REGGAE singer and occasional tour guide Ricky Chaplin greets me at Tuff Gong Studios with a fist bump and the word “Rastafari”, affirming his religion in lieu of a hello. He wears his dreadlocks coiled up inside a baggy tam, crocheted in the colours of the faith (yellow for the gold of Ethiopia, green for its mystic forests, red for the blood of the slaves transported here to Jamaica), and a Trenchtown Lions football shirt with Bob Marley’s name on the back.
Trenchtown is just down the street, the Kingston ghetto where Marley got his start, and from which “heavy vibrations” still emanate, according to Chaplin. Marley’s former home is not so off either, at 56 Hope Road. The house is now a museum that draws crowds of pilgrims, as does his mausoleum near his birthplace in Nine Mile. But if the singer’s sainted spirit is anywhere to be found, you might just as well seek it at Tuff Gong.
“His energy is still right here,” says Chaplin, amid dormant musical instruments and unplugged amps in the very rehearsal room where Marley and his band The Wailers worked out some of their best-known songs, including One Love. Chaplin tries to reconstruct their process: “Sitting and strumming over there, Bob Marley sings ‘one’. The next in the circle sings ‘love’. The next sings ‘one heart’. Then they all sing ‘let’s get together and feel all right’. And that one-two beat is the sound of your heart, and that chikka rhythm of the guitar is the blood pumping through your carburetor.”
More than 40 years after his death (from bone cancer, aged 36, in 1981), aspiring Jamaican musicians practically audition for Marley’s ghost in this same room. “Young reggae artists feel that if they don’t rehearse here, then they’re not ready,” says Chaplin. To “graduate”, as he puts it, is to record in the adjoining studio. Formerly known as Federal Recording, it was renamed after Marley’s own business by his widow Rita, who bought the place and moved much of his personal equipment over to this facility in the industrial zone behind the port.
His wooden soundproofing panels and reel-to-reel tape decks are still in situ around the modern digital gear. His old hand-operated record press is out back, beside the new machinery that Tuff Gong recently brought in to restart producing vinyl discs. His original sound engineer still works here too – an ancient-looking Malaysian man with long, wispy white hair, introduced to me as Mister Chow. And so, without warning, I find myself positioned at one degree of separation from Marley himself, watching Mister Chow tune a piano while practicing jazz chords scribbled into a notebook.
“You don’t really need to read music,” he tells me. “You only need to listen.” Assuming that it would be vulgar to bother him for an anecdote, I weakly ask when Chow was last back in Malaysia. “Oh, some time in the 1970s,” he says. “In my country they cut your hair short and they don’t let you smoke. Jamaica is more … broad-minded.” Ricky Chaplin talks of smoke too, taking up this thread and sniffing at an invisible herbal tendril in the air. “Just by the smell, I know there was a session in here last night. But reggae is not just music to smoke to, and marijuana is not just smoke to a Rasta. It is a burned offering, a sacrament, a way of confronting with the most high Jah. So we smoke, we play, and we reason together, and our music becomes the eyes, ears, and voice of the people.”
Chaplin is given to evangelise like this, he says, because music and marijuana so often condense into false or superficial impressions of the Rastafari, especially out in the wider Western world that his brethren call Babylon. Many visitors arrive in this country knowing nothing about its history and culture, except what little they might have picked up from Bob Marley’s posthumous, megaselling Legend compilation album. Purists always dismissed that collection as tailored to white audiences – almost totally devoid of his political material – but Redemption Song alone gave us some idea of Jamaican sufferation: piracy, slavery, poverty.
This is my own first time on the island, exactly 60 years after it became an independent nation. Landing in the tropical autumn of 2022, at the tail end of hurricane season, I’m too late for the anniversary celebrations and too early for the full reawakening of the tourist trade after a protracted spell of pandemic isolation. Downtown Kingston seems half-deserted, though I’m told it’s been that way for decades, most of the city’s activity having long since moved uptown. The non-profit group Kingston Creative is trying to bring it back with new attractions and incentives centred on a row of fresh street art along Water Lane.
Bob Marley is painted on the walls of course, alongside Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and other pioneers from that fertile, febrile period of riots, raids and block parties just before and after independence, when towering speaker stacks and quaking sound systems transfigured African folk rhythms into the various subgenres of ska, dub, reggae, dancehall, rocksteady. Much of this musical backstory has been illustrated in vigorous colour up and down the lane. One full corner is wrapped in a pop art mural by Shanique Stewart, rendering contemporary national icons into cartoons, from superfast sprinter Usain Bolt to signature lager Red Stripe. Stewart has titled that piece “Jamaica Is Not A Real Place”, quoting a viral phrase now in common use around the island, though meanings apparently vary.
“In this context, I think it’s meant to sound positive,” says Janet Crick of Kingston Creative. “Like, how can a such a small island have such a huge influence on the world? With our sports, our culture, and especially our music.” That expression can also have negative connotations, admits Crick. “Well, it’s also something we might say in response to the crime and the outrageousness of Jamaica. Like saying no, this can’t be real.”
This partly explains who people don’t hang around downtown, and especially not after dark. A monthly Sunday art walk has proven a successful primer for what her organisation has in mind: strolling families, street food, live bands. But their vision for a modern cultural quarter, bearing all the costs and benefits of urban renewal, is not quite real yet either, and Crick estimates that a lively “scene” is still a few years off.
Fort Charles is deserted this morning too, the former British Naval outpost that once defended the colonial-commercial hub of Port Royal. What used to be a separate island was fused to Jamaica by the earthquake of 1692, which raised new land out of the sea while submerging what was then considered the richest city in the world. Today’s Port Royal is more of a village perched over the sunken ruin of its former self, where diving for treasure is now strictly prohibited.
“We believe the earthquake punished the British for their wickedness,” says local historian Andew Gordon, recounting the exploits of licensed buccaneers off this coast, and the depraved ways they spent their profits onshore. Gordon grew up around here, playing and climbing on the rusted cannons and quake-tilted barracks of Fort Charles. His job now is to walk and talk visitors around the site museum, and he is sometimes required to dress as a 17th-century British officer, even while explaining how thousands of slaves were pressed into military service on this spot. Today there’s nobody else up here with us on the fort walls.
But tomorrow, he says, “We’ve got a tour group coming in, so we have to do the tour in costume.” That must be uncomfortable for him, I suggest. “Yeah,” he says. “We wear period-style shoes that weren’t shaped differently for right and left feet, so they get pretty painful.” I tell him that’s not what I meant. “I know,” says Gordon, cool and dry as a diplomat.
Another point of pride: he’s a certified lifeguard on an island where more than half the population can’t swim. “It’s just fear,” shrugs Gordon, his theory being that their history has given many modern Jamaicans an abiding horror of the water. Most fishermen of Port Royal can swim just fine, he says, but there are plenty around the coastal perimeter who cannot, which only adds to the precarity of their livelihood.
Naturally subject to batterings from hurricanes (though less so than neighbouring islands), these glowing blue shores have also been deeply troubled by overfishing, by past use of poisons and dynamite, by habitat destruction, by coral bleaching and other menaces of climate change. Near the mouth of the Black River, the tiny community of Galleon has duly established a sanctuary around its reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds.
Local marine warden Trysion Walters and biologist Luke-Ben Brown recently submitted a funding application to the World Bank to pay for extra infrastructure that will allow them to bring eco-tourists out to assist with wildlife monitoring and water testing in Hodges Bay.
“Depending on the season,” says Walters, “they’ll see ospreys, manatees, bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles when they come to hatch … ” Realising that “sustainability” is no less an imperative to their business, says Brown, Galleon fishermen now patrol the bounds of the sanctuary. “They even extended the buffer zone to restrict fishing by themselves.”
Rounding the southwest corner of the island in a small boat with an outboard motor, I meet another fisherman who supplements his income with one of Jamaica’s more notable side-hustles. Some 20 years ago, Floyd Forbes built a little stilted platform about 500 metres offshore in Parottee Bay. What was then “a personal hangout” has grown into a floating clubhouse he calls the Pelican Bar, seemingly assembled from driftwood and palm fronds.
“Number one spot in the world for chill vibes,” says Forbes, cooking up rice and peas for his last customers of the day. My uptight aversion to words like “chill” and “vibes” cannot contend with the setting sun, the roosting seabirds, the water’s twilight turn to melted gold. It’s a Caribbean dream out here, still partly sustained by the owner’s early morning labours catching snapper, lobster, and angelfish. Forbes is inclined to resist outside investment. “That’s like gambling with other people’s money,” he says. “I prefer the risk to just be on me.” He has accepted free sponsorship from Red Stripe though, while legal permission is still technically pending. “We did go to court once, but the judge’s decision boiled down to, ‘leave it as it is’.” The coast guard stop by sometimes, but not to tell him off. “Those guys like to hang out here too.”
Such experiences remind the visitor: “Jamaica Is Not A Real Place.” That axiom follows me around the island, often delivered with a wink or an eyeroll. For example, when a local companion points out a motorcyclist carrying a goat in a knapsack, the animal facing inward within kissing distance of the rider. It also echoes in my mind while I’m enjoying world-class Blue Mountain coffee at the Craighton Estate, and delicious overproof rum punch under the spectral loom of a very old ficus tree beside the Hampden Distillery in Wakefield.
Both of those institutions stand on former slave plantations, the reality of which will not be denied. Cruise liners now drop anchor in the same bays that used to harbour those Guineamen death ships, and the acute ambivalence of the holidaymaker might be now considered a form of tourist tax – the smallest possible price to pay for taking such pleasures where others once suffered pain beyond imagining. You can’t kid yourself about the inequities of post-colonial Jamaica either, the wealth and class differential between all-inclusive beachfront resorts and inland rural villages where the sugar cane trade has lately died a death. You can only can defer to local landowners like Stacy Wilson at Benta River Falls, who inherited his parents’ 25-acre sugar farm and found it a miserable business.
Instead, Wilson opened his private waterfalls to the public for a small entry fee, with rope swings and jump spots over blue holes and hidden caves. Alcohol and boomboxes are not allowed, he says, but there’s a “party vibe” here every weekend. Most customers are local, as are the staff, serving jerk chicken and curried goat sourced from his neighbours. “I want to see this community uplifted,” says Wilson. “I want schoolkids to dream of a job at Benta.” It’s a similar story at Pretty Close, a riverside bar and restaurant that Omar Edwards recently opened on land passed down from his grandparents in Blue Mountain foothills. The name comes from his assurances to guests who get lost en route and call for directions. Once they find the place, they can eat flame-grilled grunt (similar to snapper) and drink out of coconuts, while sitting in a freshwater pool with doctor fish cleaning their feet and hummingbirds whirring over the flowers. “Me built this up with them two hands,” says Edwards in light patois, gesturing across the thatched huts that make up his operation. “Natural as possible.”
The Rastafari Indigenous Village lies deep inside a forested valley behind Montego Bay, on land leased from a local engineer. It functions as a religious enclave, cultural centre, and working community, with newly built accomodations for immersive residencies. A beautifully costumed resident named Queen Bee shows me how guests can participate in gardening, natural soapmaking, cooking vegetarian food over an open fire.
We sit with a village elder she calls King Toto, who is carving a bamboo drum with cracked fingers while smoking powerful ganja. He also brews “rum-rot”, an alcoholic herbal medicine that he claims has “made many babies”, including some of his own. And it seems his kingly perogative to give only the most gnomic answers to questions about his life and worldview. “I put everything in the fire,” he tells me. “I burn everything corrupt.”
A more forthcoming spokesperson, who goes by the name First Man, then takes me aside for a brief, mesmeric sermon on the Rastafari movement as an Afrocentric counter to the lies of Europeans, and an oppressed population’s antidote to “this madness we call colonisation.” Jamaica, he explains, is still climbing out of that “deep hole”, and followers of the Ethiopian emperor turned Rasta demigod Haile Selassie have spent the last century advocating for peace, love, and protection of the planet as the only way up, for all of us. First Man speaks of “spiritual technology” and the self-erosion of capitalism by “bad leaders and rich people who have never been educated”. He counsels me to think of myself as a “replanted seed”, and to know that our existence is “much more than just the physical.”
“Today is the oldest, most beautiful day on Earth,” he says. “And for the first time in our history, we have an opportunity to do it right.” King Toto and others begin singing and drumming behind us, the sound adding rhythm to the rhetoric while the smoke in my eyes somehow brightens the surrounding greenery. Entranced, convinced, converted, I am almost ready to testify that Jamaica is the realest place I’ve ever been.