Kris Griffiths takes a tour of the birthplace of reggae, following in the footsteps of Jamaica's most famous son, Bob Marley, on what would have been his 70th birthday.
Reggae music was born in the downtrodden townships of this Caribbean island. It's a genre that has managed to captivate most of the globe with its bouncing riddims and One-Love jubilation, thanks largely to its chief ambassador, Robert Nesta Marley.
Despite cancer stealing him at age 36 in 1981, he’s still very much part of Jamaica’s collective consciousness, and in the city he grew up in, he has almost attained the status of a prophet. Murals of his dreadlocked visage abound and his tunes can almost always be heard floating on the breeze.
For fans of Marley and the genre he helped globalise, one of the most fitting times to visit is ‘Reggae Month’ every February, when his birthday is celebrated with tribute shows and exhibitions. But Bob’s Kingston is alive all year round, for anyone from reggae pilgrims to more casual admirers just seeking some ‘positive vibrations’.
It all began here.
Although he was born in the village of Nine Mile in north Jamaica, Bob moved to Kingston’s Trenchtown as a young boy with his mother after his father died. It was in this impoverished neighbourhood his musical journey commenced. He learnt the guitar while listening to R&B from American radio stations with housemate Bunny Wailer, with whom he would later form eponymous group The Wailers.
The restored tenement block is now a National Heritage Site and fascinating cultural centre, where reggae musicians congregate to record and perform. A striking new statue of Bob has also been erected here to mark his 70th birthday.
Some tourists are deterred from visiting by a prejudice about local ‘ghetto’ culture, at odds with reality – visitors are welcomed warmly by locals promoting Bob’s peaceful message. Visiting also generates vital revenue for the still-deprived community that spawned him.
Located in downtown Kingston, Tuff Gong is the label Bob founded in 1965 (named after his nickname ‘The Gong’ and being a ‘Tuff’ cookie). Today, its HQ is not only one of the biggest studios in the Caribbean but one of the most famous in the world, attracting not just reggae luminaries like sons Damian and Ziggy but superstars of other genres from Kenny Chesney to Sinead O’Connor.
Housing vintage analogue equipment alongside newer digital technology, the studio allows intimate access to the spaces where Bob recorded hits like Redemption Song and Buffalo Soldier. The label went on to sell millions of records, while Bob’s posthumous best-of Legend became the biggest-selling reggae album of all time.
Little did young Bob know, the home he would later buy a few miles uptown would become Kingston’s most-visited tourist site, the Bob Marley Museum.
The colonial-era clapboard house, where he lived for his final six years, is now a preserved shrine. Utensils in the kitchen date from his last days; his unpretentious bedroom left exactly as it was, his favourite guitar still by the bed; and poignant family photos hang on the walls. More dramatic are bullet-holes from the infamous 1976 assassination attempt, a grim reminder of the evil confronting Bob’s non-violent philosophy.
There are also museum spaces literally wallpapered with press clippings that exhibit his vast collection of Gold Records. And you can try Bob’s favourite drink, Irish Moss (made with seaweed extract), in the One Love Café, or a hearty vegetarian stew typifying the Rastafarian ‘Ital’ diet.
Following the shooting, Bob often withdrew to a retreat nestled high in the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston, which is as special a spot to visit today as it was 40 years ago. Now a boutique hotel, Strawberry Hill was then owned by producer Chris Blackwell, who’d signed Marley and found his songs an international audience. Subsequently many famous artists visited, including the Stones, Willie Nelson and Grace Jones – personal photos of whom still hang on its walls alongside various Marley platinum discs.
For those with the budget to stay here, high-end features include a negative-edge infinity pool offering vertiginous mountainside views down to the city. For the rest of us, a traditional afternoon tea will do just fine.
Jamaica’s Wembley, built during Bob’s teenage years, has for most its lifetime served as a temple for the sport he held dear – football – which he regularly played. Home of the national team, internationally-known as the ‘Reggae Boyz’, it backdropped a significant moment in Bob’s career.
In 1978 the Wailers headlined the massive ‘One Love Peace Concert’ here, Bob’s first homeland show since returning from self-imposed exile, at a time when Jamaica was riven by deadly political civil war. During the song Jammin’, however, peacemaker Bob called for the leaders of both warring parties to join him onstage and shake hands, in a plea for national unity. For that night at least, peace reigned on Kingston’s streets.
Three years later Bob would return to the stadium, for his funeral. A commemorative statue of him – one of several around the capital – still stands outside, wielding a guitar.
Kingston has celebrated his life every year since on his birthday, but for visitors that musical high is on offer here perennially. As his son Ziggy said recently, Bob is more alive today than ever.
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Kris stayed at Spanish Court Hotel. For further info on visiting Kingston go to www.visitjamaica.com. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.