Instead of trapping yourself at a north coast resort, where the only Jamaicans are bar staff or security guards and the best music on offer is karaoke, head to Kingston to experience Jamaica at its most authentic. The teeming capital is home to nearly half the island’s inhabitants, and has always been the focal point for Jamaica’s creative industries.
In addition to giving birth to reggae and its computerised cousin dancehall, Kingston is home to the island’s most noteworthy artists, scholars and dramatists, and the culinary arts scene is based here too. For reggae fans, it is certainly Mecca, the music forming a nonstop soundtrack that defines the city’s character, and now experiencing a resurgence that draws in many facets of Jamaican culture.
Kingston, however, has never really been on the tourist map, since most visitors land at the other end of the island in Montego Bay. Personal safety is another factor – although you are unlikely to be in real danger if you keep your wits about you, treat people with respect, and avoid contraband – and with most hotels aimed at business travellers, Kingston has until recently been prohibitively expensive, too. Thankfully, Airbnb and Couchsurfing are opening up the city to the independent traveller in unprecedented ways. Rather than paying top dollar for a sub-standard hotel in the New Kingston business district, where crackheads and prostitutes roam the streets at night, visitors can now stay in homely dwellings with welcoming hosts, some of whom are active in the arts. Kingston can be daunting for the uninitiated and having a local host can make all the difference.
From the moment of arrival, the varied facets of Kingston’s character become apparent. Driving into town from the airport, you are confronted by a mammoth cement plant belching out frightful emissions, and just beyond it, the incongruous Rockfort mineral baths, reputedly with healing properties. A short distance further, you reach Rennock Lodge, where jazz jams at Count Ossie’s Rastafari encampment helped create ska in the 1960s. The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari continue to hold “groundations” there each Sunday, playing spiritual music praising the “Most High”. Then a gigantic electrical generating plant appears, towering over a former fishing village on the edge of Kingston’s terribly polluted harbour. Nothing looks particularly enticing until you reach the more genteel uptown territory of Hope Botanical Gardens. And yet there is surprising beauty in the city, with a stunning mountain backdrop to the east and lush greenery to north and west. Goats grazing at bus stops and cattle wandering on football fields remind you that the countryside is all around, even if the city is a scorching cauldron of clogged traffic, speculative building work and urban idlers.
The divide between rich and poor is striking: the palatial mansions of Beverley Hills and the gated communities of Norbrook and Havendale are but a stone’s throw from the disenfranchised communities of Arnette Gardens and Trench Town, where Bob Marley and the Wailers first sang harmony more than 50 years ago.
But the appeal of Kingston lies in its reggae and when it comes to nightlife, the city is second-to-none. There are now weekly sessions held every night in different locations, often with free entry. Some of the most popular are associated with the “Reggae Revival”, a recent movement that aims to bring Jamaican music back to its traditional core values, with live instrumentation, a Rastafari focus, and an active agenda of social change. Painters, filmmakers and social activists are also associated with the movement, whose vanguard can often be found at the Kingston Dub Club’s Sunday night sessions, held in the yard of a private home in the exclusive Jack’s Hill district.
The club’s remote location and the absence of public transport means that an uptown crowd predominates; in contrast, Inner City Mondays, staged by Afrocentric bookseller I-Nation, is held in Tivoli Gardens, the infamous community that was stormed by security forces in May 2010, resulting in 73 deaths, after the US requested the extradition of neighbourhood kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Inner City Mondays aims to revitalise the community and to remove its stigma of social exclusion, as well as giving a platform to new local talent.
On a Wednesday night, I checked out a session called Dubwise Jamaica, held at the shabby-chic Tiki Hut, a short walk down Hope Road from the Bob Marley Museum. It’s a likeable space with a thatched roof and a wooden interior, its open side areas allowing cool breezes to waft onto the spacious dancefloor. A mostly local crowd was in attendance, with a good gender mix and a few old heads on the periphery, while the JA$300 entrance fee (about €3) kept out the riff-raff.
A bearded young wonder called Yaadcore presided over this weekly session, and he displayed much style and panache on the record decks, dropping hot tracks by rising stars such as Protoje, Micah Shemaiah and Chronixx, some of which have yet to be released. As the night progressed and the dancefloor filled up, a grand entrance was made by guest selector Danny Dread. A veteran of the legendary sound system Volcano Hi-Power, Dread lined up his dub plates and shifted the music backwards in time.
Soon, the stylistically superior rapper Lone Ranger began chatting cool rhymes in time to the rhythms, and the crowd showered the pair with rapturous whoops. Somehow, Dread and Ranger didn’t seem to have aged one iota from their late-1970s heyday; each track sounded better than the last, and much of what was featured is completely exclusive. When the night drew to a close and everyone spilled out onto Hope Road, we all had grins plastered across our faces.
Other noteworthy sessions include Vinyl Thursdays, an all-day marathon in Half Way Tree (staged beside Veggie Meals On Wheels, one of the best ital – vegan Rasta – restaurants in town), the Tuesday Sankofa live sessions held at alternative art space Nanook, and the live music sessions staged each Friday by guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith at his home in St Andrew Park, where rising hopefuls rub shoulders with seasoned veterans. Dancehall fans can hit three different weekly sessions put on by leading sound system Stone Love.
A foreign travel writer once described Kingston as “a city in decline”, and although residents still grapple with a range of social problems, the city is clearly in the grip of an artistic renaissance. Reggae music requires contextual understanding, which is why so many outsiders are baffled by it; spending time in the island’s capital is the best way to get to grips with it, and as the Reggae Revival breathes new life into Kingston’s incredibly rich and varied music scene, there’s never been a better time to be here. You could aim to visit in February, which has been designated Reggae Month, when all kinds of events take place on a daily basis, most of them free. July is another prime time, since the Jamaica Film Festival is held in Kingston then, inevitably featuring work shot in the city. But if reggae is your main bag, then you can travel to Kingston at any time and be guaranteed an amazing experience, since music booms out of every corner of the capital every hour of every day.