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Singer Queen

s t o ry  b y  Steve Knopper p h o t o s  b y  Jon Whittle Ifrica grew up


immersed in the
green landscapes
and distinctive
sounds that have
inspired decades of
Jamaican music.

t h e  b e a t  o f

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.

64
s
hocking. i’m standing in The next day, we’re standing on Gloucester
the lobby of a Jamaican resort, Avenue in Montego Bay. It’s a sort of mini Vegas
and I’m listening to a Bob strip, packed with tchotchke shops and cheap
Marley tune. Four musicians buffets. Sandals employees directed us here for
play “Buffalo Soldier” at Sandals the best dancehall music. We ask Bobby, a local
Montego Bay as honeymoon- hustler, for the same thing. “No problem,” he
ers sip umbrella drinks and tap says. “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.” Jon and I
feet to the song’s unmistakable reggae rhythm. The exchange glances. The tourist chain?
resort’s perfect beach, 50 yards away, runs along the But sure enough, hours later, past 3 a.m., we find
shimmering blue-green ocean. “We play a lot of Bob ourselves wedged into a corner of Margaritaville,
Marley,” bassist Fitzroy Thompson says later. “He’s ordering Red Stripe beers, feeling the bass in our
the foundation,” adds drummer Nordy Lewis. ribs and the melody in our hips. It’s mostly locals,
Of course, Marley didn’t invent reggae or its older but we spot tourist couples in flip-flops as well, all
sibling ska. Their roots are in mento, an offshoot of getting into it. Soon there’s a commotion as pop star
calypso. And since Marley’s death in 1981, reggae has Sean Kingston hops on stage to sing and spin records.
morphed into dancehall, an electronic style resem- “Or we can leave the slums, go to paradise,” one of his
bling American hip-hop. Jon the photographer lyrics goes. It’s obvious he’s talking about the same
and I have come to trace those transformations. At “Concrete Jungle” Marley chronicled, but the boom-
­hallowed studios and dance clubs — sites that docu- ing music makes the connection seem tenuous.
ment both gentle, spiritual reggae and loud beats — After his set, I elbow through the throng to ask
I plan to ask key players what exactly makes reggae how Marley’s laid-back reggae transformed into
reggae? How did it evolve? And where does Marley, this. In a patois I can barely make out amid the din,
still revered, fit into today’s mix? The answers lie Kingston says: “You gotta come back to your roots,
somewhere in Jamaica’s gritty streets and green hills. to your culture. I just remember my history.” Then

the crowd engulfs him. But which roots? How can who sniffs it like a fine cigar and nods approvingly.
one shared history produce such distinct styles? They take us to Rose Hall, a white-brick build-
The next morning — OK, noon — I drag Jon ing from the late 1700s that overlooks the ocean.
out of bed and drive to the upscale Iberostar Rose Growing up in Montego Bay, Queen Ifrica took
Hall Beach to meet singer Queen Ifrica. She and school tours here. “You’d imagine what it would
manager Tony Rebel, himself a dancehall vet- be like,” she says, motioning toward the mani-
eran, shuffle from the cavernous lobby into the cured grass. “Slaves walking right over there.” I
sunshine. A young man in dreads introduces tell her that the slavery connection reminds me
himself as a fan and hands the queen a clump of of American blues, also grown from oppression.
marijuana, which she accepts with a smile. Like “It’s the same way in Jamaica,” she says.
As Sandals Mon- many Jamaicans, including Marley, the 34-year- I can feel those contradictions — oppression
tego Bay grooves
now, Rose Hall old daughter of reggae singer Derrick Morgan and the resistance that gave birth to the music. Her
plantation (oppo- is a Rastafarian. She worships former Ethiopian own pulsing beats support lyrics about racism and
site page) reflects emperor Haile Selassie I as Jah, a version of God child abuse. I’m beginning to understand where
Jamaica’s history.
Yesterday and today returning to earth. Rastafarians smoke pot (tech- the content comes from. But something changed to
come together in nically illegal in Jamaica) as a religious ritual and make reggae sound so distinctly Jamaican, unique
Damian Marley, wear dreadlocks. The queen dyes her dreads the from blues or anything American. To find out how,
shown performing
at the reggae festi- red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian flag, a sym- we have to go where that sound has always come
val Sumfest 2009. bol of Rasta defiance. She hands the pot to Tony, from. We have to go downtown. | downtown >>

67
“Instead of the
beat on the ONE,
two, THREE, four,
it’s on the TWO,
three, FOUR. You
see? That’s the
only difference.”

W
e get lost. the drive to at Strawberry Hill, a hotel owned by Chris Blackwell, Just before the session, I coax Ernie Ranglin, was 1959, and producer Clement “Sir Coxsone”
downtown Kingston climbs who founded Island Records, signed Bob Marley the band’s 77-year-old guitarist, outside to dis- Dodd desperately wanted a fresh sound to set him
into the hills before flattening and made him a star in the United States. In her tiny cuss reggae’s roots. In the late 1950s, Jamaicans apart from his competitors. He met with guitarist
and widening into smoke and Honda, Kaci takes us to Trench Town, where Marley fell in love with American R&B stars such as Fats Ranglin one Sunday and — voilà!
congestion. Jon is an excel- and other reggae stars got their start. It’s bleak — Domino and Wynonie Harris. Then DJs in urban You make it seem so simple, I tell Ranglin. This
lent driver, but he isn’t insane, small, hard shacks in faded pink, green and yellow. A Kingston shifted from playing hit American was a revolutionary innovation! Without that impor-
which makes him unqualified notorious shantytown, parts of which were built on a records at “sound-system” dance parties to making tant shift in the beat, there would be no Bob Marley
to drive in Jamaica. I slam the invisible brake as sewage dump, Trench Town has been home to post- their own records in studios. But, I ask Ranglin, — not to mention Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, or even
massive Leyland trucks pass at full speed and slip slavery “sufferers” since the early 1900s. At Marley’s who invented the distinctive reggae beat? “I was the Clash, the Police, UB40 and Gwen Stefani.
into traffic a few feet in front of us. At South Parade early squatter’s home, guide Donnette Dowe shows the first one,” he says flatly. He was a studio gui- “It had to be something we can say, ‘It was ours,’”
and Orange Street, a raucous urban market thick us the burned-out Volkswagen van from which the A crew from the tarist back then. “Where we got the ska from — it he says. “We needed something to identify ourselves.”
Music Voyager TV
with pedestrians, we ask a woman gutting a fish for singer sold his landmark album Catch a Fire. show films Ernie was from New Orleans. But instead of the beat on Then he heads back into the studio. I feel like I’ve
directions. She points the way with a knife. Kaci’s phone rings. We rush across town to Ranglin (acoustic the ONE, two, THREE, four, it’s on the TWO, just spoken with Thomas Jefferson in an open-collar
“There’s not really a lot of museums,” Damian Harry J Studio, a nondescript building where the guitar), Sly Dunbar three, FOUR. You shirt, who has excused himself to go inside and rewrite
(drums) and other
Marley had told me backstage at Sumfest. I’d asked Wailers recorded several albums. Today, Sly Dunbar, musicians laying see? That’s t he the Declaration of Independence. So why haven’t
the pop star, Bob’s 31-year-old son, where to look drummer for the great production duo Sly and down Jamaican only difference.” It you heard of Ernie Ranglin? | touching bob >>
for reggae history. “Go on an adventure,” he said. Robbie, and a makeshift band of studio pioneers beats. Ranglin
(opposite) says he
“Get out in the streets and meet the people.” Our are demonstrating Jamaican rhythms, including ska invented reggae’s > Hear the beat Jamaica episodes of Music Voyager air starting in ­February on
Kingston guide, local writer Kaci Hamilton, meets us and reggae, for a TV show called Music Voyager. defining rhythm. PBS and National Geographic channels. Get more info at islands.com/music.

68
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.

70 J a n u a r y / Fe b r u a r y 2 0 1 0 islands . c om J a n u a r y / Fe b r u a r y 2 0 1 0 islands . c om 71
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.”

A
t first, that innovation curves along mountain walls. Then trees give way to That runs through my head as Jon and I drive back ­ ocoa Tea the same question. “If we weren’t born
C
in the beat merely led to hits Brown’s Town, where locals rush to work in taverns down the hills with plants and roots whooshing by with this much talent,” he said, “what would we do?
on the radio — like what Ran- and markets with hand-lettered signs like “Devon in a blur of green, yellow and brown. Then it dawns It’s something to get ourselves out of trouble.” Ster-
glin considers the first ska song, House i Scream” and “Tipsy Bikini and Booze.” on me: Fertility is the key. In Jamaica, ­everything ling suggests Jamaican runner Usain Bolt is part of
Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Civilization fades as we climb farther up the hills, grows prolifically — even children. It’s why couples the phenomenon, but he admits he can’t explain
Snappin’,” in 1959. (It’s well into tiny Nine Miles, where Marley grew up before come here on their honeymoons. They can feel it. it. We’re cutting into prime moneymaking time, so
worth the 99 cents on iTunes.) he moved to Kingston. Behind a huge wooden gate, Locals feel it too, even in concrete jungles distant Sterling and the band politely excuse themselves
It took Bob Marley to turn reggae into an interna- the Bob Marley Centre and Mausoleum is solemn from trees, roots and beaches. Musicians feel it and and begin a rickety mento ballad that reminds
tional symbol of peace and insanely rocking music and funky. Like Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, Mar- create new styles. Marley wasn’t the source. Neither me of American hillbilly music — only based on
over the next two decades. Today, Marley’s record- ley’s white-marble crypt is festooned with candles, was Ranglin, per se, and neither is Sean Kingston Ranglin’s distinctive rhythm. Then they
ings seem both timeless and frozen in time. His drawings, bracelets and other tokens of fans’ esteem. today. Jamaica itself is the source of Jamaican music. ease into the familiar strum of “Three book
­image blends into the Jamaican landscape, an artifact, A tour guide named Crazy invites us to lay our hands That sound could come from nowhere else. Little Birds,” another Bob Marley clas- now
p. 9 1
like Elvis in Las Vegas or even George ­Washington on the crypt. I do so, and think about how Bob man- We stop afterward at Dunn’s River Falls, a sic. “Singin’ don’t worry about a thing …”
in D.C. Yet the whole idea of Marley, beyond any aged to be both rebel (as a “rude boy” stalking Kings- Jamaica’s hills crowded tourist attraction. A sidewalk band barely It’s time to get back in the car and crank the
and towns cradle
single song, retains a power that hovers over Marga- ton’s streets) and spiritual man of peace (making infinite musical seems to notice the 100-degree heat. Bass ­player dancehall music and the AC — praise Jah for air
ritaville as it does over downtown Kingston. songs like “One Love”) in the same personality. ­creativity. Bass Alwood Sterling, 70, plucks rusty metal keys on conditioning. “’Cause every little thing is gonna be
Searching for the source of that power, Jon and I Crazy interrupts my reverie. “All the ladies who player Alwood a percussion box between his legs. I ask him how all right.” But I keep nodding to the beat for a few
Sterling (opposite)
head toward Ocho Rios. For miles, it’s mostly zinc- touch Bob,” he says of the man with 13 children by and his band tap so much creativity happens to come from this one more minutes, feeling the sun on my neck, the two
covered shacks, with goats and dogs wandering sharp several women, “don’t worry — you’re pregnant!” that beat every day. tiny island. ­Earlier I had asked veteran reggae singer and the four in my chest. islands.com/jamaica

72 J a n u a r y / Fe b r u a r y 2 0 1 0 islands . c om 73