Bob Marley Reggae Trail

By | Category: Travel destinations

Retrace the life and career of the Jamaican reggae legend in the island’s gritty capital city of Kingston, where music courses through the streets and Marley’s spirit looms large

At night, Kingston reverberates with slow, ponderous reggae beats. Two massive speakers are set up on opposite ends of a dusty Downtown street. The crowd dances in the space between the two speakers, shuffling, bending their knees, Red Stripe beers in one hand, the air awaft with aromatic ganja smoke. A familiar voice comes from the speakers, singing of life in Kingston’s ghettos, of love, peace and salvation, of social justice. Reggae may have been born right here, in Jamaica’s crime-ridden yet beguiling capital within its struggling Downtown neighbourhoods, yet its most famous standard-bearer transcended his humble beginnings and his dreadlocked visage, his voice and his message have become familiar worldwide, from America to Ethiopia.

When it comes to music, Jamaica punches way above its weight: along with other music genres, it gave the world reggae. Yet among the reggae legends — Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Jimmy Cliff — Bob Marley’s contributions remain disproportionately large, especially given his early death from cancer at the age of 36. Robert Nesta Marley was born in a tiny village in the north of Jamaica, but his creative awakening and growth took place in Kingston’s ghettos, and he is still very much part of Jamaica’s landscape; in some parts of the island he has acquired almost prophet-like status.

This tour retraces the course of Marley’s life, musical creativity and death, mostly in and near Kingston, though the rest of Jamaica, with its beautiful beaches and waterfalls, delicious spicy food, jungle-covered mountains and rich historical heritage, is a wonder to explore as well. February (‘Reggae Month’) is the best time to visit, with numerous shows and exhibitions around the city celebrating Marley’s birthday and his legacy.

Need to know
Kingston is one of the Caribbean’s biggest air hubs. Take taxis to get around town on this two-day trail; rent a car for Nine Mile.

1. Trench Town Culture Yard
The ‘government yard’ that Bob Marley sang about in No Woman, No Cry is his simple former home in the impoverished community of Trench Town in the western part of Downtown Kingston.
Trench Town government yards, consisting of blocks of 10 to 20 rooms centred on a common cooking and washing area, were built in the 1940s by the Central Housing Authority to provide affordable accommodation for city residents, and are credited as the birthplace of reggae, ska and rocksteady.
Bob lived in a ‘U’ block — a spartan two-room dwelling flanked by a long veranda that has been restored and converted into a museum. Some personal effects remain: the infamous single bed, his first guitar, and the burnt-out shell of his Volkswagen camper van.
Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford, who lived in the same block, taught Marley to play guitar; the Wailers were formed here, and it is here that they composed their first album, Catch a Fire. It’s safe to walk around Trench Town with neighbourhood guides, but not on your own, due to high rates of gang-related crime.
Tel +876 859 6741; 6-10 Lower Firs Street; 9am-6pm

2. Tuff Gong International Recording Studios
Originally based at Orange Street Downtown, Tuff Gong International Recording Studios was founded by Bob Marley in 1965. Bob’s nickname was ‘the Gong’ and you had to be ‘tuff’ to make it in the Jamaican music business.
The studio moved twice: to Bob Marley’s Uptown home, and finally to 220 Marcus Garvey Drive, where it remains one of the largest recording studios in the Caribbean, run by Marley’s son, Ziggy. The original mixing board, used in Marley hits such as No Woman, No Cry, Trenchtown Rock, Redemption Song, Buffalo Soldier and Could You Be Loved, has made it to its current location.
Call ahead (there are no set opening hours) for a 45-minute tour of the studio, including the mastering room, stamper room, pressing plant, cassette plant and wholesale record shop.; tel +876 923 9380; 220 Marcus Garvey Drive

3. Cane River Falls
When not composing or recording at Tuff Gong Studios, Marley liked to unwind. He played football, and occasionally he and his bandmates would pile into his camper van and escape the city. About 14km east of Kingston, there’s a tranquil spot with some modest waterfalls that was allegedly Bob’s favourite place to wash his dreadlocks. To get fit before going on tour, Marley would take The Wailers jogging to the falls and along the sand at nearby Bull Bay Beach.
Catch bus 97 or 97X to Bull Bay from Kingston and walk to the falls, or hire a taxi to take you there and back.

4. Bob Marley Museum
As Bob Marley’s fame as an international musician grew, he moved to Uptown Kingston in 1975 and settled at this creaky 19th century house at 56 Hope Road with his wife Rita. Marley’s home until his death in 1981, it was converted into a museum by his wife six years after his death to preserve his legacy and accomplishments, and remains a shrine to fans. Access to the house itself is by guided tour; displays include a life-size, 3D hologram of Bob from the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, as well as various personal effects, awards such as the Order of Merit presented by the Jamaican government, and his Rastafarian cloaks.
One room is wallpapered with newspaper clippings of his achievements, whereas another replicates Bob’s original record shop, Wail’n’Soul’m. Preserved as it had been when he was alive, Bob’s simple bedroom is surprisingly humble, with his favourite star-shaped guitar resting by his bed, while the kitchen where he used to cook vegetarian I-tal food still sports bullet holes from the 1976 assassination attempt.
Unknown gunmen struck two days before Bob was due to perform at a Smile Jamaica concert organised by Prime Minister Michael Manley to ease political tensions; Marley and his wife were both wounded.
The tour closes with a 20-minute film of Bob’s life and there are some excellent photos of Bob at the adjoining exhibition hall, which used to be the Tuff Gong recording studios. Marley’s sons occasionally come to record at the other recording studio inside the house.; tel +876 927 9152; 56 Hope Rd; 9.30am-4pm Mon-Sat

5. Bob Marley Statue
Created by Jamaican sculptor Alvin Marriott, who’d previously immortalised Jamaica’s other famous sons (Marcus Garvey, Norman Manley, Alexander Bustamante), Marley’s life-size likeness in bronze stands in Celebrity Park outside the National Stadium, where Bob came sometimes to support Jamaica’s national football team, the Reggae Boyz.
In 1978, during the height of political tensions in Jamaica, Marley and The Wailers played their One Love Peace Concert at this stadium. Marley famously took the opportunity during a rendition of ‘Jammin’’ to make Michael Manley and Edward Seaga — the leaders of the two opposing political parties — shake hands onstage.

6. Nine Mile
The tiny village of Nine Mile, about a two-hour drive from Kingston, sits amid the dramatic hilly scenery of Cockpit Country in the St Ann province. In spite of its relatively isolated location, it is regularly visited by fans looking to pay their respects to Bob’s place of birth and final entombment.
It’s interesting to glimpse the interior of the simple two-room cottage where Bob lived until he was 13 and his mother took him to Kingston following his father’s death. Bob is seeing out eternity at the adjacent marble mausoleum with stained glass windows, alongside his mother Cedella Booker and half-brother Anthony. The compound is easily recognisable by the Rastafarian flags flying from the wall surrounding the mausoleum and cottage.
The relentless commercialisation can be a little off-putting, but for Marley fans it’s worth coming to pay your respects and see the humble circumstances from which he came. Entry is by brisk guided tour and zealous guides expect generous tips on top of the entrance fee for pointing out such Marley memorabilia as his ‘rock pillow’, alluded to in the song ‘Talkin’ Blues’.
Tel +876 999 7003; 9am-4.30pm

By Anna Kaminski

Where to Stay

Uptown Kingston’s best hotel is kitted out with iPod docks and locally designed furniture. The rooftop pool and spa provide the relaxation factor and there’s an excellent restaurant onsite.; St Lucia Ave, Kingston; tel +876 926 000

Comprising luxurious bedrooms on a beautiful property drowning in flowers near Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s north coast, this intimate guesthouse is also known for its fusion cuisine. Darryl the Barefoot Cook conjures up three-course feasts incorporating Chinese and Indian influences.; tel +876 994 1367

Where to Eat & Drink

Despite the rough-and-ready surroundings of Downtown Kingston and the plastic tablecloths, this is one of the best places in the capital for classic Jamaican dishes. At lunchtime, lawyers and judges gather here for curried goat and conch.
3 Orange St; 9am-7pm Mon-Sat

This no-nonsense branch of the famous Montego Bay jerk centre sits next to a gas station in Ocho Rios, tantalising passing motorists with its pork, chicken and sausage, smoked over pimento wood.
Jack’s Hall Fair Ground; tel +876 794 9457

Taking place near Montego Bay for several days mid-July, this is Jamaica’s biggest gig. Numerous reggae legends play until dawn. Bob Marley’s youngest son, Damien ‘Jr Gong’ Marley, and UB40 have both played here.

Named after reggae legend Tony Rebel, Jamaica’s largest Roots Reggae concert takes over Richmond Estate in St Ann’s Bay every January. Past performers have included The Abyssinians and Beres Hammond.

Reproduced with permission from Culture Trails, © 2017 Lonely Planet

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