Before you head to Jamaica’s Caribbean beaches, immerse yourself in Kingston – the home of Bob Marley’s reggae, rhythm and blues. Written by Ishay Govender-Ypma for Marie Claire SA magazine, August 2017.
Thirty-six. Both Robert Nesta Marley’s age at death and the number of years that have passed since that fateful day in 1981. For his loyal supporters, and the generations thereafter who have learned about his music from their parents’ dusty vinyl stashes, the radio stations playing retro hits and clubs that ply the evergreen tracks, notably Buffalo Soldier and No Woman, No Cry in the early hours, Marley remains a legend. A 2001 star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame keeps his image alive to fans old and new. His brand of reggae slices through generations, with social and political messaging that remains relevant. So Much Trouble in the World, Burnin’ and Lootin’, War and Redemption Song carry the burden of themes plaguing current times. If we examine at the world through Marley’s lyrics, though far from forthright as former The Wailers band member Peter Tosh’s are, one can’t but confront the reality that in spite of thirty-six long years, we’ve hardly moved an inch. The undisputed king of reggae, a man whose flailing dreadlocks became a powerful symbol of the growing Rastafarian movement at the time, sang of inequality, racism, unrequited love, legalising marijuana (or kaya), revolution and the recognition of blackness. Ultimately, and as is in line with Rastafarian philosophy, the messaging is positive – think Rastaman Vibration (“…gonna cover the earth like the water cover the sea,” Marley said) and Lively Up Yourself, a track played to stir crowds during live concerts. Earlier this year, a set of water-damaged analogue master tapes of Marley concerts held at various London venues including the Lyceum in 1975, and in Paris, including I Shot The Sherriff were found in the building of a former modest hotel that Marley and The Wailers stayed at. Though badly water damaged, Joe Gatt, an avid fan had them restored to perfection by sound technician specialist, Martin Nichols. The painstaking repairs of the rare find cost Gatt R420 600 and the quality is now described as “spine-tingling”. Almost four decades to his death, and Marley has the power to move.
THREE LITTLE BIRDS
At 56 Hope Street in Kingston, Marley’s former home, a wooden colonial-era house located in the same street as politicians and dignitaries (a scandalous fact in the 70s when Rasta men were still looked down upon) is now a living museum. It’s left largely in-tact and visitors are guided on a tour to parts of the house, wood boards creaking underfoot, including his bedroom with its denim bedcovers and star-shaped guitar, recording studios and kitchen nook with an old blender – Marley was an advocate of juicing and healthy eating. I learn that Rastafarians follow the Ital diet, essentially vegetarian or vegan in nature with no additives, salt and sugar. A guide with perfect pitch bursts into song as we tour each room, belting popular Marley tracks that we sing along to, somewhat off-key and rowdy.
On the steps outside one of the doors, she tells us that Marley is said to have looked up from the trees, out towards the misty blur of the Blue Mountains, a region he drew much inspiration from, picking out tunes on his guitar and experimenting with lyrics. His girlfriend, Damien Marley’s mother Cindy Breakespeare, the 1976 Ms World, has told reporters about her observation of the process of “gibberish” turning into gold. The story goes that Don’t Worry, Three Little Birds was inspired by three ground doves visiting this very spot where Marley worked on the guitar. The birds were drawn to the steady supply of seeds left from cleaning out kaya, a ritual that was frequent at Hope Street. While many attribute Waiting in Vain to Marley’s pursuit of Breakespeare, who was staying at the house, a haven for artists and creative types at one point, she claims no credit, admitting that Marley was an impossible man to keep. His multiple love interests, and children fathered with numerous women, is a well-known fact. Turn Your Lights Down Low, is a love song Breakespear does acknowledge that Marley penned and performed in her honour, rumoured to be set to the evolution of their romance conducted after-hours on the Hope Street property.
Rita Marley, Marley’s only (and many say long-suffering) wife, mother of four of his children, and one of his backing vocalists with the I-Threes, says that it was both the image of rebel and lover, that the soft-spoken Marley enjoyed portraying. Theirs was a complicated marriage, with Rita and the children (many of his children from other relationships stayed with her) living down the road, not at the Hope Street house. Marley adopted the children that Rita had with others and in the end died with no will. It is what friends describe in Marley, the 2012 documentary about his life, as a “typical Bob Marley thing” to do. Let them fight it out and you’ll see the true nature reveal itself. In spite of the wild musician lifestyle, Marley was known for his generosity – giving a bed to the homeless and anyone who held a hand out.
At Emancipation Park in St Andrew, the looming 11-foot black figures of a naked man and woman at the entrance, cast in bronze, stare heavenward. Titled “Redemption Song” [the title of a rousing Marley song] by sculptor Laura Facey, it represents the Jamaican people’s history of freedom, hope and liberation. Intricate West African Adinkra symbols adorn the park, paying homage to the great number of Ghanaian slaves brought from this region. The park itself is a reprieve from the heat, used by locals to walk, exercise and relax.
To add context to Marley’s life, tour guide, Karen Hutchinson, founder of Jamaica Culture Experience drives me to Trench Town, on the side to St Andrew. At the Trench Town Culture museum, old The Wailer’s memorabilia and Marley’s skinny single bed in a room that can barely house a body, are preserved. The yard, or projects, as these low cost housing neighbourhoods are called, is widely regarded the birthplace of ska, rocksteady and later reggae. Originally from the hillside village of Nine Miles in St Ann, it would be Marley’s city home in Kingston, Trench Town, that would inform his music sensibility. Hunger – both physical and metaphoric, and a good dose of luck fuelled Marley’s trajectory. He references the “government yard in Trench Town” at 19 Second Street, that he shared with his mother Cedella Malcolm. “Georgie would make the fire light/As if it was log wood burning through the night” – lyrics from No Woman No Cry, are based in reality.
Rastafarianism, which emerged in the 30s, became the religion of the disenfranchised, the neglected and the poor in shantytowns like Marley’s. A combination of worship of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the teachings of Marcus Garvey and a strong belief in natural living and world peace became the elements that drew Marley and his brethren. But it wasn’t until Marley embraced Rastafari on stage with his natty dreads and tam, the loose crochet caps worn by Rastamen, that it spread like wildfire through Jamaica. Maureen Sheridan in Bob Marley Song – Soul Rebel [Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999], says: “He quickly became the movement’s most visible and powerful exponent (a role for which no successor has every been found.)”
That night at the Red Bones Blues Café, I sit outdoors with an upmarket crowd, listening to a visiting band playing reggae, and thinking of a young man from St Ann who paved the way for generations after him.
South Africans don’t need a visa to Jamaica
Excursions Worth Your Time
Bob Marley Museum
Jamaica Cultural Experiences
Home of some of the best coffee, a 45 minute drive from Kingston.
Join locals for a posh Sunday brunch at Strawberry Hills – www.strawberryhillhotel.com. Booking is essential
Though four hours by car from Kingston, if you’re going to opt for one beach break, make it Negril which sees less tourists than Montego Bay and will offer you opportunities for authentic connections- think local jerk centres and bars – with locals. The Rock House is the perfect, with eco “huts” perched against the cliffs that plunge straight into the water.