Caribbean Beat Magazine

The Marley Tour

Philip Sander visits two key stops on the Bob Marley Kingston pilgrimage

  • Bob Marley at Crystal Palace. London. 5-1980. Photograph by davidcorio.com
  • The Bob Marley Museum at 56 Hope Road. Photograph by davidcorio.com

For serious fans of Bob Marley, the map of Kingston is full of sacred stations. Marley pilgrims here to commemorate the man’s extraordinary life and even more extraordinary music, in his 60th-anniversary year, could spend days or even weeks following the trail of the legend round the city where reggae was born in the heady days of the late 1960s.

There’s the site in Greenwich Park Road where Marley set up his Wail ‘N’ Soul ’M record shop in 1967; “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One on Brentford Road, where the Wailers made some of their key early recordings, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio. There’s Strawberry Hill, Chris Blackwell’s former residence in the mountains near Irish Town — now an exceedingly posh resort — where Marley hid out after the infamous attempt on his life in December 1976. There’s the National Stadium, location of the great One Love Concert for Peace in 1978, and the nearby National Arena, where Marley’s funeral service was held in 1981.

But two places in Kingston preserve the spirit of Bob Marley more lovingly than any others: the tenement building on First Street in Trench Town, where his musical career truly began, and his house at 56 Hope Road, perhaps the single most famous address in Caribbean musical history.

“I remember when we used to sit / In the government yard in Trench Town”, starts one of Marley’s best-loved songs. Just north-west of downtown Kingston, the narrow streets of Trench Town were laid out in the early 1950s. Before that, the area was the location of Kingston’s main refuse dump, the “Dungle”, surrounded by squatter camps. When Hurricane Charlie destroyed these squalid dwellings in 1951, the Jamaican government stepped in to construct the Trench Town housing scheme, consisting of one- or two-storey buildings, each housing several families, built around central courtyards with communal kitchens. The neighbourhood was, and remains, one of the poorest in Kingston, but it was also an important centre of Rastafarianism and home to many young men and women who would go on to revolutionise Jamaican music.

In 1957, Marley’s mother Cedella Booker moved into one of the tenement buildings on Second Street near Trench Town’s southern end. A few years before, she had left the village of Nine Miles in St Ann, where she grew up, for what she hoped were the greater opportunities of the capital city, and soon she had brought her son to join her in Kingston. These were difficult, tumultuous times for the young man as for his nation, then struggling towards independence. Marley moved from school to school, hung out with his friend “Bunny” Livingstone, attended sound system dances, was exposed to Rastafarian teachings. In 1960 he started attending the informal music classes organised by Joe Higgs on Third Street. Higgs encouraged Marley to sing, to “strengthen his voice”, and introduced him to Peter Tosh.

Marley also met Vincent “Tartar” Ford, who ran an unofficial cook-shop out of the kitchen in his yard on First Street. When Marley decided to devote himself to mastering the guitar, Ford sat up at night keeping him company, turning the pages in his book of chords. Then in 1962 Cedella Booker decided to move to the United States. Her son stayed behind, waiting for her to save enough money to send for him. But as a single young man, Marley didn’t qualify for his mother’s tiny tenement quarters; he was forced to leave Second Street and was homeless until Vincent Ford rescued him. Ford’s yard on First Street didn’t have a free room, but he let Marley sleep in a corner of the communal kitchen. In the courtyard Marley and his friends would practise their music, learning harmonies, and developing a reputation in the neighbourhood for their vocal skill. George Headley Robinson, a fisherman who lived nearby, would build up brushwood fires to light the proceedings, and try to instruct Marley in the doctrines of Rastafarianism. (Years later, he would be immortalised in No Woman, No Cry: “And then Georgie would make the fire light . . .”). Neighbours would gather to listen to the music. It was then and there, you could say, that the sound that was to change the world’s notion of music first came into being.

Forty years later, these buildings on First Street, still shaded at the front by an old mango tree, have been restored and renamed the Trench Town Culture Yard, a simple museum of the early days of both Bob Marley and reggae, but also a community centre for the people of the area. The Culture Yard is still not frequented by many tourists, or even Jamaicans, because of Trench Town’s ongoing reputation for violence. But the Jamaica Tourist Board can help arrange a visit, even organising an escort to direct you there through the labyrinthine streets of West Kingston.

Once at the building on First Street, and having paid the modest entrance fee, visitors are handed over to a guide, usually someone from the neighbourhood, perhaps even someone who will remember Marley from the days when this was his home turf. It’s sobering to step into one of the little apartments and realise that in this space, barely 12 feet square, an entire family was expected to live.

Your guide will proudly point out various Marley relics: one of the guitars on which he first learned to play, and the old chair, its back long broken off, where he would sit; his bible; the bed where he — and, later, he and his wife Rita — would sleep, in the kitchen to the back of the yard; and the old, rusting Volkswagen minibus the Wailers used to tour around Jamaica. A small, flourishing herb garden brings to mind the lengthy “reasoning” sessions that must have unfolded here. Though the yard is not far from the busy Spanish Town Road, an impressive stillness hangs over the gravelled courtyard.

The house at 56 Hope Road — today known as the Bob Marley Museum — is three miles from Trench Town, as the crow flies, but several worlds away, in a neighbourhood of restaurants and relatively upscale shops, just round the corner from King’s House, the governor-general’s residence. The Bob Marley Foundation is headquartered here, and something of the atmosphere of the 1970s — when a constantly changing group of Rastas, musicians, international journalists, groupies, and record executives assembled here — still survives.

The house itself was once the property of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, but in 1974 Blackwell signed it over to Marley, as part of a renegotiated contract between the two. Marley kept other houses elsewhere in Kingston, but 56 Hope Road from that point on was undisputedly his main address. Eventually he built the Tuff Gong recording studio in one of the outbuildings, along with a small record shop. He played football in the grounds, and held court with friends and admirers on the front steps. It was here, in 1976, that he narrowly escaped assassination.

The museum maintained here today by the Marley Foundation is a mix of the high-tech — one of the downstairs rooms features a life-size hologram of Bob in concert — and the modest — in the upstairs kitchen you’ll be shown the blender he used to prepare his favourite carrot and beetroot juice. In the downstairs kitchen, the bullet-holes from that night in 1976 still pock the walls. The J$500 admission fee includes a fully guided tour and the screening of a short but exciting film in a mini-cinema behind the house, and the semi-outdoors Queen of Sheba restaurant under the trees next to the house serves decent ital food.

The staff here are clearly accustomed to fans overcome by emotion. After explaining the significance of each room and the objects it contains — Marley’s favourite denim jacket, another guitar, the dresses worn by the I-Threes (his backup singers) in performance — my guide would quietly back away, whispering that I should spend as much time with each relic as I liked. Marley’s bedroom looks much as it must have when he slept in it — the guide said the bedspread was the only thing that had changed. Another room is lined with clippings from the international press — interviews, concert and album reviews.

The shady yard outside, again disclosing a small but well-tended herb garden, and watched over by a polychrome statue of Marley, is still a place where admirers and disciples, young and old, most wearing dreadlocks, meet to reminisce, smoke, “reason”. It’s easy to imagine Bob Marley, had cancer not taken his life nearly a quarter century ago, still hanging out with them, talking about the old days in Trench Town, reaching for his guitar.