Wah Gwan in Kingston, Jamaica?
Visiting the Bob Marley Museum and Trench Town Culture Yard
Wah gwan? Or what’s going on? is Patois, the spoken language of Jamaicans and is as common a greeting as hello or whassup? If you’re feeling all right, answer irie, but if everything is really good, you could say every ting criss.
On a recent trip to Kingston when asked Wah gwan? I exuberantly added to my reply a whole heap a tings! Because there was always something to do in this colorful city.
Most people go to Jamaica for the beach resorts of Negril, Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios, but after two days of non-stop sightseeing in the company of warm and welcoming people, Kingston gets my vote for a more interesting place to visit.
Home to jerk cuisine, award-winning rums, a lively theatre and dance scene, and not least, the birthplace of ska, rocksteady, and reggae music, my senses were pleasantly treated to nearly the brink of overload.
For the best authentic Jamaican jerk experience, head to Scotchies. Enjoy jerk chicken, jerk pork, and even jerk fish where the meat is dry-rubbed with local spices and scotch bonnet peppers and then slowly smoked over pimento wood. Order with a side of festivals, a delicious semi-sweet fried dough. Try a locally brewed Dragon Stout for a rich roasted malt flavor.
Expect to place your order at a window with a chalkboard menu and then move along into the waiting line directly in front of the smoker pits. It’s a good opportunity to chat with locals before heading to the dining area lush with floral paths and palapas, those thatch-covered umbrellas usually associated with the beach but instead are offered here as a cool reprieve from Kingston’s hot sun.
Kingston’s most visited attraction is the Bob Marley Museum, the site of Marley’s former home which he purchased from Chris Blackwell in 1975 and lived in until his death in 1981.
Blackwell, an Englishman with Jamaican ancestral roots on his mother’s side, spent much of his childhood in Jamaica. In the 1960’s he began to record popular Jamaican music and then with the creation of Island Records, became the single most person responsible for exposing reggae music to the world. Bob Marley was already recording with other Jamaican labels but teaming up with Blackwell launched him in to the international spotlight.
The museum is uptown in New Kingston at 56 Hope Road and a short taxi ride from the hotel area. While the property and house of the museum haven’t changed much in the last thirty years, the old neighborhood is gone and one enters the property off a busy two lane highway.
Inside the gate, there are brightly painted murals along the garden walls. Directly in front of the house stands a statue of a guitar strapped Marley, eyes closed, finger pointing to the sky, saying one love, one nation, come together –- a personal take on Jamaica’s national motto, “Out of Many, One People”.
Our guide was the renowned, reggae recording artist, Ricky Chaplin, whose enthusiasm during the 90-minute tour never waned. Leaving no stone unturned regarding the stories about the Honorable Robert Nesta Marley O.M., as well as giving attention to the mysteries that continue to surround the legend, Chaplin quickly rattled off personal facts:
Bob Marley was born in Nine Mile, St. Ann Parish in Jamaica on February 6, 1945. His mother’s name is Cedella Booker. His father was a white man named Captain Norval St. Clare Marley who ran a plantation in Cuba. He came to Kingston when he was 54 years old and met Cedella Booker when she was 19 years old. It is believed that Bob never met his father.
When Bob was 11 years old, he moved to Trench Town with his mother. She moved in with Bunny Wailer’s father allowing Bob more time to hang out with courtyard musicians. He met Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford and learned to play a simple box guitar.
Before bringing our small group of six up to the museum house, Chaplin gathers us in the garden. The backdrop is a lengthy cement wall plastered with blown-up pictures depicting Marley in several stages of his life.
In one photograph he is a youthful soccer player; in another, he is smiling as a young family man with his wife Rita and the kids.
Then he is posing with the Wailers for an album insert or at the concert’s end, arms draped around the I Threes. We see him thrashing his natty dreads on stage or rolling ganja on his front step, his smile charming the world. Suddenly Chaplin breaks into song and chills roll down my spine.
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have,
We walk around the yard taking pictures but then relinquish our cameras to the security guard as no photographs are allowed inside the house. We enter and turn left into Marley’s personal recording room. There is an original mixing board and a soundproof booth lined with tapestries.
The room is dark but a tiny light is left on in the booth lending an eerie glow. You can almost see him sitting there, on a three-legged stool, crooning …emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.
Platinum Records on the WallsBack in the hallway, the walls are adorned with framed Gold and Platinum records and we take as much time as the guide will give us to acknowledge the numerous awards bestowed upon Bob Marley in his lifetime (Band of the Year in 1976 by Rolling Stone Magazine, The Peace Meal of The Third World from the United Nations, 1978) and the myriad merits and badges that come after.
And still, they keep coming. (Best International Album and Triple Platinum award for ‘Legend’; 1984, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1994; Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame 2001; and again ‘Legend’ certified 15x multi-Platinum, 2015).
Single file we climb the creaky pine-pitch steps that lead to the second floor, holding onto the banister railings. “Bob used to run up and down these stairs every morning before breakfast”, Chaplin says. “Exercise was very important to him”. On the wall under glass frames are two original denim shirts and his favorite cut offs. A dashiki, a colorful garment widely worn in West Africa and given to Marley by the Ethiopian Church, hangs next to the old faded jeans. It doesn’t seem out of place.
At the top of the stairs is the kitchen and to the right, Marley’s bedroom, but we head to the clippings room, where the walls are covered with press cuttings, photographs, and album covers. You could spend the weekend in this room and still not read everything.
Chaplin tells the story of how Marley opened for the Commodores in 1980 at Madison Square Garden. The Commodores got booed as they took the stage. The crowd began chanting Marley! Marley! The promoters had no choice but to bring him back on. “That one rastamon sure knew how to mash it up”,
bellows Chaplin and for the first time our guide doesn’t have to explain to us this bit of Patois.
Begrudgingly, we have to move on to the next exhibit, a recreation of the Wailers “Wail ‘n’ Soul” record store in Trench Town, but not before we stop and stand in a circle, Chaplin encouraging us to join him in a passionate rendition of One Love.
Bible As He Left It
Outside in the bright sunlight, we walk along a balcony that leads to Marley’s bedroom. A hammock hangs under the eaves in the corner where according to Chaplin, Marley wrote songs. A modest bed is in the middle of the room, his guitar leaning against the frame. On the bedside table a bible lays just as Marley left it, a handful of marijuana on the open pages.
We enter the tiny, simple kitchen. On the counter there is the original blender and a wooden tray of dried herbs and spices. As a follower of Rastafarianism, Marley was a vegetarian. We are told that he did his own cooking and stored his food in a dried calabash or guard. Irish Moss was a type of tea made from seaweed that he drank daily. It is purported to have healing properties and capable of restoring a man’s vitality. As a father of 12 children, is there any question?
The tour ends in an air-conditioned theatre at the back of the house where videos and concert footage are shown. Originally this room was a narrow galley kitchen and rehearsal space but is now notoriously known as the place where an assassination attempt was made on Marley on Dec. 3, 1976.
He escaped with minor wounds in his arm and chest while his wife and manager suffered more serious injuries, although they made full recoveries. The bullet holes are still in the wall.
Before we leave, there is a time for a drink at the One Love Café and to reflect on the man, the musician, the legend. I order a Get Up, Stand Up. It seemed appropriate.
Open Mondays to Saturdays 9:30 am 4:00 pm
Tour Duration – 1 hour 15 minutes including a 20-minute video presentation.
USD $20 per Adult
USD $ 10 per Child 4 to 12 years
As if touring Bob Marley’s house wasn’t enough of an emotional experience for one day, we continued on to the government yards of Trench Town, where not only Bob Marley lived but many other notable musicians before him such as Vincent Ford, Alton Ellis, Joe Higgs, Jimmy and Junior Tucker, The Abyssinians, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, among many others, also lived.
There isn’t really much to see; it’s more of a feeling you get when you enter this tenement block on First Street and hear streaming from the open doors the unmistakable reggae sound of a booming baseline with rhythmic guitar playing on the off-beat.
A certain pungent scent permeates the air. You enter the courtyard and immediately see the blue rusted Volkswagen bus Marley drove and then gave to Vincent Ford.
The tour starts with the history of Trench Town. Originally called Trench Pen, named after Daniel Power Trench, a wealthy Irish immigrant who purchased 400 acres for his livestock back when during colonial rule large areas of family lands were called pens. Jump ahead to 1915 and the area becomes a squatter settlement for the rural poor looking for work in Kingston.
In 1937, 200 acres are subdivided by the government’s Central Housing Authority and by 1940 the first residences are constructed. Tenants are required to pay 12 shillings a month. These residences were called Government Yards and built in U, S, or T shape designs to promote communal living.
Bob Marley moves to Trench Town with his mother in 1956. As she quickly becomes involved with Bunny Wailer’s father and moves up to Second Street, Bob stays behind with Vincent Ford who becomes a sort of father figure. Bob learns to play on ‘Tata’, Vincent’s homemade box guitar.
Together they write “No Woman, No Cry”. It is here in Trench Town that Marley becomes exposed to the variety of music being played out in the 1960s and is influenced by the many musicians surrounding him. He begins to record with the Wailers on Jamaican labels and in 1968 is ultimately signed by Danny Simms, a music publisher and manager to Johnny Nash, to the JoDa record label. From there, Blackwell takes over, launching Bob Marley into worldwide stardom.
Included in the tour is a chance to step inside Vincent Ford’s room. There is a bed, one stool, and a table with an open bible on top. A wooden door by the bed connects to the next room.
Along the sidewalls, painted in black and red, are writings from psalm 68. It reads, “The lord, the lord, is great and faithful. Let them also that hate him, flee before him”. By the bed it says, “Bless This Home Oh God!”and above the doorway in a large scrawl, “Lord, God, Jah”.
Around the corner and beginning the next wall of the courtyard is the small room where Bob Marley slept. The single bed is still there, the one in which David ‘Ziggy’ Marley was conceived. Looking at it, you can’t help but hear,
We’ll be together, with a roof right over our heads,
We’ll share the shelter, of my single bed,
We’ll share the same room, yeah!
For Jah provide the bread.
Is this love, is this love, is this love… Is this love that I’m feelin’?
Trench Town Tour Details
Contact the chief tour guide at the Trench Town Culture Yard, Sophia Dowe at email@example.com or call (876) 859-6741
Opening hours are Monday through Friday, 9am-6pm, Saturday 9am-8pm, and Sunday 10am-6pm.
Upcoming Events 2016
Attractions and Place of Interest in Kingston
Redbones Blues Cafe – Stylish secluded hot spot in the heart of New Kingston. It’s a great place to go for real Jamaican cuisine, live local music, poetry slams, artists and more.
Kingston Craft Market on Ocean Boulevard for all things Jamaican. Local crafts and souvenirs.
Great Place to Stay
The Knutsford Court Hotel (876) 929-1000
Do Yourself A Favor
Hire TMT Tours to take you around by air-conditioned cars or minivans with free WiFi. Ask for Tyrone Moore. He’s simply the best. He’ll take good care of you and get you where you need to go.