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Redemption Song

NINE MILE, ST. ANN'S PARISH, JAMAICA -- It's far easier to procure herbs, yard-style fried chicken, fried fish with okra, or a carved wooden walking stick than it is to find reggae music in Jamaica. You think it'd be filling the air like smoke. But instead, the hotel bar plays Billy Joel, and cabdrivers listen to more Missy Elliot than Freddie McGregor.

Of course, a Jamaican named DJ Kool Herc invented hip-hop. That makes it no less odd to hear it supplanting reggae as the sonic backdrop on the World's Loudest Island. Of course, there's reggae to be found, but as in Broward County, where the golden age of Jamaican music can best be found off the beaten path (go ahead and dip into Papine's Place on State Road 7 for home-cooked escoviched fish and Dennis Brown booming on the bins), a traveler is better off finding reggae music (not even live, just on a radio) in the hills and the tiny towns along the coast. Over-eager taxi men knew where to find ganja, restaurants, souvenirs, waterfalls, cheap coffee -- but asking for straight-up reggae music was often answered with "Maybe on the weekend" or "I don't know."

While searching, I spotted a tattered ad for a traveling sound system pasted to the concrete wall of a dirt-floor fish stand. The Chris Blackwell-financed Island Village tourist trap boasted something called the Reggae Xplosion interactive museum. More than once, I declined taxi operators' offers to take me to Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. Reggae-themed trinkets, Ethiopian flags, and doodads available everywhere. Only one location seemed to be the nexus for answers: 50 miles northwest of Kingston, in Nine Mile, the cradle-to-grave memorial to Jamaica's favorite son, Robert Nesta Marley.

The pilgrimage can run about $50 if your double-edged haggling blades have been recently sharpened, as much as $80 if they're dull. Bandwidth initially wanted to ride a mountain bike or motor scooter from Ocho Rios, through the town of Claremont, then up around 5000 feet above sea level to Nine Mile. But drivers in Jamaica (like Stenneth, the cabbie who took me there) use the left side of the shoulder-less roads. And even noncabbies seem to operate under a strict time/money ratio that somehow factors in goats, children, and other livestock all the while careening around blind curves at 50 kph. It seemed substantially safer to pay the money and ride in the back of his taxi.

We left Ocho Rios and headed south through Fern Gulley, where exhaust fumes have killed most of the 60 varieties of ferns. From the dark interior of the Tankhill Grocery in Beechamville, bright, bouncy, dancehall busted through an open doorway. Soon, we were driving through a valley lined with softly rounded sugar-loaf hills, where raw, rust-red scrapes of soil offered green, spiraling towers of yam tendrils. Ripe plantains sprouted in the shade. Aqua-blue cabbage patches dotted the hillsides (which, judging from the scent spilling into the open windows of Stenneth's cab, must have also been brimming with herb.)

Finally, Stenneth and I arrived at the Nine Mile compound, both Marley's birthplace and final resting place. My tour guide, the thin, gold-toothed Donovan, greeted me with a soft, sincere smile and the closed-fist, knuckle-bumping Rasta salute. "When I was a kid," he told me, "I'd see all the rastas do this, and I always wanted to be like them. They looked cool."

Not only was Marley born here, but the birthplace of his childhood friend and bandmate, Bunny Wailer (née Livingston) stands next door. The small stone shack where Bob lived from birth until his early teens has been modified slightly, but Donovan pointed to the shelter over our heads, and the single bed -- straight from "Is This Love," he explained. Leading me to the rock pillow described in the song "Talkin' Blues," Donovan quoted Marley lyrics as scripture.

A tiny, almost moth-sized black hummingbird hovered over a hibiscus flower. Next to an avocado tree that Donovan says was planted by Bob, I removed my shoes and stepped into the stone, stained glass, and terrazzo-tile mausoleum. That's where the legend is interred with his Gibson Les Paul, a chalice, and some herbs. Photos, spliffs, and words left in remembrance sat atop a small altar.

Outside, no music filled the afternoon air, just the wind. The stillness was broken mostly by stoned giggles in the distance, yapping dogs, and the buzz of insects. Donovan explained the slow assimilation of Rastafarians into Jamaican society, one that began with vicious persecution in the cities and evolved into a cautious respect. "The Rasta will be the one helping a likkle old lady across the street, seen? Or spending time with a child," he said.

In the early 1960s, he continued, the downpressor government didn't tolerate the dreadlocked rebels. "Rastas was beaten to sickness for wearing red, green, and gold. Or for wearin' an image of His Highness," Donovan said, pointing to Haile Selassie's silk-screened bust on his T-shirt. "Kingston was reelin' from so much killin.'" But gradually, Jamaica reached an "overstanding" with the peaceful, colorful vegetarians. "The healin' of the nation!" Donovan beamed.

The view from this sacred hilltop is a little like the mountainous terrain near D.H. Lawrence's shrine near Taos. Only here, the dry smell of juniper and piñon is replaced with the opium-perfume scent of sticky finger hash and resin-swollen Lamb's Breath buds. But another donation was required for admission onto the terraced, dung-fertilized steppes of the cannabis plots. Bandwidth declined -- but broke out a wad of Jamaican dollars to procure a resinous little nugget of that homemade hash.

The sweet fragrance of the hash belied its strength. The bumpy, nearly two-hour ride back to Ocho Rios was blurred by a heart-pounding, brain-melting buzz that took Bandwidth by surprise. Stenneth, who didn't care one whit for reggae music, marijuana, or Rastafarianism, still lowered his voice to reverential tones when answering queries about Marley's place in the island's historic milieu.

"From my standpoint, as a real son of the style, he stood up for justice and rights for the people. He was truly a man who had the heart of the people. I think Marley died too young. But a good man never lives long."

Not much to report from my return trip -- oh, except the most out-of-place character at Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston: Alt-country problem child Ryan Adams, in tattered denim flares and beat-up Chuck Taylors, sitting at the concourse bar, laughing to himself over a tabloid.

Hollywood's all-day Love Fest happened July 14. Bars and clubs around Young Circle grudgingly participated again but gladly embraced price-gouging opportunism: Thanks to the place that charged me $5.30 for two cans of Coke.

A sincere thanks to all the Good Samaritans who bought raffle tickets and a $10 wristband for the Scott Shields benefit, held July 18 at the Poor House and Tavern 213. The Poor House bouncer, who transited between the two venues on crutches, recently had a leg amputated due to a blood clot. And much appreciation and affection to the assortment of excellent local acts who helped raise funds, like J.C. Reilly and Scott Putesky (late of Stuck on Evil/Three Ton Gate), who donated a couple of David Allan Coe covers.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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