Right, Jamaica then. I never realised how close it is geographically to Cuba. Jamaica, for a small island that only takes about 4 hours to drive from one side to the other, has such a distinct world identity and the music, religion, food and attitude exported from here is amazing. You can say this about any country, but Jamaica does have a very distinct and unique identity in the world. I can also see many parallels between here and Africa, which isn’t too big a surprise, and similar hangovers from British colonialism. But it’s a bit calmer here than in Africa.
This is a different vibe to the rest of the trip because I’m with some pals. Lauren, whose Grandmother came from Montego Bay and moved to England aged 19, is connecting with her family here, as well as this being her honeymoon in the Caribbean with her Austrian husband Paule. Poushali has come to join us too, this being a Jamaican sandwich filling either side of trips to New York and Miami. It’s been lovely to see some friends for the first time in 4 months, although it is a bit weird, and I have completely switched off from organising anything at all. I’d got really used to being this floating travelly type.
In the plane on the way here, the American pilot thanked the military services over the plane tannoy before landing, calling them heroes of the country and thanking them for their service. Each to their own.
Our first 3 days in Jamaica were in Montego Bay, where we all landed, at an AirBnB place called ‘Jah Billy’s Irie Ite Guest House’, based up the hill from the town centre. Jah Billy; vest, baseball cap and dreadlocks, came and picked us all up and via the supermarket we made our way to the house. It was a cosy little place with music bouncing off the nearby buildings and 2 cats and a dog milling around. The dog sat outside most of the time and the two cats, when not being barked at, were well stroked, obviously. Jah Billy has an American wife, from Wisconsin, and he is your classic tall, dreadlocked, vest wearing, baseball hat wielding, relaxed Caribbean man. We have been self catering all week and Lauren and I ate dinner and chatted as the other two crashed out fully clothed before it was served. Bless.
We went for a stroll on Saturday morning up to Samuel Sharpe Square. Samuel Sharpe was an African slave in Jamaica in the early 19th century and the main instigator of the 1831 slave rebellion. Using organised religious Baptist get-togethers, which was the only permissable way slaves could congregate, he communicated his thoughts on Britain, colonialism and slavery, using Bible passages and politicised thoughts to demonstrate the wrongdoing done to him and other slaves. He chose Christmas Day 1831 as the start of the non-violent rebellion, with slaves saying they will not work another day until their grievances are met. Non-violence didn’t last at all and plantation buildings were set ablaze, with armed rebellion taking hold of other places. That didn’t last long either though – colonialist forces managed to stop all rebellion by the first week of January. Over 500 slaves died, mainly in the trials afterwards, including Sharpe himself who was hanged in 1832. But the powerful motion had been put in place and Britain abolished slavery in 1838. Sharpe became a national hero in Jamaica and a statue of him speaking sits in the square, as well as his face on the 50 Jamaican dollar note.
We pootled up to a church to have a look. The churches here are small and functional and not really decorated, so it isn’t Catholic. In the church we saw a printed banner with ‘Pans of Praise’ written on it and asked, as it was Saturday afternoon, if they were playing the following day. “Hmm… second Sunday. Yes. Service starts at 7.30am and they will play at the beginning and middle of the service” said the fella working there. Cracking, we thought, steel drums in a church of a Sunday morning.
We spent the rest of the day ambling around Montego Bay, walking miles and miles around the place. We had a dip on a quiet beach in the beautiful blue sea before witnessing hoards of topless cruise shippers drinking loads and having a merry old time in a bar called Margueritaville. It’s got a water slide from the bar in to the sea. The honeymooners gave that a go.
Some home cooked curry on Saturday evening and an early Sunday start to go and see some steel pans. Jah Billy kindly whizzed us down there in time. It was open and welcoming and everybody was friendly, but it’s still church though innit. We asked the bloke sitting in front of us when the pans were due and he said ‘later on’, and it was in the leaflet itinery, so we sat there in excited anticipation. 2 and a half torturous hours later, and no pans at all. They’d all lied to us. Fuming! And I don’t reckon it was an innocent mistake either.
I was also struck by something in the leaflet. This form of Christianity, a colonial religion of course, was a service attended by almost 100% Jamaicans and the large church was about half full. In a section called ‘Reflection: to live in the light’, after a bit where Jesus makes srricter the laws of Moses, passages like ‘If Jesus raise the bar, and takes us to the very spirit God’s laws where nothing is left disguised (sic), no motive hidden, and no thought not weighed, then we begin to give up our excuses, and admit to ourselves that we are fractured spirits who cannot possibly save ourselves. We are fractured spirits whose only resort is to throw ourselves on the mercy of God our Creator and Redeemer. In our moral and spiritual bankruptcy we hit rock bottom and turn to God for forgiveness and renewal’.
Now, language and passages like this is EXACTLY how the colonialists made Africans submissive, subservient and obedient to their slave whims. I spoke about this assimilation previously, and this is also what Sam Sharpe was protesting about, him citing the same Bible to say all men are created equal. By shedding their identity from them and giving them a submissive religion, Europeans could do as they pleased to Africans, under the promise of Heaven. I found it both disturbing and ironic to see so many Jamaicans in that church still worshipping this. This is what gave birth to the Rastafari of course – an overtly black religious movement to remove themselves from anything to do with colonialism. And also, how many re-writes and translations has the Bible had? How do we know it’s even anything like it was intended to be?
One of my ideas involves the use of hymns and medieval Christian plain chanting. During the service, there was a hope for some inspiration and a hymn that could set off a million thoughts. But everything they sung was an awful 20th century hymn, melodically lifeless and energy sapping, so I didn’t even get that. There’s a great Portuguese word – ‘desafinado’ – and it means ‘tuneless’. Suitable.
After a wasted morning, we consoled ourselves with a banana muffin and some Caribbean fizzy drink before Jah Billy picked us up. Our next port of call was Accompong, an independent town founded by maroon slaves in 1739. Maroon leader Cudjoe brought together maroon slaves, their descendants, and indigineous Taino people, and gathered under the Kindah mango tree to fight for their autonomy. After a protracted struggle with the British, it was here in 1739, staggering when you think about it, that the British signed a peace treaty to allow the formation of Accompong Town up the mountain in St. Elizabeth’s Parish. This treaty is still abided by today and Accompong forms an independent area within Jamaica. They have had almost zero crime – only a couple of robberies in nearly 300 years – and run the place for the good of the people. They African-ise themselves, with Ghanaian naming practices and Congolese jewellery, and also keep up Taino traditions. We were shown round the village by Mark, who has lived there his whole life, and toured the museum and a bit of the town. They have their own schooling system until high school when the kids head off elsewhere, and also unlike the rest of Jamaica, don’t charge people for use of land. Any money they can spare goes in to a community pot. No crime, no land charges, community money pot, ancient traditions – sounds utopian doesn’t it. They have a huge festival in early January too, on Cudjoe’s birthday, with the town taken over by music and celebrations.
One thing they do that isn’t particularly African in Accompong is bury their dead in a graveyard. In a lot of Jamaica I have seen burial sites in the compound they lived in, much like the Yoruba way of doing it, but Accompong had a graveyard next to the small Baptist church. As it was Sunday nothing was really open but there is a shop called Variety Bits and Pieces Store, which is nice.
It didn’t take us long to discover that Jamaicans drive like maniacs. They are all speed freaks. Little roads are stormed down at at least 80km/h and near misses are very frequent. That is until it pisses it down and the car slides all over the place and smashes in to another car on a corner. Cheers Jah Billy. Nobody was hurt, luckily, but we had to sit there for an hour whilst the Police arrived and they all worked themselves out. The car still got us home in the end, with some loose metal chunks from the car frame carried inside the car. Billy said ‘me go slidey-slide, nuttin’ you can do’. How about slowing down a bit Mr Jah?
That evening we met Lauren’s Grandmother’s brother Vern. In the custom of going by your surname here, his name is Johnny Vernon but everyone knows him as Vern. It was the first time ever that she has met a member of her family in Jamaica and it was very sweet to see. We met them properly the next morning as he picked us up and took us to his house on the farm in an area called Orange, where we also met his sister Cherry. They’re both really great. They got out family photos that Lauren’s Auntie Antoinette had put together of the family in England. It was so sweet to see these blood relatives connect for the very first time. Aptly for a place named Orange, their farm has every fruit you can imagine and all of it is super delicious. We had cocoa beans, Jamaican apple, fresh coconut – oh it was amazing.
After a morning there, we said goodbyes, put some fruit in a bag and headed off to Ocho Rios, east of Montego Bay, for a night’s stay there in another AirBnB place. It was a gorgeous place up a hill with a swimming pool. The life of riley. It’s been very holiday-ish all this so I hope this isn’t the blog equivalent of sitting looking at boring holiday photos.
Poushali and I went to Dunn’s River falls early in the morning Tuesday to avoid the tourists. What we thought was a lovely natural waterfall that we could climb was actually a rather artificial looking theme park. I was certain the waterfall itself was man-made. It really looked like it. There were steps in the rocks, handy for climbing, and holes that water pumped out from. Where it met the sea, it thundered off the rocks but the sea hardly batted an eyelid. Perhaps it used to be natural and they’ve moulded and played with it. There are claims on the internet of nearby pumping stations too. Still, we got in the water, lovely and fresh, and Poushali got her hair braided, so it wasn’t a wasted trip. We waited 2 hours for our driver, who was already at the house when we returned via a different taxi, because he’d been stopped by the police over an unpaid speeding fine.
We set off for Kingston to spend the last 3 days in the reggae capital of the world. It took bloody ages – I’ve not been used to the African mentality to timing and organisation for a bit so coupled with having the heebie jeebies at a mad drivers, I was in a right mood. When we arrived I was alright again and we were met by our AirBnB host, who can only be described as a ‘character’.
A tall, short dreadlocked, cartoon-doodle-tattooed man met us and took us off in his car. He introduced himself as G, Gamble, GambleG or Blake. He says he’s a ‘Jamerican’ and proceeded to play Hip Hop really loudly and rapped along to every single word, including serenading a woman at the gas station as the car filled up. The tunes were alright actually, and we kind of got swept up in his very extroverted personality as he rapped every word and acted as if he was in a music video, all chains and finger guns. His phone rang and it was his watch. As GambleG lifted his arm up as if he was smelling his armpit to talk on his watch, out came the sound of his mate shouting “where da ganja at!” After a sojourn in a ‘ghetto supermarket’ (his words) we asked him who the music was. ‘GambleG! It’s me man’, he said. I had my suspicions and said to Poushali it was probably his own music before we asked him. The songs had 3 subjects and no more – guns, hoes and drugs. Sure. At the time it was quite fun but after thinking about it, it’s completely absurd really isn’t it. He played the album at least 3 times and then again at home. The house was full of AirBnB potheads, with a Dancehall artist called Chris, young lad called Spider and some gravelly voiced American chef fella who looked like someone had inflated the KFC Colonel and dressed him in someone else’s clothes. Our gangster rapper friend GambleG also has a 4 year old boy called Alfonz, who really needs some attention from his Dad, or at least some company his own age. He spent the entire time turning in to superheroes and his accent was a bit Bart Simpson. G is 36 but could have been 15 the way he acted. I love Hip Hop, and I love that overtly confident self-expression, but only in the music. Seeing it close up and in such manufactured and learned behaviour – “it is Wednesday morning so I gotta check in at the Police station man” – just makes me laugh.
In the U.K., a sister to this world is Garage, and the scene has been so perfectly lampooned by genuine Garage artists Kurupt FM in their sitcom People Just Do Nothing. The absurdity of bravado, unwavering lack of self awareness mixed with the genuine ability in the music, has just been nailed perfectly by MC Grindah, so much so that I couldn’t help thinking this guy was just a Jamerican version and I could barely look at him.
We stayed the night and spent the morning there, as Grindah and Dancehall Chris acted like 15 year olds around Poushali and Lauren. The house has gorgeous views of the mountains from their garden and two swing chairs attached to a tree. They made Poushali sit there through two music videos filmed in the garden and chairs, and reeled off artists that had filmed there, none of which we’d heard of. “You know we’ve had Derek the Herbalist, Herman Tosser, Malcolm Talculm… erm we got Lou Swimmin up here too”. I made all those up but it’s not far off. They also spoke about a Russian model that had taken photographs there. Chris said “she ain’t no model” and GambleG replied “she is man, I seen her Instagram”. I mean what world are these people living in?
Our next job was to climb the Blue Mountain. Staying in a chalet with no electricity and old paintings of England, the temperature dropped a bit up there, so much so that I can now say I wore long johns in the Caribbean. A 2am start to start the 3 hour trek up to the peak wasn’t too troublesome as we’d sensibly gone to bed at 8.30pm. The walk was quite knackering but good fun, and a group of us from Denmark, U.S.A, Austria, Sweden and Britain made our way up with our 2 Jamaican guides. We made it up to the top in the cold at about 5.15am and waited the 45-60 minutes for sunrise to arrive.
It was about half as high as the peak in the Simien mountains but gave gorgeous views of Kingston and beyond.
We made our way down and had a cracking breakfast before making our way to the next AirBnB spot, this time in more central Kingston. The difference between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, very touristy and kind of unremarkable, and Kingston, which is like a much calmer Lagos, is very visible. But the friendliness remains and apart from a couple of mercenaries trying to get more money out of you, people are generally very welcoming and friendly.
After an afternoon trying to relax a bit, stiff from the mountain trek, we headed down Old Hope Road to the 1 place that I wanted to go to whilst here, with one objective to do when there. Studio 1 was set up on Brentford Road in 1963 by Clement Seymour Dodd, otherwise known as Coxsone after his favourite English cricketer, and the vast majority of my favourite reggae records were recorded there. It’s like the Motown Studios of reggae. There are a countless number of records to mention, but everything that came out of that building was wonderful. We initially couldn’t find it – the road is now called Studio 1 Boulevard but most people had no idea where the actual studio is – and we schlepped up and back again until we finally found it. And there it was – a white building with a friendly chap at the gate who asked if we wanted to buy some records. Yes please and in we went.
He said the boss was out so we waited for the main man to arrive and open up again and had a bit of rum cake as we waited. I couldn’t quite believe I was standing in the courtyard of the actual Studio 1, the Mecca of reggae.
There was one record I desperately wanted to get from there. I spent hours and hours listening to Studio 1 stuff with Angus, and the copies of the Best of Studio 1 and Sounds from the Burning Spear that he gave me for my 21st, recorded there by Coxsone in the late 60s, have soundtracked my life since. I just adore those records, especially the Burning Spear one, and that was the one I really wanted to try and buy there. I’ve been looking for it for years. We went upstairs and saw all these boxes of 45s that had been recorded, produced and printed at Studio 1. I asked if he had any Burning Spear LPs. He went and looked and then there it was – he had the exact album I wanted. We went downstairs to play it, to check it was the right one because Burning Spear re-recorded all those tunes in a far inferior fashion a few years later, and as soon as the first note played I knew it was the one. I so wanted Angus to be there.
So this one’s for you Angus; thank you for all those hours of musical discovery, much of which has moulded this trip and opened up every door. You told me once that you got rid of all your records in 1976 and listened to nothing but reggae for 6 years. I can see why.
My other musical thing this week has been falling asleep to the Sign O’ The Times album by a little known musician called Prince. It’s finally made its way back to Spotify so I can hear it again. What a masterpiece that is. On headphones, the production work is staggering, particularly on The Ballad of Dorothy Parker. All those layers could be a bit much but they knit together beautifully. The album is like a setlist by an artist with 8 albums behind them who has picked a greatest hits set. There’s RnB, Funk, Soul, Ballads – it’s just amazing. I’ve loved the title track since I was a kid and it’s another one that I never bothered with the rest until a couple of years ago. It’s so very 80s and yet utterly timeless, much like West End Girls and Blue Monday.
We have been rather domesticated and hadn’t been out properly yet, but before we left we wanted to see some real Kingston. On Thursday night we walked down to Veggie Meals on Wheels, a kind of shack-cum-club playing top reggae and dancehall and populated by lazy eyes, green smoke and flowing dreadlocks. There was a small population of Japanese Rastas there too. We hung about for a bit and they stopped the music and began showing a short film, which made everybody leave. We bumped in to Melissa, who’d done the mountain trek that morning too, and Poushali and I jumped in the minibus to a supposed ‘dancehall party’. We saw some blue flashing lights and the driver proceeded to reel off a load of homophobic bile about supposed gay men who live in the sewer there and shoot people. I won’t write what he said. We got to Melissa’s hostel to do a quick drop off but everyone went to bed, so a change of plan was needed. We ended up joining these 2 Polish girls and 1 Hungarian girl at a street dance event in north Trench Town, via one that had already been stopped, and it was frankly one of the weirdest things we’ve seen anywhere. Dancing has been part of the fabric of Jamaican life for years. Lee Scratch Perry was a dancer before he became a record producer (starting off at Studio 1 of course). The girls had been to Jamaica many times and were street dance professionals I think. They even spoke a bit of patois, which sounds great in an eastern European accent. Even in a little group of 3, the same dynamic I have seen in samba bands prevailed and Daria was the one running things, organising everything and living here for a few months. This event, held in the road with huge speaker soundsystems, impromptu wooden bars selling drinks, classic green smoke in the air and an MC shouting in indecipherable patois, was proper downtown Kingston. There are all these rules to a street dance event and we couldn’t really make head nor tail of it. Groups of people and individuals take it in turns to dance and stand still when not dancing, but we couldn’t work out how they knew when it was their turn. Everyone was eyeing and sizing each other up like a crap teen movie. There seemed to be properly choreographed routines going on but no song lasted long enough to really get going, and I’ve seen better dancing at youth centres in London. The Police came by twice and the first one just took one of the Polish girls’ phone number as they must have thought she was the most attractive girl there. The second Police car eventually just put a stop to it all and the speakers were dismantled almost immediately. I didn’t really get how it all worked and I sure wasn’t going to ask. By then it was nearly 5am and we’d been up 28 hours so it was time to crash. Daria phoned us a cab – she was a diamond – and off we went, having got what we wanted and seen some ‘real’ Kingston. Cracking stuff.