Strawberry Hill, Kingston, Jamaica: The undisputed capital of reggae music

In the Blue Mountains, high above the Jamaican capital of Kingston, guests at the exclusive resort of Strawberry Hill are chilling by the infinity pool, laughing over a crazy game of croquet, or admiring the extravagant lunch-time barbecue being laid out in the gardens.

Suddenly the background music changes to a bouncy, catchy little tune that a surprising number of visitors can recall within seconds. It is My Boy Lollipop, released in 1964 by a local singer, Millicent Dolly May Small, aka Millie Small.

The reggae/ska song topped the charts in Australia, reached  No. 2 in Britain and the US, sold more than six million worldwide and helped launch the Island Records label of the man who "discovered" Millie, English-born Chris Blackwell.

The rest, as they joke in the music business, was hysteria. Millie, who is still alive and singing, went on to super-stardom.

And London-born Blackwell, now a revered figured in his 70s, went on to popularise reggae worldwide, and to "discover", and deify, dozens of other top artists, including the late, great local hero Bob Marley, fellow Jamaican Grace Jones, and Irish band U2.

He also created Island Outpost, which operates three eclectic Jamaican resorts: Strawberry Hill, The Caves, on the cliffs above Negril, and Goldeneye, in Oracabessa, near Ocho Rios.

It was here that novelist Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond novels, lived "in peace and silence and cut-offedness from the madding world".

Not surprisingly, each of the three resorts is famous for the jet-set personalities it has attracted from the intertwined Jamaican worlds of music and movies, visiting writers and royalty.

In a guided tour of Strawberry Hill, manager Clemens Von Merveldt name-drops, among others, Bob Marley, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger, Prince Charles and 19th-century admiral Lord Nelson, winner of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Advertisement

Listed among celebrities who not only stayed but planted trees at Goldeneye, in support of a foundation to support the local community, are Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Dennis Hopper, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and, appropriately, Johnny Pirates of the Caribbean Depp.

Virgin boss Richard Branson also drops in regularly on the dreamland resort which the late Bob Marley once considered buying. According to Blackwell, the singer "got cold feet, said it was too posh… so I bought it myself".

Blackwell was, however, instrumental in attracting fellow, English-born businessman Jon Baker to the island, where he is now co-owner of the Geejam Hotel and recording studios, and developer of the exquisite Trident hotel, near Porto Antonio. His recent guests include Katy Perry, Grace Jones, Rihanna, Alicia Keys and the late Amy Whitehouse.

What all these properties, all these people, have in common is a shared love of music and music-makers. Through several styles, from dubplate to dancehall, reggae to rock-steady, ska to sound-system, music has become the very heartbeat of Jamaica.

It is the notion which defines the nation; the reason many people come to the island and helped turn tourism into the island's biggest industry – bigger even than bauxite mining, messy evidence of which can be spotted at intervals along the coast.

Reggae legend Bob Marley, along with such artists as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Toots & the Maytals and Third World have received global acclaim for decades, according to tourism officials.

"Now, a more recent derivative dancehall has become the driving force for a younger generation, heavily influencing local and international trends in fashion and dance, even street language." The truth of this claim is evident all over the island,  from the back streets of Kingston, where residents stage deafening, impromptu sound-system parties; through hundreds of clubs and noisy pubs where the latest "next Bob Marley", possibly 22-year-old Chronixx, waits to be crowned; to the bars and studios at Geejam, where The Jolly Boys, more than three times the age of Chronixx, are growing old disgracefully, albeit politely and funnily.

Their current leader, 76-year-old Albert Minott, explains that the loose group of musicians was originally called the Navy Island Swamp Boys, after an offshore feature purchased by Tasmanian-born movie idol Errol Flynn, whose yacht was washed ashore near Porto Antonio in 1946.

The group soon became a favourite of the hell-raising, hard-partying Flynn, who re-named them The Jolly Boys. Since 1959, when Flynn died, aged only 50, the boys have "battled on through thick and thin", various line-up changes and several "re-discoveries".

"For a while, back then, the boys became Jamaica's best-kept secret," says Minott, who appears, outside the studios in trademark trilby, turquoise jacket, red socks and white, plastic shoes. A relative newcomer, he had several jobs, including that of farmer and party fire-eater, before he joined the other boys as a singer/guitarist.

Since their latest re-discovery, amid comparisons with the Buena Vista Social Club, The Jolly Boys have gone on a European tour, cut a best-selling compilation of soft-rock songs done in a modern, country/folk "mento" style, and become famous again.

"Mon, I needs a bodyguard to protect me from all the women now," he jokes. His mate, Derrick "Johnny" Henry, who plays the rumba box and is also 76, nods in agreement.

Despite the loss last year, of their long-time mate Joseph "Powda" Bennett, neither of the boys is thinking of retiring. "No, no," exclaims Minott, as he prepares for the evening show at The Caves. "I's got too much dancing left in my feet, man."

As they say on the island, "the only thing that is addictive is the vibe".

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitjamaica.com 

www.sooncomejamaicatours.com

GETTING THERE

American Airlines, with code-share partner Qantas, fly to Kingston via Los Angeles and Miami.

STAYING THERE

The author stayed at the Trident hotel. Both Strawberry Hill and Golden Eye, which each offers a wide range of activities, can be enjoyed on day passes. For price and availability see www.strawberryhillhotel.com and goldeneye.com  

The writer travelled as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board, on an itinerary devised by Soon Come Jamaica Tours.

Comments