, and the guide sings it to us as we tour the house. Cash was a part-time Jamaica resident for four decades, one of a number of musicians from all over the world attracted by the island’s rich musical culture.

I climb a creaky main staircase to a spacious hallway that opens on to six large bedrooms. Annie’s airy bedroom is decorated in red and pink motifs that might be indicative of her fiery temper. “People say she liked to dress up as a man in the evenings, and ride around the estate on horseback, whipping slaves to her heart’s content,” says the guide. Intricate bed hangings grace a beautiful four-poster bed, and a Georgian basin stands in one corner. The dressing table has a fine English mahogany stool and I can picture a petite young woman with an explosive temper scanning her reflection in a small mirror, as a maid gingerly brushes her hair. Outside, slaves would be hard at work in the cane fields under the scorching sun.

Barefoot, we walk along the edge of the waves

In the evening, Scooby takes me to a beach party his friends have organized. Barefoot, we walk along the edge of the waves, flip-flops in hand. The vibe is relaxed and groups of youngsters lime along the seafront, sipping rum from plastic cups that are steadily refilled. Murals of Bob decorate the wall behind the temporary stage. A reggae band come on to play some well-known tunes, and couples are soon passionately grinding to the relaxed rhythm under the Caribbean stars.

When the band takes a break, the music carries on as the blaring sound system pumps out dub step that soon morphs into ragga. The sexually charged lyrics bring more and more people onto the sand to dance. I sit at a ramshackle bar drinking potent Jamaican rum, and soaking up the music. The party will go on until the early hours.

On my last day in Jamaica, I go to Hellshire Beach, popular with Kingstonians. “It’s somewhere to cool off, down a Red Stripe or two, eat some fried fish, bammy and okra,” says Lindsay. Hawkers walk up and down the soft, blemish-free sand, selling the latest ragga mix CD compilations. Families with picnic hampers lay out their blankets close to the water and little kids with scant coverings paddle noisily in the shallows. Large blocks of speakers stand on the beach itself, connected with a few cables to one of the bars serving food.

It is a defiantly joyous place. “It is one of one of my favorite Jamaican sights,” says Johns. “It has all the ingredients for perfect contentment: serenity, beauty, nature and human harmony, not to mention healthy, fresh food and uplifting, life-affirming music. This piece of Hellshire is truly balm for the soul.”

Serendipitously, Sweet Jamaica by Tony Rebel comes through the speakers and the beach vibrates with the chorus. “We love the food, the vibes and the culture.” Yes we do. “What a nice place fe live! Sweet Jam-down.” Yes, yes it is. “The only problem is: dollars nah run.” True, which is why being here spending what money I have makes me feel like I am in some small way helping. “You must admit this is a glorious land!” Yes, I must, because yes, it certainly is.

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