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Excerpt Bob Marley Everything is Everything in Jamaica

Bob Marley: Everything Is Everything in Jamaica


Whenever I hear the recorded reggae cry of "Rastafarrr!" in rain-soaked Vancouver, in sultry Havana, in romantic Prague, in polluted Beijing, anywhere, I'm taken out of my world and transported to what I've come to think of as "mi yard"—Jamaica, political tinderbox, artist's muse, beauty spot, and birthplace and home of Robert Nesta Marley.

Son of a striking 18-year-old black girl and a 50-year-old white quartermaster attached to the British West Indian Regiment, Marley was born in 1945. After an almost fatherless childhood in the rural pastures of St. Ann's Parish on Jamaica's sinuous north coast, he moved with his mother into the grinding poverty of Kingston's Trench Town. Marley was barely into his teens. His friends were other street youths who were also impatient with British racism, the disparity between rich and poor, and the broken promise of Kingston's lure as a place of opportunity.

On a hot summer evening in Kingston I sit quietly in a rental car. The night is close, and though I've locked the doors, my window is open. As I drink in the street scene, a rasping voice whispers almost in my ear, "Money fo' medicine." The voice belongs to a dark-faced Rasta. He peers at me, his age-streaked locks filling the window like white lightning.

"No," I respond, clutching my purse.

"Yah mun," the Rastaman says, looking me straight in the eye. "Sorry mi scare you. Respect." And with those words he withdraws.

Rolling the window up as a barrier against the Jamaican capital city's dark beat, I find my attention drawn to the outside again. A youth whirls like a dervish in the middle of the thoroughfare. His baggy pants Hula-Hoop his knees, and his penis leads like a divining rod as he twirls.

Marley cut his first vinyl with the track "Judge Not" in 1962 at the age of 19. He recorded it with friends Winston Hubert MacIntosh ("Peter Tosh") and Neville O'Reilly Livingston ("Bunny Wailer") as the vocal trio the Wailers for Kingston record producer Sir Coxsone Dodd on the hip (in Jamaica) Coxsone label. The Wailers explored inner-city themes, identifying with the Rude Boys street rebels in Kingston's slums. Although they recorded regularly with Dodd, one of Jamaica's finest sound-system men, economic success eluded them, and three other members of the group went their own way to search for more immediate financial gratification.

In 1966 Marley's mother, Cedella, remarried and sent her son an air ticket. Marley followed her to the United States with the idea of finding work to finance his music. A few months later the island's magnetic pull and the lure of a woman, the young singer Rita Anderson whom Marley had just met and would eventually marry, proved too much to resist and he returned to Jamaica. Marley's homecoming was on the heels of a state visit by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who brought with him renewed credence and excitement for the Rastafarian movement in an island always searching for answers.

Rastafarianism, a religious form of the African-Jamaican's protest against a society pressured by poverty, got its start in the 1950s and was inspired by charismatic Jamaican preacher and entrepreneur Marcus Garvey's revelation: "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King. He shall be the Redeemer." Referred to as Jah, the movement's Messiah was identified as the revered Haile Selassie (real name Ras Tafari) who, among his other achievements, was a key architect of and player in the Organization of African Unity (oau) in the early 1960s.

Marley's growing commitment to Rastafarianism and his philosophical maturity changed his persona as well as his musical attitude. The tough urban stance in his lyrics was replaced by what would become his trademark: an uplifting spiritual and social ideology. Jamaican music, too, had progressed, the effervescent ska swapped for a slower, more sensual rhythm that suited Marley's emotionally tender melodies and socially conscious, often marijuana-infused lyrics. The Wailers, with the compelling Marley as leader, would become the first reggae artists to achieve international success.

Smoking marijuana is a Rastafarian rite. The right of the tourist to indulge in "de herb" is a given in Jamaica, and at concerts, as elsewhere, the pungent smell of ganja perfumes the air. As I sit in my rental car, I think about my imminent attendance at the yearly Tribute to Bob Marley, held at the simple concert venue mxiii in the lovely seaside resort town of Negril. Every year cutting-edge Jamaican musicians like Capleton, Baju Banton, Ziggy Marley, and Toots and the Maytals show up at mxiii to play to a motley bunch of tourists and locals who can ante up the cover charge of 500 Jamaican dollars (us$8.50).

Eventually I make my way to Negril where at mxiii I stand shoulder to shoulder with a local friend, leaning over a low wall on a second-floor viewing area made of concrete and perfectly placed for seeing the stage and the crowd below. The stars wink above the dimly lit scene like fireflies, and the mob dances sensuously to Everton Blender, the opening act of a dj's dancehall-style reggae. The drill is up-tempo reggae talked or sung over computerized rhythm tracks. It's akin to Jamaican street talk, the musical patois, on speed. Dancehall reggae has been vilified by politicians and church leaders since its inception in the late 1980s for glorifying violence, drugs, and crime. The artists maintain that the music represents the voice of the people and mirrors Jamaican society. The controversy was escalated by a former police commissioner who attempted to ban dj lyrics that promoted violence in a throwback to the Rude Boys era of the 1960s when the government actively censored the music. The ballyhoo peaked in the mid-1990s when some dancehall reggae musicians imbued the songs with a cultural flavor and added acoustic instruments.

Looking down from our perch, I watch the men milling, their dreadlocks zigzagging wildly. Others have shaven their heads, and their brown skulls glow with cocoa butter. The faces are mostly black, though there are a few white ones. Rastas with skinny legs and ragamuffin clothing wander through the crowd, hawking red-and-blue packages of American cigarettes and island-picked peanuts in tiny hand-tied plastic bags. A makeshift bar does a brisk trade selling rum punch, bottled Red Stripe beer, island-bottled Heineken, and the stronger Dragon Stout. A contingent of Jamaicans, youths in Marley's heyday, have come from all over the island to see Bunny Wailer, the lead and last act. These men are tall, as most Jamaicans are, and they're elegantly attired in African caftans. Their ladies, curvaceous in form, wear brightly patterned frocks. Their hair is wrapped in high turbans Erykah Badu–style. While their heads remain still, their generous hips twitch, shake, and shiver like metronomes keeping time in an earthquake. Jamaicans are sexy at every age.

I spy a joint being passed at the edge of my little crowd. "Pass the jo"—a refrain from a lyric on popular dancehall artist Sean Paul's cd Dutty Rock flits through my brain. Impulsively I reach for the spliff, pursing my lips and inhaling. I draw in the smoke deep, knowing the pleasurable feeling that marijuana brings. Ganja hones the senses. It's a known fact that all manners of sensual pleasures are heightened. I pass the joint on and then pass out. When I come to, I'm lying on the concrete with an array of concerned faces gazing down at me. I can't hear anything, and the people seem like faraway duppys, or spirits, edged in primary colors, as in a Haitian painting. Then slowly my senses return and I discern voices and glimpse movements, only to pass out again. Later, when I've recovered from my odd collapse, I'm told I must have smoked what the locals refer to as a "seasoned spliff," marijuana laced with coke or crack, drugs that are cheap and prevalent in Jamaica, drugs I would never knowingly take and am not accustomed to. My local friend is beside himself, and in typical Jamaican style lectures me with variations on "Never take nuting from stranger. No even food, no drink, and specially no spliff." Eventually I'm transported back to my hotel and put to bed, causing my friend to miss the appearance of Bunny Wailer without complaint.

Marley and the Wailers hit Jamaican highs and defined the direction of reggae with classic tracks such as "Soul Rebel," "Duppy Conqueror," "400 Years," and "Small Axe." They only survived financially as songwriters for a company associated with Johnny Nash, who had an international hit with Marley's "Stir It Up." In 1971 Marley accompanied the American singer to Europe and secured a recording contract with Columbia Records. Marley and the Wailers cut their own Columbia single "Reggae on Broadway" but found themselves poorly promoted, then stranded and broke, the track unsuccessful in London.

As the last hard throw in a sidewalk crap shoot, Marley walked into Chris Blackwell's Basing Street Studios. Blackwell's company, Island Records, was the major mover behind the invasion of Jamaican music in Britain. He'd launched Island in the 1950s in Jamaica and relocated to London in 1962, realizing he could represent his Jamaican rivals in Britain. Jamaica's ska rhythm of the time was so danceable it hit a high, not just with Britain's numerous expat Jamaicans centered in London and Birmingham, but with the entire Mod culture. In 1964 Blackwell produced "My Boy Lollipop," a pop/ska hit by Jamaican singer Millie. As well as being the source of Jamaican music, his company represented white rock, with premier artists such as Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, and Fairport Convention.

Marley and the Wailers, through Blackwell, were connected to the hottest independent recording company in the world at that time. The Wailers' first album, Catch a Fire, was produced, packaged, and properly promoted. By the age of 26, Marley was a superstar. In 1981, a mere decade later, cancer claimed the ascetic, mystical musician and composer.

After selling Island Records to Polygram in 1989, Blackwell started Island Outpost, turning his talent to the hotel-and-resort industry and opening exclusive boutique hotels that attract musicians and music lovers. And that's where I go now—to a hideaway far from the mainstream in the West End of Negril where the vibe remains. Where I have found that in the 20 years I've been visiting the island nothing seriously changes. Or, as a Jamaican would say, "Everything is everything."

In the first decade of the new millennium, a time feathered with tragedy and tarred with terrorism, I've found there's still no place on the entire planet as seductive as West End Negril, and no small hotel there as fittingly musical as Chris Blackwell's The Caves. The West End is a six-mile stretch of spectacular limestone cliffs that plunge into the turquoise Caribbean. It's a far cry from the ghettos of Kingston, from the hurly-burly, all-inclusive, resort-fat Montego Bay, even from Negril's own spectacular seven-mile beach with its luxury hotels just minutes to the east by car and where author Alex Haley wrote for a while from a beach shack in the 1970s. Haley also discovered what would become another Blackwell property—Jakes, a few hours away by car on the south coast—and wrote his epic book Roots there.

On the cliffs, brand-name hotels and properties with more than 30 rooms don't exist in this small stretch of village, rock, and sea where I often come to write. When I'm ensconced with my laptop on the shady balcony of my room, my only distractions are the melodies of the birds and the sea, and I'm once more reminded of Ian Fleming's writing method in relation to Jamaica's effects on the senses. The ex-spy and creator of James Bond wrote "with the jalousies closed around me so that I would not be distracted by the birds and the flowers and the sunshine outside until I had completed my daily stint."

At the western tip of Negril's meandering West End Road, just past the working lighthouse, is the periwinkle-blue stone gate simply marked the caves. The heavy entrance doors are shut tight against the outside. But like Aladdin's cave, it opens wide with a knock and words that have become a Jamaican mantra—"Chris Blackwell, Chris Blackwell, Chris Blackwell." Besides being Jamaica's musical scion, Blackwell is the son of landowner and society dame Blanche Blackwell. Rumor has it that the dashing Ian Fleming had a love affair with the young, ravishing Blanche. Goldeneye, another Blackwell property and once Fleming's 30-acre home, is now back in the hands of the family it came from, bearing out the truth in a Marley song: "what goes around comes around."

Like all the small resorts on Negril's West End Road, Chris Blackwell's Caves was built over limestone sea caves. The wood-shuttered windows of the cabins let in fresh breezes and the sounds of the sea; on stormy nights the boom of the waves in the inky ocean grottos below recalls the bass of a reggae tune reverberating through natural speakers, island-style.

Musicians and artists of all stripes are particularly attracted to The Caves. Irish singer Bono of u2 and Senegalese artist Baaba Maal often jam here. Jimmy Buffet flies in on his seaplane to visit. Hollywood actor Harrison Ford once threw a birthday bash that lasted until dawn.

Sharing the same view with The Caves are two other luxurious small hotels I frequent: the delightful Tensing Pen, run perfectly by Texan Nancy Beckham and named by English owner, Richard Murray, after a Himalayan Sherpa; and closer to the roundabout, the well-managed, Australian-owned gem, Rock House. A gaggle of other properties with descriptive names such as Citronella, Xtabi on the Cliffs, and Banana Shout are simultaneously picturesque and ramshackle—quaint, but certainly not for the sophisticated. All except The Caves are landmarks from long-ago hippie days, and they flaunt their colorful pasts from seductive roosts right over the ocean.

The properties on Negril's West End Road are intimate clusters of palm-roofed cabins clad in Walt Disney sunset pink or butterfly blue. Balconies of brightly painted planked wood or stone sit high atop the sea. Their balustrades mirror nature—hand-carved with sunsets, birds, lizards, and flowers. Statuesque green palms, heavy with brown-skinned coconuts, and sea grape adorned with tendrils of cloud-white jasmine, provide atmosphere, shade, and privacy. Stairways carved into the cliff side connect to natural sunbathing areas of flat, smooth rock and look as though they were painted by Salvador Dalí on a canvas of azure sea.

The unusual hideaway character of West End Negril and the stunning cliffs are priceless in a world where beauty, privacy, individualism, and creativity are highly valued. Swimsuits are optional—a hedonist's dream. Fleming snorkeled nude daily on his private curve of beach at Goldeneye. None of the small hotels in the West End have beaches, but who needs sand when the warm Caribbean becomes your own private pool, complete with ladder? Below the granite of the jagged cliffs, the warm Caribbean, the color of old-fashioned green ink, is so transparent the reefs underneath are visible. Flying fish, dolphins, and needle-nosed garfish flash silvery on the surface, while barracudas lurk in the coral. On the cliffs the swimming is without peer, as are the dramatic beauty of nature and the visual tapestry of Jamaican village life. The cozy West End village captures the look of a primitive painting with all its charm and outward naivete.

On the road, Rastas, Gorgon-locked, ready to connect and willing to exchange philosophies, lope leanly down the sun-drenched street, chatting, strutting, singing Bob Marley tunes and hawking carvings, tours to Mayfield Falls, and drugs for U.S. dollars. Everywhere Marley's inspirational and quintessentially Jamaican music emanates from road stalls and tiny open-air restaurants lining the road.

One evening, when the jet-black night is particularly pregnant with the warm, salty spray of the sea, I leave my room and stroll West End Road toward the Marley-memorabilia-bedecked Anne Beer and Joint for jerk chicken, Red Stripe beer, and chat time with Merton, the owner, waiter, and jerk cook extraordinaire. I navigate the quiet street alone until a youth on a bicycle keeps pace with me. We strike up a conversation, and I discover that Daniel is an upbeat 18. He tells me he's jobless and visiting from the dusty market town of Savanna La Mar, referred to by locals as Sav. Our talk in the shared darkness is punctured by reality when we notice a police car, door ominously hanging wide, in a seemingly empty lot. I advise my new friend, "When you see something dangerous, don't stop to stare. Just keep going."

The youth asks, "What you think mi do if mi see dem rob you wit gun?"

I study the boy's eyes for clues to his meaning, then conclude I've nothing to fear from him. "What would you do?" I venture.

"I'd rescue you. I'd risk mi life for you."

At that stage in our odd palaver we round the bend to the tumbling click of a crap game, and spot Anne Beer and Joint in fairy light that also illuminates a mangy visiting dog and two picnic tables in the grass. Merton greets me from his place outside by the scarred kettle-drum barbecue. His dreadlocks are held up from his back by sticks, a fashionable touch. He flashes me a toothless grin and hugs me to his bony chest. I enter Merton's immaculately kept house to use the bathroom, and as I sit on the toilet I hear a high-pitched voice calling through the thin walls. "You bring me cigarettes?" the voice pleads, childlike. "You promise."

The words belong to Pretty, a mentally challenged albino in midlife. I know he's harmless and stays in his room around the clock. Merton and his wife, Anne, take care of him. I hand Pretty, who stands waiting in the hall in his boxer shorts, two single cigarettes, expecting this to satisfy him.

"You bring me rum now," he insists.

"No," I say, and hightail it out of the house and back to Merton. Not to my surprise, Merton is playing "Survivor," a Marley tune, and mouthing the lyrics.

When I eat my fill of Merton's chicken, served hot from the scarred drum on makeshift plates of tinfoil, when I'm satiated by Merton's music, talk, and positive vibes, I return to my hotel and sleep under the mosquito netting to the tune of nature's concert. The sea's waves sing through their stone grotto microphone outside, and I dream of Bob Marley and his powerful lyrics that speak of dangers in the deeps of Jamaica itself.

The next morning I rise and take another walk along West End Road. Snatches of Marley's fiercely political "Get Up, Stand Up" emanate from the boom box of a dilapidated red taxi careening down the street. Ahead of me a bicyclist in tie-dyed Marley T-shirt swoons to the seductive emotion he puts into his own rendition of "Is This Love?" I remember my banter with an acquaintance the previous evening at Anne Beer and Joint. The young man was a successful drug dealer, with all the cars and women he wanted sweetened with real clout. But eventually a policeman came to him and said, "We're going to take you down." My acquaintance said that night he had a revelation in a dream: it was time to "get up, stand up." He owned a large house in Negril and decided to divide it into rooms to rent to tourists. That way he could quit selling drugs and save his skin.

Through my lucky time on the island and thanks to Marley's lyrics, I've come to feel the helplessness of Jamaica's people in the poverty-stricken alleys of Negril as well as in the yards of Kingston. Yet I'm repeatedly filled with hope by the reggae master's intuitive lyrics about overcoming adversity, and often heed his messages in my own life. To me, Bob Marley's music is an expression of private truths. He's revealed a secret to me. When I can't travel to Jamaica, the swoop of his guitar and the reedy tenor of his vocals transform my mindset and transport me to Negril's familiar West End where I swim in the sea, sit in "mi yard," and am uplifted.