Stephen Pennell ©
Easily the furthest I’ve ever travelled for a gig, but that’s a tad disingenuous. The tour to Bob Marley’s house and resting place - a beautifully appointed mausoleum - came in the middle of a lovely family holiday to Jamaica, and as entertaining as they are, I didn’t really go to see the covers band who play a few of the great man’s songs at the bottom of the densely-forested hill upon which he rests.
My love of Robert Nesta Marley’s music goes back many years and got off to a stuttering start. I fell in love with Jammin’, bought the Exodus and Survival albums, then decided to delve further into his back catalogue. What better to place to start than Summit Records in Birmingham, a shop and a city steeped in reggae culture and soaked in his influence like no other outside Jamaica. Let’s not forget that after Bob passed, aged just 36 in 1981, Birmingham had the three biggest reggae acts in the world in UB40, Steel Pulse and Musical Youth.
I walked into Summit Records (in Stephenson Street back then) and almost as quickly as the bass shook me from my headtop to my desert boots, I became immediately aware that I was the only white person in the shop. My credibility as a reggae connoisseur was on the line, so rather than do exactly what was expected of me and buy a load of Marley’s music that other white people liked, I selected King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown by Augustus Pablo and World War Three by sometime Clash producer Mikey Dread. I don’t know if the rastas in the shop were impressed by my choices but when I got home and played them, I certainly was.
I gradually collected Bob’s back catalogue over the next few months and have been a fan ever since, so a trip to Jamaica this month presented the ideal opportunity to turn part of our family holiday into a pilgrimage. The tour guides, Iyona, George and Barky, were charming, informative and funny, so much so that the 90-minute drive from our resort to Ninemile was as pleasurable as the beautiful views of the surrounding rain forest. It’s a pretty hair-raising road trip alongside some steep cliff edges as you get further into the mountains - one way or another you’re gonna get high on this tour!
Once off the bus we browsed the souvenir shop, where I had a minor disagreement with one of the assistants, who told us that Marley’s dad was a slave trader from Liverpool. ‘I thought he was a captain in the British army’ I said, fully aware that slavery had long since been abolished in Jamaica by the time Marley senior was around. “And what do you think is the job of a captain in the British army over here” he said, “except to tell black people when to get up and when to go to bed?” He seemed a bit fed up with me so I didn’t labour the point, and my mind was already contemplating the puzzle of how, in this climate, his shop sells so many woolly hats.
Money changed hands with one of the erm… ‘street pharmacists’ who have premises in the area and I was good to go. At the start of the walking tour proper there’s a live band who played covers of some of Bob’s greatest hits, and at various points Barky the guide did a Capella versions of Concrete Jungle and Keep On Moving, after first giving his interpretations of the lyrics. The self-medication might have had something to do with it, but these were moving experiences and only added to the deeply spiritual vibes of the place.
The reggae icon lived here until he was thirteen, and returned often to visit his mother Cadella. We saw the single bed that the father of (at least) eleven slept on and referenced in the song Is This Love?, and the women in the tour party were warned not to sit on it unless they wanted to get pregnant! We sat on the rock on which the great man himself sat and meditated, and finally the pristine white buildings in which, Bob, one of his brothers and his mother now rest.
The jerk chicken included as part of the tour on the return journey cured ‘the munchies’ and topped off a very enjoyable day.