Jamaica, land of wood and water, home of my beloved Reggae, and four trips later, it’s still a place that never ceases to amaze. When a text message came a day before last Christmas from Dr. Dennis Howard inviting me to deliver The 26th Annual Bob Marley Lecture at The University of West Indies, MONA campus, I had to do a few double takes. As everyday passed from late December ‘Jamaica, Jamaica’ was on my mind. So much music, so many memories. Each song a unique sound, with immaculate vocals delivered regally. The reason why I had been invited to give the lecture was my new book, ‘Bob Marley and Media Representation and Audiences‘ (Rowman & Littlefield) which was to be released on 15th February 2023, two days before The 26th Annual Bob Marley Lecture. Effectively, this was launching a book about Bob Marley and Media, from Jamaica.
So when the new year arrived I prepared all the relevant documents for my trip with full support form The University of Nicosia. January was a very busy month. An accreditation, my ranking, preparing for the trip and starting a new semester. Stavros from Haratsi, my favorite place for street parties in Nicosia’s old town, also promised to join me for Jamaica. Before you know it we were boarding for Kingston with Wizz Air with a one night stop in Gatwick. I had to keep slapping myself in the face that this was all happening still. I spent the night in the airport at a facility called Yotel, in the tiniest cabin I had ever seen. There isn’t enough room here to swing a cat I thought but before you knew it we was on the plane to Kingston the next day.
Around four movies and a documentary on David Bowie helped pass the time during the nine-hour journey on the packed British Airways flight. During any lengthy flight, this is the only way I can keep myself busy. I rarely slepp on planes.
Landing in Jamaica as always is a revelation. Stavros, who was sitting ahead of me on the flight, got in line for passport control much earlier than I did. The official quizzed him for a receipt for where he was staying . He motioned over. Another official told me to stay in queue. Eventually I was summoned to go to the front. ‘Why are you visiting Jamaica sir and where are you staying’. I was looking in my documents to show the invitation for the lecture at UWI and talking a the same time ‘We are staying with Professor Carolyn Cooper….’the moment I said the name we was both told to proceed. Stavros looked at me relieved and surprised. Carolyn is a legend I told him!
Getting of the airport, we meet put driver Michael. Stavros is visiting Jamaica for the first time. He feels the airport resembles Larnaca in the 1980s. He is very close. It is a bit chaotic on this hot sticky night/ We make out way to Beverly Hills and on reaching I take my first photo…yes Jamaica, we reach.
As some one wisely commented the next morning on my social media post. ‘How can that be Jamaica, it looks like Paphos!’. But sure thing after a night of trying to sleep through jet lag and some barking dogs, we wake up and see this view from Carolyn’s garden.
Stavros, under the impression that it is now summer, sets out in the wee hours of the morning to search for figs. I inform him that koumbare, fig trees are not native to Jamaica. A few words about my traveling companion are in order. I have traveled extensively with many different people on long and short journeys, and no one compares to Stavros in terms of humor, camaraderie, and general chill attitude. We had a truly amazing week together and the thing that amazed me most about my friend was his humbleness and easy going attitude. No bad vibes, just relaxed and some great laughs. Below clear evidence of the youth in pursuit of figs.
I have been to the University of West Indies three times now. The campus is massive, taking in a large expanse of the Mona area of Kingston. Its made up of three former plantations and the University was founded in 1948 as a branch of the University of London, when Jamaica was a British colony. UWI is ranked 1st In Jamaica, 23rd in Latin America and 689 out 14,181 Universities in the World
There are many big trees. The one above on the right is behind the Institute of Caribbean Studies. It’s a tree of wisdom with huge roots that feel like they are reaching out to greet on the earth. We sat under here with Stavros several times talking about Jamaica, Bob Marley, Cyprus and how if Achilleas Demetriades been elected President, our world would have been entirely different. We both remain optimists. Being away from Cyprus that week, after the Presidential elections, felt like a relief. Social media carried on, kounoushmanning, gossiping away, for victors and losers, all with the after thought, particularly the losers, that the election was not over, and if this happened and that happened. Wake up sheep, its a brand new day, whether you like it or not the election is over.
I had a few meetings that first day, linking with my friend Dennis Howard, and Dave Gosse, the Director of The Institute of Caribbean Studies. During the next few days, I fine tune my lecture, which had now evolved into 28 pages. Working better at night, with some mozzie lotion, may be it was also the jet lag. Night still felt like morning to me. Carolyn Cooper, our wonderful host was shocked my lecture would not be live streamed. Besides being the most well known academic at passport control, Carolyn as former head of the department and founder of the annual Bob Marley Lecture, got on the phone immediately. By day two, the lecture was going to be streamed.
Meeting up again with Jahlani Niah was a blessing. It is always a blessing to see my bredren who is also known as Bongo Neufville Niah. We met over two decades ago at a Crossroads Cultural Studies Conference in Tampere, Finland. A Rasta scholar from Jamaica talking about the concept of ‘fya’ in Reggae and a Cypriot Reggae lover linked in the most unlikeliest of places. I always tell Jahlani whenever we meet, I was probably the only person who actually understood the lecture. Jahlani takes us to a Rasta camp in Tavern. Its an amazing experience. I also get to spin a few tunes. Fatta, part of the Rasta collective there, insists I come back Sunday to select at a special session. This really makes my day. It’s great sitting with Rastas and reasoning. Stavros is very happy 🙂
The whole day of the lecture is a bit of a blur for me now. It all went by so fast. In the afternoon I did a rehearsal, everything went really smooth. Laptop worked, microphone, also performed my poem ‘Mihalakis’ as the dub poet meant to open the night dropped out. On the night despite some technical audio and streaming problems – some one changed my laptop settings – the lecture went really well. As the first non-Jamaican academic to give this lecture I felt proud of myself making links between Stuart Hall and Bob Marley, and Jamaica and Cyprus, and sharing some media clips that in my mind have just been taken for granted for far too long. The full lecture is online here,
After the lecture, Jahlani tells me we are going to session. I am elated, having done the lecture but very curious as to where we are going. Seretse Small drives me to the session with Jahlani and Stavros in tow. We head towards Halfway Tree, that crucial hub in Kingston. Seretse is a really interesting musician. I do not at this stage realize who he is but a little later his artistry on the guitar really wows me. We reach a house where a dread greets us and as we walk in its apparent to me that this is the yard of Earl Chinna Smith. Inna De Yard happens every Friday. Do things get any better? Jamaica as stated earlier is full of living surprises. The video captures the vibe. Being there however, was a totally different experience.
We stayed ‘inna de yard’ for a couple of hours. Vinyl played, chants on the mic. Seretse spoke to me about his idea for a PhD. Stavros, smiling as always was most chilled. Leaving the session I felt a sense of destiny, completing a circle in life, as this was always something I wanted to experience. In good time I will reach there again some Friday. That night I went to bed exhausted. It had been a very long day and night. The lecture, the session. It was around 1 am when Stavros and me reasoned about all this. He was excited for the next day as he was off to the beach. I was excited because in 5 hours I had to wake up. My Saturday mission was something I had dreamed of for a life time. Ray offered me his Saturday morning for 3 hours to record my acoustic poetry release. He set up the studio in The Book Keepers Lodge, once of the oldest buildings on the UWI campus. My voice, a bit croaky from the day before. had a different mission today. 12 pieces to be recorded in 3 hours. A guitar and mic, and Ray as my audience and sound engineer.
After the session Dennis picks me up and we then link with H.Patten on the way to downtown, to explore the living history of Beat Street. Dennis has a base there, a cultural gathering place, The Jazz Hut which is run by his father, Jimmy Solo, a wonderful man who used to have jukeboxes back in the day and has spent his entirely life, more or less, in this 1 square mile area of crucial Jamaican cultural heritage. So many photos, so many stories shared. From the sound system Dennis says will be fired up again soon, to his dreams of making this into an air b’n’b with Riddim 1 Radio having its studio here. ‘Next time you reach you’ll be doing radio from this room’ Dennis tells me with a beaming smile. The Jazz Hut is full of history.
Dennis then takes us around the area, Orange Street to North Parade, each corner, a significant milestone. We end up, upstairs in Randy’s Museum. The home of the legendary shop, studio and label. It’s the kind of place I could get lost in for a week just taking in the tunes, equipment and stories. Every selector going to Kingston needs to do this trip.
The streets are full of characteristic signs, doorways and murals in homage to Reggae legends. Prince Buster’s Shop, The Wailers first shop, all of which no longer exist beyond signs and memories. The records are tempting me but I resist a little bit. Dennis shows us former pressing plants, studios, where Dennis Brown used to live (with about another 30 people!) and bars. Today Jamaica only has one pressing plant, from the many that existed in years gone by, and that’s Tuff Gong. Hardly any one presses records. As we talk a mobile sound system blasts tunes from a souped up double cabin 4 four wheel drive ‘diblokambino’ which has been converted into a hearse. ‘People like to have sound system funerals these days’ Dennis says. I am just stunned by the sight of 18inch speakers on the outside of the vehicle, so stunned that I forget to take a photo!
Late afternoon I realize I have not eaten since breakfast. I did this several times during the week. So I grab a Jamaican vegetable meal in a take away and a customer in the queue recognizes me simply saying ‘Yes man, great lecture last night.’ Nice to be remembered for the lecture 🙂 Dennis drops me off back at Beverley Hills, where Stavros is discussing his poetic works with Carolyn Cooper. We exchange stories of our day. Carolyn now calls me ‘Conquering Lion’ referring to the success of the lecture. Jahlani picks us up a couple of hours later. Tonight we are heading for the hills. Jahlani lives at the peak of The Blue Mountain Ridge, some thousand feet up and around 15 kilometers outside town. Its dark, the road is a bit precarious. I am glad I can’t see things as windy hilly roads are not my favourite sight. We reach Jahlani’s place, which is very relaxing and spacious. That night I cannot hear any dogs barking. Just the sound of the building breathing. The structure is an expansive former rum factory, converted into flats. We feel like we are on top of the world. Waking up the next day, we realize we are! It’s Sunday. my last full day and night in JA. We are heading for Bob Marley Beach, then the Rasta Camp later in the day where I will be selecting. Coming down form the hills is a beautiful journey, albeit rough with the curving road taking my breath away on every corner. Jahlani lives an ital life, at one with nature, and I tell him on my next trip, despite these precarious hilly roads, this is where I am staying.
It takes time to get to Bob Marley Beach, in Bull Bay St Andrews. I have visions of Bob in his BMW negotiating these roads. Its a trip he did frequently in Jamaica from Hope Road, taking a regular dip in the sea, Jahlani tells me he does this as much as he can, some times even daily, The road and neighbourhood is being re-developed. Currently the whole area of Bob Marley Beach is under threat of being privatised with the local community being uprooted. Hearing this and seeing it depresses me. Jahlani takes a dip, Stavros goes looking for shells and I explore the arts and crafts from the Rastas. There’s a bit of police presence, all of whom are fully armed. Jahlani introduces me to two dreads who founded Jah Love Sound System, that’s the sound Brigadier Jerry was on. Ilawi one of the bredren tells me about those days. I later find out that he is actually Albert Malawi and the thought of not knowing that when I saw him rocks me, as he is one of my cherished roots singers. As we talk the police join us. It’s a very surreal thing this setting, on Bob’s beach, four dreads, five policeman fully armed, having casual conversation about the state of the world. herb and how Reggae has changed. I wish I video’d it but am sure it would not have worked out. Some things are better left in our memories than on our mobile phones.
Reaching The Rasta Camp in Tavern I am excited to be selecting tunes from 3pm til evening. Not being a Serato DJ, I drive a Traktor, is a strange encounter. Nevertheless this is something very special for me as its the first time I am selecting in Jamaica in a Rasta Camp. People come and go, nod their heads, skank and take in the music. Later, after sun down Ras Takura passes through. We have been poet/friends on Facebook for many years and its great to finally meet. This session is very special for me. Its really the cherry on the cake in a week full of surprises and amazing experiences…Click on here to see a video of me briefly warming up on the mic
Around 9pm Jahlani arranges us a driver back to Beverley Hills. The last night of reasoning with Stavros in our favourite spot in the house is spent reflecting on everything that’s happened. Everything, everywhere, all in sequence, is reasoned. On the last day we do some shopping. I buy a tam/crown from Ras Haile Malekot, a dub poet who’s poems inspire me.
I am packed and ready. You only know you are leaving Jamaica when you go around that big harbour to the airport. The long trek home awaits…Leaving Jamaica is always hard, what an inspirational trip this was in the home of Reggae music…til more time…One Love