I was 17 when I first went to Jamaica and heard music so exotic that I was catapulted into another world. On the stage of an outdoors nightclub, 17 different musicians played 17 different beats. Though the mix was thrillingly novel, there was much that was familiar in the notes that danced through the night. The rhythmic pounding of goat skin drums; an African sound like that that often floated in over the jungle trees to my island home in Nassau; the syncopated hip-swinging beat of calypso; the driving rhythm of rock-and-roll; a hint of Cuba in the guitars; but then, glaringly unfamiliar, a loud blare of jazz in the wild cacophony of brass instruments. And even, to top it off, a wild staccato piping that mimicked the singing tree frogs in the nighttime Jamaican rain forests.
This was 1967.
And this was ska, a kind of basic yet oddly sophisticated street music newly spawned in the gritty streets of Kingston. Unlike the crotch-grinding dub style of dancing, ska moved you away from your partner, but made your feet pump like crankshafts, and your arms pump like pistons. Ska was wildly contagious; Bob Marley was one of those who caught it, and morphed ska and mento, a soulful, slower precursor, into the sound we now know as reggae.
Reggae is indisputably the heartbeat of Jamaica, marrying soul and syncopation in a way that is truly unique. Jamaicans say the word means, “comin’ from de people.” And it does. It sings directly to your heart, telling stories of pain and suffering, love and redemption, all the while pounding rhythm throughout your body. It is the musical cry of a nation of poor who yearned for truth and rights, a wail for an identity and affirmation that everyone hopes for even in a life of pain. Reggae may be Jamaica’s heartbeat, but it sings to the whole wide world.
Bob Marley is venerated to almost god-like status in Jamaica. You can visit his house on Hope Road in Kingston where memorabilia and history abound, and the Legend Café will tempt you with a blend of Ital (Rasta vegetarian food) and Jamaican cuisine. Or, if you feel like being adventurous, you can hire a local guide in Little Bay, just south of Negril, to take you to Marley's beach house.
For those of you who love a festival, there is always the Reggae Sumfest, in 2015 from July 12 to the 18. From rap to dancehall to straight-up reggae, from beach parties to concerts, you can dance away your days and nights. Drink the local Red Stripe Beer by day, Appleton rum by night, and my personal favorite drink, a Dark and Stormy, a mix of local ginger beer with Appleton Rum. You might even be lucky enough to hear Tessanne Chin, a Jamaican reggae singer who won The Voice in 2013. Once a back-up singer for the haunting Jimmy Cliff, she is now a powerhouse in her own right.
In recent years, a few new sounds permeate the nightclubs and streets of Jamaica: dancehall, which is a blend of reggae and rap; and soca, imported from Trinidad, a fast-paced blend of calypso and rock.
But whatever new thing is happening in musical Jamaica, you cannot help but hear it wherever you go, be it blasting out of a passing car, emanating from a roadside food shack, shaking a community center at a village basement, or booming in a high-end disco in Montego Bay, the music is bound to be lively, compelling, and a daily part of life in Jamaica.
But that very first night I heard ska, I cared nothing for history. I only knew that I had to jump to my feet and pump my arms, and high-step my feet, while plumes of bamboo danced in the wind above and the far off lights of Kingston glittered like a crystal necklace along the moonstruck Caribbean.