Marley and me

Patrick O'Neil discovers hip-hop, bling and precious vinyl in his search for the reggae heartbeat.

I'd always thought that finding a Jamaican who didn't like reggae would be akin to finding a Northern Territorian who would turn down a cold beer on a 45-degree day. As we roll into Kingston I ask our taxi driver if he counts himself a fan of the nation's most famous export.

He unleashes a booming laugh and exposes a wall of white teeth. "You be joking mon! What country did you tink you were in?"

On this lively tropical island, as far as we can gather, nothing unites people more than the concrete-cracking bass lines pumping out of the unfathomably obese sound systems parked on every corner.

From grandmothers to toddlers, it seems this is a nation that moves to the same beat.

We're here for the annual Sumfest, the island's biggest reggae festival, held at Montego Bay (Mo Bay as it's known by the locals).

Already we are finding it hard to resist breaking into poor imitations of the machine-gun Creole spoken by the locals, with at least the occasional "yeah mon" slipping out. The phrase is regularly used by the entire population, grandmas included.

It appears most of the island is going to be a ghost town during the fest. In three days we are yet to find anyone who doesn't have a ticket.

"I be going on Saturday night for da dancehall," an elderly woman at the bakery counter tells us. "I like de hard beats, extreme toons. You know, mon."

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As the birthplace of reggae and Bob Marley, Jamaica has one of the strongest tourism brands in the world, certainly trumping its Caribbean neighbours. What do most people know about Barbados or the Dominican Republic? However, tourists to Jamaica anticipating nothing more than a land of swaying palm trees, guitar-strumming on the beach and happy Rastas should think again. The island proves as edgy, dangerous and exhausting as it is relaxing, lush and laid-back.

We find most Jamaicans who initiate conversation see little more than a dollar sign before them. Male tourists are inundated with offers to buy ganja; women will receive dozens of daily pitches to have their hair braided.

But modern Rastas don't just want to peddle the small stuff; they're pushing the whole package: their friendship, a motorbike ride to the mountains, weed, a personal escort to any of the nation's reggae festivals, a trip to their friend's restaurant and braids from their sister's hairdressing salon. These hawkers sell the Jamaican dream, the cliche, and have become so common that expats have dubbed the salesmen ''rent-a-Rastas''.

Local people have warned us that tourists who visit downtown Kingston, even during the day, have a death wish. But my travelling companions, Sam and Jess, are vinyl junkies and can't resist the chance to dig through the city's famous record dens.

We step out of the taxi onto the melting asphalt of Orange Street, a strip of run-down record shops and hole-in-the-wall recording studios. This seedy boulevard spawned a musical revolution, not that you'd guess as you stroll past now.

As we walk we are inundated by offers to sell us every imaginable item and service. Since most tourists spend their time in luxury resorts on the island, where they are unlikely to encounter any local people not dressed in hotel livery, we attract quite a crowd.

"Hey Joe, hey Jakes," they call out.

"You wanna buy best smoke? Hey lady, you like Jamaican boyfriend?"

Sam is almost jumping out of his skin as we enter a shabby studio where greats such as Gregory Isaacs, the Skatalites and Marley himself recorded. DJs travel from around the globe to pillage these shops for that one-in-a-million unreleased reggae track, recorded in the genre's heyday and lost down the back of a cabinet until the day they walk in the door.

Sam says he's allowing himself one 45; it's all he can carry in his overloaded backpack.

But the cheerful owner has seen the likes of Sam before and shakes his booty as he leads us through a series of must-have 45s with a wide white grin that shows he knows he's got a fish on the hook.

I mention that I wish I could buy one of the Skatalites albums that Sam plays, but I don't have a record player. "Don't worry," Sam says. "I've got plenty on CD you can have."

"Not that one, mon," the grinning vinyl dealer interjects. "You don't be getting that one nowhere in da werld but in dis room, mon. They recorded dat out the back here." Sam walks out with 14 records.

The next morning we take a taxi across the island to Mo Bay for the Sumfest.

Our driver, Reggie, 23, tells us he has three daughters by three different women; he's the fourth Jamaican man we've encountered in a similar situation.

As the ageing taxi shudders in time with the reggae booming from its crackly speakers, Reggie keeps getting lost and pulls over several times to ask directions. He stops beside an elderly woman and yells out the window, "Yo Mummy! Wit wey is Mo Bey?" Then five minutes later to an elderly man, "Yo Dads! Mo Bay dis wey?"

We resolve to only refer to each other as Mummy and Dads for the rest of our trip.

The next night at the festival we find that the children of the Rastas are rocking to a different beat than we had envisaged. The sound is dancehall: a dark, hard and fast genre with angry, aggressive lyrics.

Dancehall superstar Beenie Man was once banned from Sumfest for making anti-white and homophobic statements; without explanation the ban has been lifted and he's on stage. His performance is peppered with the phrase "batty boy", a derogatory term for a gay person.

Hip-hop has also infiltrated. The night features 50 Cent, a global superstar from the US more famous for being shot nine times and surviving than for his platinum albums.

As we move through the crowd, we almost need sunglasses to filter the reflection from the chunky bling being flaunted by the crowd. Gold elephants and bejewelled dollar signs hang on fat chains; diamond-encrusted watches and earrings flicker around sideways baseball caps, do-rags and colour-coordinated tracksuits.

At times it feels more as if we've stepped into a scene from south central LA, or the gangsta rap film Boyz n the Hood, than the land of swaying palms and giant spliffs. There's a hardly a dreadlock in sight and I wonder if I've been too hasty in presuming this land fits the reggae cliche.

The crowd is 99 per cent Jamaican and they are amusingly capricious when it comes to the visiting hip-hop superstars. If there is a flat moment in one of the tracks, it meets deafening silence at the end. Not a single person applauds one of 50 Cent's performances, much to the chagrin of the international chart-topper. Jamaican artists seem to have a sixth sense for when this might happen and roll the songs together to obscure the quiet.

We're a little overwhelmed. Not one of us is a commercial hip-hop fan and it's not a friendly environment. We head back to our hotel disheartened. Perhaps we're too late for reggae; perhaps we're just catching the movement's tail end.

We decide to give it another go the following night, and our doubts are put to rest.

We move though several greats including Gregory Isaacs; then Damian Marley, son of Bob, comes on just before sunrise. With dreadlocks flailing, Marley begins to wring his heart dry through the microphone. As his words seep through the crowd and a hyperactive Rasta runs around the stage waving a giant Jamaican flag, Marley somehow changes the atmosphere in a moment.

His songs have a social conscience and a bone-rattling bass to boot, and with each track the crowd's aggression fades. These tunes couldn't be further removed from 50 Cent's guns-and-drugs chic. This is where the Rastas come out for ballads about the state of the Jamaican slums, education and life.

Marley performs several covers of his father's classics and duets with the purveyors of dancehall, binding all members of the audience. The vibe is electric. Thousands of people begin waving their cigarette lighters in the air and singing along. Marley is royalty in this country and he unifies the crowd as no other artist could.

As the sun rises and the rum headache kick in, we wander home satisfied that we've found the reggae heartbeat.

Later that morning we depart for the airport. In the taxi I try one last time to find a Jamaican who doesn't like reggae.

Our driver is a funky 20-year-old with a gold earring.

"No mon, can't stand the stuff," he replies. ''I wish they'd turn all the damn sound systems down. I can't escape it anywhere.''

We are incredulous. What does he like?

"Gospel, mon. I'm a Christian. It's a tough place to live, this country."

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Kingston for about $3335, from Sydney to Los Angeles (13hr 35min), then American Airlines to Miami (5hr), then to Kingston (1hr 40min). Melbourne passengers fly via Auckland or Sydney and pay about the same. The fare is low-season return including tax.

Staying there

It's difficult to find a cheap room in Jamaica but the three-star Four Seasons Hotel in Kingston has rooms from $85, see www.hotelfourseasonsjm.com. Resort dwellers can pay anything from $150 a night to more than $1000. Breezes Resort in Negril is all-inclusive with a basic room for about $300 a night, see www.breezes.com. Club Hotel Riu Negril has a one-bedroom villa with living room and balcony with ocean views for about $700 a night, see www.riu.com. For accommodation during Sumfest, try Iberostar Rose Hall Beach, Montego Bay. It's about $170 a night for a basic room, all inclusive, but book well in advance; see www.iberostar.com.

Touring there

Reggae Sumfest is held in mid-July. Tickets for the weekend cost about $150, see www.reggaesumfest.com.

Bob Marley Museum is at 56 Hope Road, Kingston. Most visitors wouldn't dare leave the country without paying homage at his former home, studio and now museum. It's full of Marley memorabilia, music, video and has bullet holes in the wall from an assassination attempt on the singer. A one-hour tour is about $25, see www.bobmarley-foundation.com/museum.html.

Jamaica Zipline Adventure Tours, in Montego Bay, explores the inland jungle, introduces local people and conducts rides over the canopy. A tour costs about $100 a person for the day. Phone +876 940 7394 or email info@zipline-tours.com.

Eating there

The Houseboat Grill, at Montego Bay Marine Park Fish Sanctuary, is an unusual dining experience aboard a houseboat moored in calm waters. It's a treat on a humid evening. Mains are about $20-$30, see www.thehouseboatgrill.com.

Scotchies Jerk Chicken, in Falmouth Road, Montego Bay, serves Jamaica's famous spicy jerk chicken. And it's cheap: about $10 each including drinks. Phone +876 953 8041.

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