hocking. i’m standing in
the lobby of a Jamaican resort,and I’m listening to a BobMarley tune. Four musicians
play “Buffalo Soldier” at Sandals
Montego Bay as honeymoon-
ers sip umbrella drinks and tapfeet to the song’s unmistakable reggae rhythm. Theresort’s perfect beach, 50 yards away, runs along the
shimmering blue-green ocean. “We play a lot of Bob
Marley,” bassist Fitzroy Thompson says later. “He’sthe foundation,” adds drummer Nordy Lewis.
Of course, Marley didn’t invent reggae or its oldersibling ska. Their roots are in mento, an offshoot of calypso. And since Marley’s death in 1981, reggae has
morphed into dancehall, an electronic style resem-
bling American hip-hop. Jon the photographer
and I have come to trace those transformations. Athallowed studios and dance clubs — sites that docu-ment both gentle, spiritual reggae and loud beats —
I plan to ask key players what exactly makes reggae
reggae? How did it evolve? And where does Marley,
still revered, t into today’s mix? The answers lie
somewhere in Jamaica’s gritty streets and green hills.
The next day, we’re standing on Gloucester
Avenue in Montego Bay. It’s a sort of mini Vegas
strip, packed with tchotchke shops and cheapbuffets. Sandals employees directed us here forthe best dancehall music. We ask Bobby, a localhustler, for the same thing. “No problem,” hesays. “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.” Jon and I
exchange glances. The tourist chain?But sure enough, hours later, past 3 a.m., we nd
ourselves wedged into a corner of Margaritaville,ordering Red Stripe beers, feeling the bass in ourribs and the melody in our hips. It’s mostly locals,but we spot tourist couples in ip-ops as well, all
getting into it. Soon there’s a commotion as pop starSean Kingston hops on stage to sing and spin records.“Or we can leave the slums, go to paradise,” one of his
lyrics goes. It’s obvious he’s talking about the same
“Concrete Jungle” Marley chronicled, but the boom-
ing music makes the connection seem tenuous. After his set, I elbow through the throng to ask
how Marley’s laid-back reggae transformed into
this. In a patois I can barely make out amid the din,
Kingston says: “You gotta come back to your roots,
to your culture. I just remember my history.” Then
the crowd engulfs him. But which roots? How canone shared history produce such distinct styles?
The next morning — OK, noon — I drag Jon
out of bed and drive to the upscale Iberostar Rose
Hall Beach to meet singer Queen Ifrica. She andmanager Tony Rebel, himself a dancehall vet-eran, shufe from the cavernous lobby into thesunshine. A young man in dreads introduceshimself as a fan and hands the queen a clump of marijuana, which she accepts with a smile. Likemany Jamaicans, including Marley, the 34-year-old daughter of reggae singer Derrick Morganis a Rastafarian. She worships former Ethiopianemperor Haile Selassie I as Jah, a version of Godreturning to earth. Rastafarians smoke pot (tech-nically illegal in Jamaica) as a religious ritual and wear dreadlocks. The queen dyes her dreads the
red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian ag, a sym-
bol of Rasta deance. She hands the pot to Tony,
who sniffs it like a ne cigar and nods approvingly.
They take us to Rose Hall, a white-brick build-
ing from the late 1700s that overlooks the ocean.
Growing up in Montego Bay, Queen Ifrica took school tours here. “You’d imagine what it wouldbe like,” she says, motioning toward the mani-cured grass. “Slaves walking right over there.” Itell her that the slavery connection reminds meof American blues, also grown from oppression.
“It’s the same way in Jamaica,” she says.
I can feel those contradictions — oppression
and the resistance that gave birth to the music. Her
own pulsing beats support lyrics about racism and
child abuse. I’m beginning to understand where
the content comes from. But something changed to
make reggae sound so distinctly Jamaican, unique
from blues or anything American. To nd out how,
we have to go where that sound has always come
from. We have to go downtown.
As Sandals Mon-tego Bay groovesnow, Rose Hallplantation (oppo-site page) reectsJamaica’s history.Yesterday and todaycome together inDamian Marley,shown perormingat the reggae esti-val Sumest 2009.