Jamaica, December 2009
A whole bunch of my JA photo’s are here: Jamaica, 2009 Photos.
After surviving the last couple weeks of the semester at Berklee during which time I played many gigs, give lots of extra help sessions, administered exams and did three KILLER performances with the Marley ensemble……I’m in Jamaica! Arrived two days ago in MoBay and arranged a ride with our driver Steve Riviere straight to Treasure Beach for 3 days of much needed R&R before heading to the hard streets of Kingston. (More on Steve below)
Arrived at Treasure Beach after dark and BEAT BEAT as hell. Waking up the next day to 85-95 degree sun, breeze….like you read about. Beautiful. Didn’t like the place we had booked to stay and just threw our hands up in the air and paid for a couple of nights at Jakes Island Outpost!! WOW, this place is truly amazing. Just check out the site.
Here’s a couple of video’s and pictures. Off to the days adventures in relaxation.
Our last night in Treasure Beach took us to a happening at a new hotel called Tiano Cove. It was a dance, live performance, fundraiser, arts and crafts sale, dinner all wrapped into one. The host for the evening is the well known scholar and story teller Amina Blackwell Meeks. She was AMAZING….really had full control of the small crowd and was quite funny at times in her MC delivery but also quite knowledgeable of Jamaican history as she would inject bits of Jamaican folk lore, history (of Marcus Garvey and the Maroons) and bigging up local artists. Also on hand were the Acompong Maroons drum and dance ensemble. The Maroons are a group of Africans who were never enslaved, basically escaped from the slave ships and hid out in the mountainous areas. (There’s a lot more to this story….) With my knowledge of this very significant part of Jamaican history, I knew that this was a rare opportunity to witness a deep part of Jamaican culture.
We departed Treasure Beach the next morning via hired taxi heading to Mandeville where we picked up a public bus to Kingston. Our driver to Mandeville was a man named Garnett Staple. Turns out he works in Boston 9 months a year as a foreman on a landscaping crew!! He is a fortunate Jamaican who has a sponsorship from a Boston business man (they met some years ago when Garnett became the business man’s driver while he was on vacation in JA,) who pays him well to help run his business then Garnett spends the rest of the year in Treasure Beach driving his taxi and spending time with his family. He is quite proud that he is able to take care of his family so well. We had a great discussion with him and explored many realities of Jamaican life:
As we drove through a town named Nain we saw the massive aluminum factory and we were told that it had been shut down for a year due to the recession….a massive loss for the regional economy. Some people have found bits of work on local road crews doing clean up work to get by.
I asked him what Bob Marley’s music means to Jamaicans today and his quick reply was that Marley was and is still responsible for a lot of tourist traffic to Jamaica and this is the best thing. No talk of the deeper meaning of his music and the Jamaican struggles at the time and what the state of such struggles is today.
We were following a garbage truck…..and thought it was peculiar that it was running on a Sunday morning. Could very well be transporting drugs and/or guns Garnett said, one way in which some make a lot of money. We asked him what are the professions on the island that pay reasonably well and are honest. He said that firemen do well, many who are connected to tourism, and farmers, but only those who are farming crops that have not been replaced by imported crops like cabbage and tomatoes. He said that the current minister of Agraculture is working hard to help farmers to regain their market that has become largely devastated by the terms of the loans that JA has taken from the WTO and significant changes for the better are taking place. (At least this is what I assume he was talking about: see the movie LIFE and DEBT.) There are more and more “Made in Jamaica” labels and stickers on locally produced products. This change for the better in agricultural policy was confirmed by some conversations I had in Kingston. Great!
Police, an honest living? They don’t get paid that well but some are well off due to corruption that could be from taking bribes, selling seized drugs and who knows what else. In the end it’s nearly impossible to make any huge judgements about Jamaican society on this. Is it more corrupt than many other? Who can really say.
So we finally arrived in Mandeville and were the first on a bus to Kingston. The busses only depart after they fill up so if you’re the first on, you may have a long wait. Fortunately we didn’t and left shortly on a PACKED PACKED PACKED bus. Made it to Kingston in about 2 hours, getting bounced around a lot, but not a bad ride in general.
Arrival in Kingston is a reality check. We were dropped off on a street corner in western Kingston….thought we would be dropped a the bus terminus, but no. So there we are two tourists with giant back packs in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Kingston. After a minute we walked down to the waterfront where we met our gracious host and amazing percussionist Maroghini.
The streets of western Kingston, where the ghetto life is, is shocking: just a mass of people and corrugated tin, torn down concrete, people everywhere, shops selling anything you can think of and streets covered with garbage. There is garbage pick up, happening around 3am, but it’s more a problem of civic pride, or lack thereof, according to our host Maroghini. People just throw their empty coke bottles in the street, out the windows of cars anytime, anywhere, much the same as I’ve experienced in other ‘developing’ (god I hate that term, as well as the term ‘third world’!!) countries.
Busy day in Kingston. The thing about any kind of doings in a city like this, is that you may start your day with a plan, but it’s quite rare that your plan will actually come to fruition the way you envisioned. For some this may be completely frustrating. I love it, despite it being so frustrating at times. Your experience, whether it will be a great one or a shitty one, boils down your flexibility and how you want to interpret happenings. They say there’s no such thing as a wrong note…it all depends on what you play after the supposed wrong note.
So, we started with a plan to go to the Marley Museum, then to come back and go to check out some of Maroghini’s land nearby, then to perhaps go surfing, then to go to Chinna Smith’s yard to jam. What happened was we went to the Edna Manley College for Performing arts. Great college level school with great facilities. Sarah had to do some important emailing and while we waited I was introduced to the President of the College, Burchell Duhaney, and discussed the possibility of building a connection between the two schools, something that I’ve been pushing for about 3 years now. Some day, I KNOW that connection will be made. While we waited for Sarah, Maroghini and I went to get some take out food for lunch and hopped in his incredible VW microbus….circa 1968 (for real!!!) and drove around the corner to Crossroads….a WICKED crazed intersection in Kingston, stopped at a restaurant, but the line was way too long so we bagged that and slugged our way back to the school through the crazy traffic all in 95 degree sun. No food, but we hungry. We picked up Sarah, then on the way to Marley Museum we dropped into the ___________________ studio and who’s sitting in the court yard but Bungo Herman (pretty much a celebrity in terms of reggae percussion….he’s played and recorded with them all, from Marley to the latest artists.) and Sly Dunbar, drummie from the heaviest of the heavy drum /bass duo of Sly and Robbie. Cool character was he. I complimented him on all of his work from the Peter Tosh years up to now and gave him big big ups for his work a few years ago on an album called “Memories of Barber Mack” (or it might be “Below the Bass Line”) with Ernest Ranglin. One of my favorite albums of all time, acoustic instrumental reggae-jazz. I’ve had dreams about playing with Ernest and Sly……hmmmm, maybe it could happen! Next Bungo comes out of the studio and says, “you want to meet Toots” (you know, Toots and the Maytals.) Uuuuu, yea. So, we met TOOTS for a grand total of about 10 minutes, but wow, a legend. Super energetic. He insisted on doing the Jamaican hand shake where you touch fists together but without actually touching and yelling, “WIRELESS!!!!!!”
Bungo hopped in Maroghini’s van and we headed over to the Marley Museum. It’s 56 Hope Road, Marley’s home. We got there too late for the last tour and we were starving so we sat down at the Legend restaurant and ate some great soup and sandwiches and got to a big reasoning session with Bungo. I asked him for a story of 56 Hope road in Marley’s day and the first thing he said was that there was no barrier, no wall. Anyone could walk in at any time. There were tons of hanger’s on everywhere, many times just total cacophony. Probably wasn’t the best idea for someone so internationally famous, and certainly contributed to the relative ease with which the gun men were able to nearly kill Marley back in 1978.
Then I took a walk around Bob’s house. I’ve been there 3 times before, done the tour, seen it all and even with some privileged access in the past, but to set foot on the grounds where so much of what has inspired me took place, sends shivers up and down my spine. It’s hard to put into words. Marley’s music and life just taps into something completely PRIMAL in me. It’s a combination of true rebeliousness, tenderness, intense longing for something that’s lost in us all.
We piled into the Microbus and headed towards Half Way Tree to drop Bungo off, but got sidetracked at Devon House for some WICKED ice cream where we ran in to the guitarist Chalice. After the treat, we left Bungo to the dense Kingston night and headed over to Chinna Smith’s yard.
Chinna was Marley’s rhythm guitar player towards the end of Marley’s time and I had the pleasure establishing a friendship with him on a previous trip. Chinna lives in a small place near Half Way Tree. You walk through his driveway, with a virtual jungle in his front yard and the smell of copious amounts of chalice smoke permeating your nostrils as you reach the porch. It’s a dimly lit space with a drumset, an old upright piano, Chinna’s fish tank (his biggest fish had died), an assortment of binghi drums. The back wall is covered with posters documenting Chinna’s worldliness and interests: images of Haile Selasie, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Marley, the Melody Makers, Martin Luther King and so much more. There are 5-6 Dreads hanging around and Chinna is sitting on a stool hunched over his classical guitar jamming with the drummie, singer and binghi drummers. I greet him and he jumps up with a smile. Introductions are made and before you know it he points to the piano. I sit down and the musical communication begins.
Here’s a night-time video of the jam that took place at Chinna Smith’s house in Halfway Tree. I imagine that jamming inna de yard (at Chinna’s) is about as close as it really was in Marley’s scene….jamming for hours on end…… Here we are making up some stuff off the cuff. Later we jammed one of my tunes, one of Chinna’s, then we played Song for My Father and after that I was showing Chinna the diminished scale and some dimished licks that he mix-up inna blender!
DANCE HALL AND ROOTS SCENE
I’d say the Jamaican music scene can be roughly split into two streams: the Dance Hall and the Roots/Lovers. Back in the early days of reggae (late 60s’) this music organically grew out of the very jazz influenced ska era and what came first is music in the style of Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Buring Spear, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, The Wailers and so many other seminal groups. This is ROOTS, the music I love. It’s punctuated by incredibly melodic bass lines, well crafted verses, choruses and even bridge sections, super melodic lead lines with near orchestral layering of parts including awesome harmony vocals, inner guitar, organ, clavinet and synth lines and very tasty horn arranging. The message coming through the lyrics were sometimes ballistic assaults against oppressive socio-economic forces that revealed the deep awareness and intelligence amongst the people of Jamaica. Other tunes were straight up love songs of all levels from the simple to the sublime. Some of the music was stripped down to an absolute primal core but retained a certain elegance that was able to reveal universal truths in its simplicity.
Here’s a brief video of one of the most popular “roots/lovers” artist of the day, Tarrus Riley…Killer! He did a free show at National Hero’s Park and it was RAINING like crazy, (very rare for this time of year.) That’s Dean Fraiser on alto, leading the killer back band, the identity of which I didn’t find out.
Back in the day a split took place away from the Roots style and the “Dance Hall” universe was born.
There have been volumes written about the Jamaican Dance Hall cultural phenomenon and for this trip I made it a priority to get out and experience it, full watts! I will preface this blog entry by saying that I’ve never been drawn to modern Dance Hall artists and movement so my thoughts and feelings do spring from a certain level of lack of understanding that was certainly deepened on this trip. With this in mind, here’s what I think:
Kingston, 12/23/09. We went to bed at about 10pm for a 2 hour nap then woke up at about midnight, rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and hopped in Maroghini’s van and headed for one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in western Kingston, the border between Dunham Town and Tivoli Gardens. It’s here that one of Kingston’s biggest street dances takes place every Wednesday night from about 1am till the sun comes up. A huge sound system is set up, I mean HUGE. There are two speaker stacks that consist of about 12, fifteen inch speakers stacked 12 high (way over my head) and are wired to probably about 2000 (?) watts of power amplifiers connected to a DJ station with a double CD spinner. I’m not exaggerating one bit when I say that Maroghini’s van was rattling like crazy when the vibes from the speakers hit.
The DJ selects tunes to spin but equally important is his role to get on a microphone and talk up the crowd….or scream up the crowd is more like it. It’s not so much about playing one killer tune after another with a likkle commentary in between. The DJ brings new life to the track by providing commentary every 15-30 seconds (that’s right, seconds). The Jamaicans speak two forms of patois, one is basically English with and accent and with some Jamaican slang thrown in. Then there’s the real patois that is nearly a completely different language that I can barely understand. The Dance hall DJ’s, as you can imagine, speak in full patois, but to the outsider, it really it feels like an assault of screaming. The music is HARD HARD one chord, and even just ONE NOTE patterns embedded in a screaming electronically produced drum beat perhaps with a little repetitive synth line, maybe some quasi singing (sometimes they are called a “sing J” as opposed to a “DJ”). The messages speak sometimes of politics but often are quite ‘slack’ in nature, that is, sexist, very risqué, always trying to deliver the most shock value and egging on especially the women (dance hall queens), so very scantily clad and showing off some amazingly powerful feminine forms, to shake it harder and faster. The dancing: you might just as well be witnessing a pornographic bang scene that sometimes can get down to pure skin. The preferred drink is a particular brand of Jamaican rum that’s called “overproof” and if you spill a stream of it on the ground and drop a match, it lights up like a flame thrower. More fiya!! Some may find themselves asking the question: is it a celebration of culture or some kind of an abuse? I can’t answer that question except to say that perhaps it’s BOTH. Part of it feels cheap and after a while it simply hurts…..and I LOVE LOUD as hell bass lines and constantly get yelled at by fellow musicians on the band stand to turn down when I’m performing. Another part of it feels REAL….there is some kind cultural truth being demonstrated.
We held out at Pasa Pasa till about 4:30 am or so but the massive (JA for big crowd) never really showed up perhaps because of the holiday or perhaps because of recent gang tensions on the rise.
A few days later we traveled to a small and beautiful town in the Western side of the island, Roaring River, for Christmas Eve where we stayed with friends. Starting at about noon on Christmas day a giant sound system was set up….three stacks of massive speakers and mega watts of sound. The video is distorted because the little mic’s on my video camera couldn’t take the volume and the ramped up low end. I had ear plugs in when shooting. This was a big event in the village. The women spent literally 2 days putting together their hair and outfits and the men made sure they had their best jeans, shirt, hat and cologne on. Then as the night wore on the crowd of about 100 – 200 local people showed up….a country version of Pasa Pasa. With overproof rum running the sexy dance hall queens arrived, some dressed a lot more scantily than others, but pretty much all were ready to shake it and connect it to a man’s crotch.
Here’s a slow walk through Roaring River….no matter how far out in the bush you may be, there will be a sound system and probably a domino’s game!
Here’s the scene in Savanna La Mar Christmas Eve. It’s shopping to the max til late, late and EVERYONE’s out. Sound systems everywhere.
GROUND TRANSPORTATION AND GREAT VIBES
I’d like to make very special note to my friend and tour bus owner Mr. Steve Riviere. Steve is an American who fell in love with the Jamaican way of life many many years ago and followed his passion by making the island his home. I met him three trips ago upon recommendation by a friend and colleague in Boston and I always employ his services. Steve owns a large passenger bus (capacity of roughly 20) and makes his living between farming and running tours and transporting tourists in the Montego Bay / Negril / Ocho Rios areas. If you talk to him on the phone you would never believe he’s from the US as his patois and Jamaican accent are a complete and honest part of his personality. Steve is a caring soul with serious street credibility. He knows the entire island inside out and backwards. He knows Jamaican culture, the politics, the music, where to go and where not to go. His bus is VERY clean and his driving skills are seriously impressive……and to drive Jamaican roads they better be! If you strike up a conversation with him you will gather information ranging from where the GOOD music is happening, to the most up to date current events, to local, national and international socio-political commentary, great off the beaten path places to stay and eat, and always a few jokes. If you’re traveling far, make sure you stop and buy him a coconut water or some fruit. Steve is feeling only too much that Jamaica is loosing its centuries old characheristic as being truly rebelious from the times of the Maroons, to Marley, to NOW. State of music in JA today: “Well, it’s a couple of rappers with a beef who shoot to kill, talk all kinda slack but really saying NOTHING…..and all for what…..MONEY!!”
I happen to have a JA cell phone (something I highly recommend that you purchase if you’re going to be around for more than a week and traveling around the island), and even after I no longer was in need of his services, I always would receive random calls from him checking on to make sure I was OK!!
Steve’s company is Tahzan Tours: Sightseeing, Ground Transportation, Translators. You can reach him via email (which he has limited access to): email@example.com The best way to reach him is by phone: 876-362-1441. Check out other reviews on www.tripadvisor.com under the name “Steve Riviere.” Here’s a photo of Steve, myself and Sarah after our 2.5 hour drive from MoBay to Treasure Beach.