Bars, restaurants and recreational areas are being built around waterfalls and rivers running through Jamaican farming land.
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 Jamaica’s mystic forests, red for the blood of the slaves transported here to Jamaica. His Trenchtown Lions football shirt has Bob Marley’s name on the back.
Trenchtown is just down the street. Marley got his start in that Kingston ghetto, from which “heavy vibrations” still emanate, according to Ricky. Marley’s former home isn’t far away, 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 Ricky, standing amid dormant musical instruments and unplugged amps in the very rehearsal room where Marley and his band The Wailers worked on some of their best-known songs, including One Love. Ricky tries to reconstruct their process: “Sitting and strumming over there, Bob Marley sings ‘one’. The next one in the circle sings ‘love’. The next sings ‘one heart’. Then they all sing ‘let’s get together and feel all right’,” he says. “That one-two beat is the sound of your heart, and that chicka rhythm of the guitar is the blood pumping through your carburetor.”
More than 40 years after Marley’s death (from bone cancer, aged 36, in 1981), aspiring Jamaican musicians practically audition before his ghost in this room. “Young reggae artists feel that if they don’t rehearse here, then they’re not ready,” says Ricky. To “graduate”, as he puts it, is to record in the adjoining studio. Formerly known as Federal Recording, it was renamed Tuff Gong, a brand name associated with a number of Marley’s businesses, by his widow Rita, who bought the place and moved much of his personal equipment over to this facility, located in the industrial zone behind the port.
Marley’s wooden soundproofing panels and reel-to-reel tape decks are still in situ alongside the modern digital gear. His old hand-operated record press is out back, beside the new machinery that Tuff Gong recently brought in to start producing vinyl discs once again. 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 in 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 a Marley 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, continuing the smoking thread, starts 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 isn’t just music to smoke to, and marijuana isn’t just smoke to a Rasta. It’s a burned offering, a sacrament, a way of confronting with the most high Jah,” he says. “So we smoke, we play and we reason together, and our music becomes the eyes, ears and voice of the people.”
Ricky feels a need 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, which 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, mega-selling Legend compilation album. Purists always dismissed that collection as tailored to white audiences — being almost totally devoid of his political material — with Redemption Song alone offering some idea of Jamaican suffering: piracy, slavery, poverty.
Jamaica flag flying high at Pelican Bar.
Janet Crick leading a street art tour through Downtown Kingston.
This is my 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. Local nonprofit arts organisation Kingston Creative is trying to bring it back with new attractions and incentives centred on a row of fresh street art that it has commissioned 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 and 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 Caribbean artist Shanique Stewart, rendering contemporary national icons into cartoons, from Olympic gold medallist sprinter Usain Bolt to signature lager Red Stripe. Shanique has titled that piece ‘Jamaica Is Not A Real Place’, quoting a viral phrase now in common use around the island whose meaning seems to vary.
“In this context, I think it’s meant to sound positive,” says Janet Crick, tours consultant at Kingston Creative. “Like, how can such a small island have such a huge influence on the world? With our sports, our culture, and especially our music.” The expression can also have negative connotations, admits Janet. “It’s also something we might say in response to crime and outrageousness. Like saying, no, this can’t be real.”
A monthly Sunday art walk has proven a successful primer for what Janet’s organisation has in mind for this area: strolling families, street food and live bands. This vision of urban renewal will take time and money, and it isn’t a reality just yet, but Janet says a functioning “scene” is becoming easier to imagine down here.
Fort Charles, a former Royal Navy outpost that once defended the colonial-commercial hub of Port Royal, is even quieter this morning. What used to be an island was fused to Jamaica by an earthquake in 1692, which raised new land out of the sea while submerging what was then considered the richest city in the world. Today, Port Royal is a village perched over the sunken ruin of its former self, where diving for treasure is strictly prohibited.
“We like to believe the earthquake punished the British for their wickedness,” says local historian Andrew Gordon, recounting the exploits of British-licensed buccaneers off this coast, and the depraved ways they spent their profits onshore. Andrew 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 on-site museum, and he’s 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, Andrew 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 Andrew, cool and dry as a diplomat.
Andrew is proud to be a certified lifeguard on an island where over half the population can’t swim. “It’s just fear,” he shrugs, his theory being that ancestral memories of the Middle Passage — and the millions of enslaved Africans lost at sea — have given many today an abiding horror of the water. Most fishermen of Port Royal can swim just fine, Andrew says, but there are plenty around the coastal perimeter who can’t, which only adds to the precariousness of their livelihood.
The Galleon marine sanctuary attracts birds such as pelicans.
The glittering, blue waters have also been deeply troubled by a number of issues, including overfishing, habitat destruction, coral bleaching and the past use of poisons and dynamite. Near the mouth of the Black River, the tiny community of Galleon has taken action to establish a sanctuary protecting 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 infrastructure to enable them to bring eco-tourists out to assist with wildlife monitoring and water testing in Hodges Bay.
“Depending on the season, they’ll see ospreys, manatees, bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles when they come to hatch,” says Trysion. Knowing their own businesses depend on protecting these waters, the fishermen of Galleon aren’t merely compliant with present measures to ensure sustainability, says Luke-Ben, but proactive in patrolling the bounds of their local sanctuary. “They even extended the buffer zone by themselves to restrict fishing.”
Rounding the southwest corner of the island in a small boat with an outboard motor, I meet a fisherman who supplements his income with one of Jamaica’s more notable side hustles. Around 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 famous floating clubhouse he calls the Pelican Bar, seemingly assembled from driftwood and palm fronds.
“Number-one spot in the world for chill vibes,” says Floyd as he cooks up rice and peas for his last customers of the day. My uptight aversion to words like ‘chill’ and ‘vibes’ can’t contend with the setting sun, the roosting seabirds and the water’s twilight turn to melted gold. It’s a Caribbean dream out here, still largely funded by the owner’s early-morning labours, catching and selling snapper, lobster and angelfish.
Floyd maintains his independence by resisting regular offers of 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 sponsorship from Red Stripe, though.) After all this time, planning permission for the bar is still, technically, pending, but in Floyd’s experience, his fellow Jamaicans are reluctant to mess with a good thing. “We did go to court once, but the judge’s decision boiled down to, ‘leave it as it is’,” he says. The coast guards stop by sometimes, but not to tell him off. “Those guys like to hang out here, too.”
Vegetarian Rastafari cuisine being served at the Rastafari Indigenous Village.
Such encounters recall the axiom ‘Jamaica is not a real place’. It follows me around the island, most often delivered with a wink or an eye-roll. A local companion says it almost on reflex when pointing 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 Estate distillery, in Wakefield.
Both of those sites stand on former slave plantations, like many other visitor attractions. That particular Jamaican reality won’t be denied, something that leaves many holidaymakers feeling conflicted. Cruise liners drop anchor in the same bays that once harboured slave ships, and to set foot almost anywhere on this island is to tread on ground that has soaked up pain beyond imagining. The inequities of post-colonial Jamaica can’t be overlooked either. Stark wealth and class differentials separate all-inclusive beachfront resorts from inland agricultural villages where the sugar cane trade has lately been all but destroyed by global competition.
Small rural parishes such as Hanover have been hardest hit, forcing landowners like Stacy Wilson to make drastic changes. Inheriting his parents’ 25 acres of riverside cane fields, he found sugar farming a miserable business. Rather than keep toiling for diminishing returns, he opened the private waterfalls on his property to the public for a small entry fee, with rope swings and jump spots over blue holes and hidden caves. The site is now called Benta River Falls and there’s a “party vibe” here every weekend, says Wilson. Most customers are local, as are the staff, serving jerk chicken and curried goat sourced fromneighbouring farms. “I want to see this community uplifted. I want schoolkids to dream of a job at Benta,” Wilson adds.
There are more backcountry waterfalls at Pretty Close, a riverside bar and restaurant that Omar Edwards recently opened on land passed down from his grandparents in the 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 Omar in light patois, gesturing across to the thatched huts that make up his operation. “Natural as possible.”
At the opposite side of the island, I find the Rastafari Indigenous Village, located in a forested valley on land leased from a local engineer. It serves as a religious enclave, cultural centre and community hub, with cabin-like dwellings set around a kind of tribal pavilion. Residents felt early engagements with day-trippers turned their lifestyle into a ‘show’, so they’ve now built simple guest accommodations for more immersive, short-term residences. A beautifully costumed resident named Queen Bee demonstrates how visitors can participate in gardening, soap-making and cooking ‘ital’ food (all-natural, vegetarian Rastafari cuisine) over an open fire.
We sit with a village elder Queen Bee calls King Toto, who’s carving a bamboo drum with cracked fingers while smoking powerful ganja. He also brews what he describes as “rum-rot”, an alcoholic herbal medicine that he claims has “made many babies”, including some of his own. It must be his kingly prerogative 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 says, is still climbing out of that “deep hole”, and followers of the Ethiopian emperor turned Rasta demigod Haile Selassie have spent the past century advocating for peace, love and protection of the planet. 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”, 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 chanting and drumming behind us, the sound adding rhythm to the rhetoric while the smoke in my eyes somehow clarifies the surrounding greenery. Entranced, convinced, converted, I’m almost ready to testify that Jamaica is the realest place I’ve ever been.
A music session at the Rastafari Indigenous Village.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operate direct flights to the Jamaican capital, Kingston, and main holiday hub Montego Bay from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 10h.
Jamaican roads can be busy and bumpy, especially off the main cross-island highway between Kingston and Montego Bay, but public transport options are limited, so car rental is your best bet for getting around. Or book with a reliable local operator like Paradise Travels, which can arrange guided transport by minibus to most locations around the island.
The tropical latitude keeps temperatures hovering around 26C to 30C most of the year, but it’s safest to travel outside hurricane season (which is generally June to October). Mid to late November is ideal, just before the peak season of December to April.
Terra Nova All-Suite Hotel, Kingston. From £175.
Seaweed Villa, Treasure Beach. Five-bedroom villa rental from £550.
Jamaica Inn, Ocho Rios. From £340.
Explore runs 10-day tours to Jamaica that include excursions to a Blue Mountain coffee plantation, Rastafari Indigenous Village and Pelican Bar, along with other options for waterfall hikes and swims. From £1,831 per person, excluding flights.
Published in the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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Bars, restaurants and recreational areas are being built around waterfalls and rivers running through Jamaican farming land.