"The first thing you do when you get to Montego Bay," Tony Kelly told me over the phone last Monday, "is get in a cab and tell the taximan to take you to Kingston instead."
Not exactly encouraging advice for me and Inside Scoop, two music junkies taking a 36-hour power vacation to Jamaica, but Kelly oughta know. The Jamaican-born, Davie-dwelling dancehall superproducer has worked with most of Jamaica's finest: Shaggy and Beenie Man and Sean Paul. We had asked about local music, and he was telling us where to find it.
So expectations were low for MoBay, music-wise. No steel-drum band greeted us at Sangster International; a milquetoast mix of pop and R&B spilled out of the cab's radio as we swerved into the emerald hills outside town toward our guesthouse in Ironshore. The sinuous, crumbling road rose up from a lazy, sapphire sea, striped with foaming breakers hugging a distant, butter-colored beach. We curled through an upscale neighborhood carved out of the jungle, clinging haphazardly to slouching hills, and stepped out of the cab and into the glistening white patio of the Dejon guesthouse. A tempting breeze nudged the palms below the deck and rippled the hourglass swimming pool.
Enya all echo-chamber Celtic tree worship wafted over the outdoor stereo.
Scoop and I made it clear to the proprietors that we were fans of reggae, of ska, of Jamaican music. The changer rotated to Native American flute songs. Red Stripes were cracked, and a lively discussion broke out between Orville, our taximan, and Dejon's resident massage therapist, Devon.
"It's not like it used to be, you know," Orville said. "Dancehall music has a much different feeling from the old reggae, and most of it comes from Kingston. A good band plays out at the hotel on the other side of Montego Bay, but I think that's all of it."
"Many of those dancehall guys can't go anywhere because they're banned for their songs," Devon said. He was referring to an incident a year ago in which dancehall star Sizzla was denied entry to the U.K. after activist groups denounced the allegedly homophobic nature of his music. We agreed that reggae and hip-hop had both recently fallen into the same abyss of superficiality.
"There's a radio station that plays all the old roots music on Wednesdays," Orville explained. "For a few hours in the afternoons, it's the real deal."
Later that night, Scoop and I landed on the Hip Strip, a gritty strand of gaudy bars, jerk joints, Rasta shops, and other tourist magnets a safe distance from downtown Montego Bay. We asked about hearing some local music and were directed to Blue Beat, a slick, dimly lit cocktail bar. Inside was an organ trio playing what at first sounded like pediatrician-waiting-room jazz. But with a Red Stripe in hand and a seat close to the band, we quickly deduced that these were actually three ripping players bound and gagged by profoundly crappy instruments. The interplay among them was innate they sat on a cramped stage, under warm spotlights, expressionless and locked into a limber groove. It was hard to recognize the songs they played, but "Pressure Drop" it wasn't.
Nor was the Jamerican soundtrack a stream of reggaefied versions of outdated FM ballads that hovered in the warm, salty air the next evening. An amber sun melted into the darkening, mirror-still waters of the Caribbean and silhouetted the coastal mountains as we sat in the sand at Doctor's Cave Beach, MoBay's greatest waterfront asset. We sipped with a straw from an open coconut and settled into the riddim of... "Timmy T? Can that be Timmy T?" Scoop asked. The early-'90s whitebread dreckmeister's "One More Try" is one of her sentimental faves.
I had to admit I didn't know.
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But that was the sound of our Jamaica lukewarm lovers' rock, taken straight from a Carnival cruise ship buffet line, piped through the tourism council's notion of romance enhancement, following us at low volumes into bars, by the pool at the guesthouse, in the cab. "Make sweet memories to me!" it harped, but like the street hustlers whispering of "skunk weed" and "pure powder," it hardly registered on the way in one ear and out the other.
Earlier that afternoon, I caught Junior Gong's international smash "Welcome to Jamrock" calling out from a passing coupe on the Hip Strip. The song shook me Damian Marley's immense, fiery oratory backed by a crushing bass line.
"Some boy no notice/Them only come around like tourist/On the beach with a few club sodas/Bedtime stories/And pose like dem name Chuck Norris/And they don't know the real hardcore."
Mired in a line of traffic that seemed never-ending, the sound slowly pulled away toward downtown, where the locals live, and out of my own myopic welcome to Jamrock. A four-hour drive away, the Kingston streets where the song was birthed seemed like a million miles from where I was standing.