Few would argue with the idea that the main contribution that Jamaica has made to international culture is its reggae music and the man who did most to bring that to the world’s attention was Bob Marley. So it’s perhaps not surprising that he has achieved cult status on the island.
I don’t think a day of our stay passed without hearing the strains of ‘One Love, ‘Stir it up’ or another of his hits. And today when I hear his music I am instantly transported back to Jamaica.
There are two must-see sights for Bob Marley fans, or anyone interested in the culture of the island and its music.
The Bob Marley Museum, Kingston
I had seen the Bob Marley Museum described as a tourist trap, but after our visit I felt inclined to disagree. OK, it was a very slick operation; but the range of items on display and the unique atmosphere of the house where he once lived (and his sons still record) kept this experience very definitely on the right side of that tacky line.
We were shown around by a very chirpy and obviously well-schooled young girl whose emphatic gestures and apparent devotion to ‘Mrs Rita Marley’ made me smile. The tour started outside where we were shown a wall with paintings of scenes from Marley’s life, his Land Rover, statue etc.
Inside however no photos were allowed. We entered at the back of the house into the rehearsal room. In its wall it is still possible see the bullet holes from a failed assassination attempt.
In the main part of the house, many of the rooms display mementoes of his career. There were gold and platinum discs, awards, newspaper cuttings from around the world, stage outfits and lots of photos.
Upstairs, his bedroom and kitchen remain as they were when he lived there; and there’s an airy covered terrace where his hammock still hangs. Back downstairs we saw the recording studio still used by his sons; indeed, we saw Stephen Marley in the grounds of the house.
The tour ended in a separate movie theatre behind the house. Here we were shown a 20 minute film with footage of the ‘One Love’ concert of 1980; at it Marley brought together rival political party leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, plus a compilation of various interviews. There was an excellent photo gallery, and a gift shop selling t-shirts, books, CDs etc.
I found this tour both interesting (because of the many mementos on display) and fun (mainly because of our young guide). If this is a tourist trap I was happy to be trapped in it for a short while!
Nine Mile is the small village in the hills of St Ann’s Parish where Marley was born and is now buried, following Jamaican tradition of burial in a plot on your own ground rather than a cemetery.
Arriving here we were directed to park in a small walled compound. To our mild amusement there were a number of locals trying to sell us ganja smokes through any crack in the wall!
Up a short flight of steps is the house that belonged to Marley’s maternal grandmother; this is where he was born. Here we bought our tickets for the tour and waited for the obligatory guide in a room filled with memorabilia.
I think we were lucky in the guide allocated to our small party, the amazing Captain Crazy. He had the most extraordinary laugh (at first irritating, later infectious) and kept us entertained throughout the tour.
Marley’s music infused this tour in a way that was perhaps missing on the Kingston one; Captain Crazy sang various lines from time to time, and we were told that a guy playing some of the tunes on a banjo was one of Marley’s cousins (I imagine most people in the village might legitimately make that claim) and had given him his first guitar.
Bob Marley’s childhood home
From the main house we climbed a steep path. It led past his grandparents’ graves to a small house higher up the hill. This is where Marley lived until moving to Kingston with his mother and siblings at the age of 13. Inside are a couple of rooms, including one with the ‘single bed’ immortalised in the lyrics of ‘Is this love?’ where we were encouraged to pose for photos.
Near the house is a cooking area and the rock where Marley used to meditate, both painted in Rasta colours. Beyond these we entered the mausoleum, where no photos are allowed. The large tomb in the centre is surrounded by the various offerings left by visitors; it is lit through a stained-glass window, again in Rasta colours.
Reviews I have read more recently suggest that this tour has been over-commercialised since our visit, which if true is a shame. Marley must be turning in his grave beneath the gaze of visiting fans.
The Marley influence
While the above are the main sites associated with Marley, his music permeates the air of the island. And of course, like any celebrity, there are plenty of people keen to ride on the back of his fame; I spotted a sign for Mama Marley’s bar in Ocho Rios which I suspect has no connection to the artist at all.
We were also treated to a ‘history of reggae’ stage show one evening at our hotel in Negril, complete with a Bob Marley look-alike who I have to say did a very good job of performing all his hits.
Peter Tosh is perhaps not as famous as Bob Marley, but he was an important part of the Jamaican music scene. He was the guitarist in the original Wailers, a reggae musician and a trailblazer for the Rastafari movement. Like Marley he grew up in the infamous Trenchtown area of Kingston. After an illustrious career with the Wailers and later as a solo musician, he was murdered at his home. Though robbery was officially said to be the motivation behind Tosh’s death, many believe that there were ulterior motives to the killing, perhaps linked to his passionate crusade for the legalisation of cannabis. He was also a strong campaigner against South African apartheid.
Driving past some colourfully painted gates on our way to visit the Black River we spotted his name and asked Errol our driver what lay behind them. He replied that this was the entrance to Tosh’s Mausoleum. He wasn’t sure if it was open to the public but proposed that we check it out on our way back, which we duly did.
We were the only visitors. We paid the requested fee of US$5.00 (although I wasn’t sure if this was an official charge or if the guy just made up a number!) and were shown into the stone mausoleum with Tosh’s tomb at its centre. This was similar to Bob Marley’s mausoleum which we had visited at Nine Mile, though unlike Marley’s, here we were allowed to take photos.
Our guide then took us for a short walk in the surrounding garden. He indicated the various plants growing there – herbs such as basil and mint, pimento, and yes, cannabis. He pointed out the house where Tosh had been born and his mother still lives, but explained that although she sometimes welcomed guests, at that time of day (late afternoon) she would be resting.
The overall atmosphere here was very laid-back and peaceful, with the twin Jamaican influences of reggae and ganja very strong. Several local rastas were gathered outside the tomb watching a video of a concert given by one of Tosh’s sons, Andrew; they were happy to tell us a bit about the music (as well as, inevitably, attempting to sell us a ‘smoke).
For music fans wanting to see something more than the main tourist draws associated with Marley I found this a great visit. And I really liked this peaceful spot which seemed to epitomise what Jamaica is all about.
I visited Jamaica in 2008