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Reggae pilgrimage: Exploring Jamaica’s musical gift to the world

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 13/12/2016 Mark Rogers
Guests have the option to record their own reggae tune in Geejam Studio, which looks out on inspiring views of lush tropical foliage and the blue Caribbean Sea. © Geejam Collection Guests have the option to record their own reggae tune in Geejam Studio, which looks out on inspiring views of lush tropical foliage and the blue Caribbean Sea. “Just can’t live that negative way ... make way for the positive day!"

— Bob Marley

Jamaica and reggae are as intertwined as a drum beat and a bass line. Since the 1960s, when reggae first burst on the scene in Jamaica, its off-beat rhythms have gained worldwide popularity. Reggae grew out of earlier musical forms in Jamaica, such as folksy mento, lively ska and sexy rocksteady. Reggae can range from party music and love songs to stirring socially conscious calls to fight the power, such as the reggae standard Get Up Stand Up.

“In Jamaica, them always have throwback riddims, recycled old beats, and the hardcore reggae scene is always present,” said Damian Marley, Bob Marley’s son, and a musician himself. “You have faster stuff like the more commercialized stuff, but you always have that segment of music that is always from the core, from the original root of it.”

Reggae’s artistic icon is musician Bob Marley, a revered figure around the globe. Travelers are as likely to see his visage on T-shirts in Thailand night bazaars as they are to find them in Caribbean crafts markets. Anyone setting out to explore Jamaica sites associated with reggae will find Bob Marley well represented. What’s encouraging for reggae fans is with Marley celebrated to the max, the island is looking to honor additional musical heroes.

The Peter Tosh Museum opened last November in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. Tosh was famous both as a solo artist and as a singer in The Wailers, sharing the stage with Bob Marley. Tosh had a tougher edge than Marley, and was known for his passionate activist message and his fervent belief in the legalization of marijuana.

“Music is a science, it heals depression, it awakens,” said Tosh. “Music must never be forgotten, it's like a fountain that keeps on flowing.”

Showcasing Tosh’s legacy is long overdue, and the museum exhibits photos and mementos from his life, including his Grammy Award for No Nuclear War as Best Reggae Album, and a guitar shaped like an M-16 rifle.

Visiting the Peter Tosh Museum in Kingston also puts visitors within easy reach of the Bob Marley Museum. The museum announces its reggae roots with red, green and yellow Rasta colors. The museum is in Marley’s actual home for the latter part of his life, until his untimely death in 1981 at the age of 36. The home was also the original site of the Tuff Gong music studio, where tracks were laid down for such classics as No Woman No Cry, Buffalo Soldier and Marley’s masterpiece, Redemption Song. A short film about the musician’s life and various artifacts are interesting enough, but the real reward is the ambience — visitors can easily imagine Marley playing football in the yard with his kids. I’ll never forget the sight of Marley’s coffee mug on the kitchen counter, a simple thing but in a way more real than the gold records on the wall. The museum also still has the bullet holes pocking the structure’s rear wall during a failed 1976 assassination attempt on Marley. Marley's 1977 Series III Land Rover was restored a couple of years ago, and is now part of the museum’s collection. The gift shop sells all sorts of Marley-related doodads; the most arresting was jars of Bob’s Honey, made from a hive of bees dating back to before Marley’s death.

True believers make the trek to Marley’s birthplace, Nine Mile, a small village in the hills overlooking the north shore of the island. Marley was born in these simple surroundings and was also laid to rest here. The easiest way to access Nine Mile is to join one of the reggae-themed bus excursions organized by tour operators like Island Routes Caribbean Adventures. Marley lived in Nine Mile until he was 13 years old. Visitors will see his original two-room home, the bed where he slept, and even a rock pillow he used outside, where he would daydream. Reggae fans pay homage to Marley’s memory at the Rastafarian-style mausoleum. Shoes are left outside the mausoleum, and it’s a tradition for those who wish to light up a spliff in honor of Marley’s legacy.

Some reggae fans might not be content as listeners — maybe they want to lay down their own reggae tracks. They can actually do this at Geejam Collection in Port Antonio on the island’s northeast coast. Geejam comprises a variety of villas and a music studio. Artists such as Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg (rechristened Snoop Lion) have recorded at Geejam. Guests have the option to record their own reggae tune in the studio, which looks out on inspiring views of lush tropical foliage and the blue Caribbean Sea.

Special events centered on reggae can provide a lot of added value to a Jamaica vacation. The biggest is Reggae Sumfest, a five-day music festival and beach party held each July. Two special events held each February include the annual Bob Marley Week in Kingston and the Bob Marley Birthday Bash concert in Montego Bay.

While it can be a thrill visiting Jamaica’s reggae sites and attractions, the truth is, reggae is the background music for almost everything on the island. Riding in a taxi, sitting in a beachside restaurant, dipping into a boutique, even checking into a hotel, travelers are apt to hear reggae pulsing in the background. Jamaica is unique in the way it has melded with music, until both riddim and destination are inseparable.

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