s t o ry b y

steve Knopper p h o t o s b y Jon Whittle

Singer Queen Ifrica grew up immersed in the green landscapes and distinctive sounds that have inspired decades of Jamaican music.

Ja m a ica
Reggae — the world’s most recognizable island music — didn’t end with Bob Marley. A pop-music expert takes to the streets and the hills to see what stirs it up.

the beat of

hocking. i’m standing in the lobby of a Jamaican resort, and I’m listening to a Bob Marley tune. Four musicians play “Buffalo Soldier” at Sandals Montego Bay as honeymooners sip umbrella drinks and tap feet to the song’s unmistakable reggae rhythm. The resort’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’s the foundation,” adds drummer Nordy Lewis. Of course, Marley didn’t invent reggae or its older sibling 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 resembling American hip-hop. Jon the photographer and I have come to trace those transformations. At hallowed studios and dance clubs — sites that document 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, fit 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 cheap buffets. Sandals employees directed us here for the best dancehall music. We ask Bobby, a local hustler, for the same thing. “No problem,” he says. “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.” Jon and I exchange glances. The tourist chain? But sure enough, hours later, past 3 a.m., we find ourselves wedged into a corner of Margaritaville, ordering Red Stripe beers, feeling the bass in our ribs and the melody in our hips. It’s mostly locals, but we spot tourist couples in flip-flops as well, all getting into it. Soon there’s a commotion as pop star Sean 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 booming 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

As Sandals Montego Bay grooves now, Rose Hall plantation (opposite page) reflects Jamaica’s history. Yesterday and today come together in Damian Marley, shown performing at the reggae festival Sumfest 2009.

the crowd engulfs him. But which roots? How can one 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 and manager Tony Rebel, himself a dancehall veteran, shuffle from the cavernous lobby into the sunshine. A young man in dreads introduces himself as a fan and hands the queen a clump of marijuana, which she accepts with a smile. Like many Jamaicans, including Marley, the 34-yearold daughter of reggae singer Derrick Morgan is a Rastafarian. She worships former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I as Jah, a version of God returning to earth. Rastafarians smoke pot (technically illegal in Jamaica) as a religious ritual and wear dreadlocks. The queen dyes her dreads the red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian flag, a symbol of Rasta defiance. She hands the pot to Tony,

who sniffs it like a fine cigar and nods approvingly. They take us to Rose Hall, a white-brick building from the late 1700s that overlooks the ocean. Growing up in Montego Bay, Queen Ifrica took school tours here. “You’d imagine what it would be like,” she says, motioning toward the manicured grass. “Slaves walking right over there.” I tell her that the slavery connection reminds me of 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 find out how, we have to go where that sound has always come from. We have to go downtown. | downtown >>


“Instead of the beat on the ONE, two, THREE, four, it’s on the TWO, three, FOUR. You see? That’s the only difference.”

e get lost. the drive to downtown Kingston climbs into the hills before flattening and widening into smoke and congestion. Jon is an excellent driver, but he isn’t insane, which makes him unqualified to drive in Jamaica. I slam the invisible brake as massive Leyland trucks pass at full speed and slip into traffic a few feet in front of us. At South Parade and Orange Street, a raucous urban market thick with pedestrians, we ask a woman gutting a fish for directions. She points the way with a knife. “There’s not really a lot of museums,” Damian Marley had told me backstage at Sumfest. I’d asked the pop star, Bob’s 31-year-old son, where to look for reggae history. “Go on an adventure,” he said. “Get out in the streets and meet the people.” Our Kingston guide, local writer Kaci Hamilton, meets us


at Strawberry Hill, a hotel owned by Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, signed Bob Marley and made him a star in the United States. In her tiny Honda, Kaci takes us to Trench Town, where Marley and other reggae stars got their start. It’s bleak — small, hard shacks in faded pink, green and yellow. A notorious shantytown, parts of which were built on a sewage dump, Trench Town has been home to postslavery “sufferers” since the early 1900s. At Marley’s early squatter’s home, guide Donnette Dowe shows us the burned-out Volkswagen van from which the singer sold his landmark album Catch a Fire. Kaci’s phone rings. We rush across town to Harry J Studio, a nondescript building where the Wailers recorded several albums. Today, Sly Dunbar, drummer for the great production duo Sly and Robbie, and a makeshift band of studio pioneers are demonstrating Jamaican rhythms, including ska and reggae, for a TV show called Music Voyager.

A crew from the Music Voyager TV show films Ernie Ranglin (acoustic guitar), Sly Dunbar (drums) and other musicians laying down Jamaican beats. Ranglin (opposite) says he invented reggae’s defining rhythm.

Just before the session, I coax Ernie Ranglin, the band’s 77-year-old guitarist, outside to discuss reggae’s roots. In the late 1950s, Jamaicans fell in love with American R&B stars such as Fats Domino and Wynonie Harris. Then DJs in urban Kingston shifted from playing hit American records at “sound-system” dance parties to making their own records in studios. But, I ask Ranglin, who invented the distinctive reggae beat? “I was the first one,” he says flatly. He was a studio guitarist back then. “Where we got the ska from — it was from New Orleans. But instead of the beat on the ONE, two, THREE, four, it’s on the TWO, three, FOUR. You see? That’s t he only difference.” It

was 1959, and producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd desperately wanted a fresh sound to set him apart from his competitors. He met with guitarist Ranglin one Sunday and — voilà! You make it seem so simple, I tell Ranglin. This was a revolutionary innovation! Without that important shift in the beat, there would be no Bob Marley — not to mention Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, or even the Clash, the Police, UB40 and Gwen Stefani. “It had to be something we can say, ‘It was ours,’” he says. “We needed something to identify ourselves.” Then he heads back into the studio. I feel like I’ve just spoken with Thomas Jefferson in an open-collar shirt, who has excused himself to go inside and rewrite the Declaration of Independence. So why haven’t you heard of Ernie Ranglin? | touching bob >>

> Hear the beat Jamaica episodes of Music Voyager air starting in February on
PBS and National Geographic channels. Get more info at islands.com/music.


History is still in the making at Kingston’s legendary record shop Rockers International. Musician PG one 3 (pictured) works here and makes dancehall music on the side.


J a n u a r y / Fe b r u a r y 2 0 1 0 ISL A N D S . c om

J a n u a r y / Fe b r u a r y 2 0 1 0 ISL A N D S . c om


Sterling admits he can’t explain where all the talent comes from. Then his band plays a distinctive rhythm. “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing.”

t first, that innovation in the beat merely led to hits on the radio — like what Ranglin considers the first ska song, Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Snappin’,” in 1959. (It’s well worth the 99 cents on iTunes.) It took Bob Marley to turn reggae into an international symbol of peace and insanely rocking music over the next two decades. Today, Marley’s recordings seem both timeless and frozen in time. His image blends into the Jamaican landscape, an artifact, like Elvis in Las Vegas or even George Washington in D.C. Yet the whole idea of Marley, beyond any single song, retains a power that hovers over Margaritaville as it does over downtown Kingston. Searching for the source of that power, Jon and I head toward Ocho Rios. For miles, it’s mostly zinccovered shacks, with goats and dogs wandering sharp


curves along mountain walls. Then trees give way to Brown’s Town, where locals rush to work in taverns and markets with hand-lettered signs like “Devon House i Scream” and “Tipsy Bikini and Booze.” Civilization fades as we climb farther up the hills, into tiny Nine Miles, where Marley grew up before he moved to Kingston. Behind a huge wooden gate, the Bob Marley Centre and Mausoleum is solemn and funky. Like Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, Marley’s white-marble crypt is festooned with candles, drawings, bracelets and other tokens of fans’ esteem. A tour guide named Crazy invites us to lay our hands on the crypt. I do so, and think about how Bob managed to be both rebel (as a “rude boy” stalking Kingston’s streets) and spiritual man of peace (making songs like “One Love”) in the same personality. Crazy interrupts my reverie. “All the ladies who touch Bob,” he says of the man with 13 children by several women, “don’t worry — you’re pregnant!”

Jamaica’s hills and towns cradle infinite musical creativity. Bass player Alwood Sterling (opposite) and his band tap that beat every day.

That runs through my head as Jon and I drive back down the hills with plants and roots whooshing by in a blur of green, yellow and brown. Then it dawns on me: Fertility is the key. In Jamaica, everything grows prolifically — even children. It’s why couples come here on their honeymoons. They can feel it. Locals feel it too, even in concrete jungles distant from trees, roots and beaches. Musicians feel it and create new styles. Marley wasn’t the source. Neither was Ranglin, per se, and neither is Sean Kingston today. Jamaica itself is the source of Jamaican music. That sound could come from nowhere else. We stop afterward at Dunn’s River Falls, a crowded tourist attraction. A sidewalk band barely seems to notice the 100-degree heat. Bass player Alwood Sterling, 70, plucks rusty metal keys on a percussion box between his legs. I ask him how so much creativity happens to come from this one tiny island. Earlier I had asked veteran reggae singer

Cocoa Tea the same question. “If we weren’t born with this much talent,” he said, “what would we do? It’s something to get ourselves out of trouble.” Sterling suggests Jamaican runner Usain Bolt is part of the phenomenon, but he admits he can’t explain it. We’re cutting into prime moneymaking time, so Sterling and the band politely excuse themselves and begin a rickety mento ballad that reminds me of American hillbilly music — only based on Ranglin’s distinctive rhythm. Then they ease into the familiar strum of “Three book now Little Birds,” another Bob Marley clasp. 9 1 sic. “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing …” It’s time to get back in the car and crank the dancehall music and the AC — praise Jah for air conditioning. “’Cause every little thing is gonna be all right.” But I keep nodding to the beat for a few more minutes, feeling the sun on my neck, the two and the four in my chest. islands.com/jamaica


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