By Colin Grant
Everywhere you go in Jamaica, you hear music – loud music. Although authorities recently enforced an island-wide musical curfew, there is a growing campaign to relax the restrictions. Why has the Caribbean nation gained a reputation for being the loudest island on the planet?
A wide smile breaks out over the hotel porter’s face when I say that I’d love to hear him sing. Before my traditional breakfast of ackee and saltfish is served, the waiter joins in, beating out a syncopated rhythm on his chest. They launch into a love song with all the gusto of a duo auditioning for a top record producer – except that I am a tourist.
Driving around the capital Kingston, the volume dial on the taxi driver’s radio appears to be permanently glued to a point beyond 11, as music blasts through speakers worthy of a mobile dancehall. In many of the world’s cities, irritated commuters might tut at the tinny leakage from a fellow traveller’s earphones but on Jamaica, no-one bothers with earphones.
Welcome to the loudest island on the planet – up until 02:00 anyway. Recently, after so many sleep-deprived tourists complained about the noise, the government began to enforce legislation which curbs all music publicly aired beyond the early hours of the morning, especially in and around resorts.
It’s not the first time that Jamaica’s rulers have tried to control music on the island. For many years colonial authorities banned the drum on plantations, fearing slaves could use it to send coded messages calling for insurrection. But by independence in 1962, Jamaica’s most famous drummers, the Count Ossie group, were asked to perform at the official celebrations.
By then music had already established itself as an integral part of Jamaican culture and society. It has heralded all of the elections since independence, from ska singer Derrick Morgan’s optimistic Forward March specially composed for the occasion; through the hopeful Better Must Come in the 1970s, when the country was beset by gang violence and strikes that nearly led to civil war.
Jamaican musicians haven’t just chronicled events – they have also tried to change society. The Wailers’ 1963 hit Simmer Down was a call for rude boys – violent petty criminals who terrorised their communities in the 1960s – to lay down their arms. It’s much the same advice offered by the DJ Beenie Man more recently, who warned in the song If You Live by the Gun, you will also die that way.
Fifty years after independence, music is still the form of cultural expression along which the nation coalesces. Music is heard everywhere on the island, but especially in ghettos such as Trenchtown, where Bunny Livingston formed The Wailers with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.
In the 1960s, says Livingston, “Trenchtown was like Hollywood because there were so many stars”, drawn to the capital by the hope of fame, but inevitably exploited by cynical producers.
For Jamaica’s poor population, music was a way out of poverty and the ghetto – if not actual then spiritual. As Bob Marley sang in his 1973 hit Trenchtown Rock: “One good thing about music/ When it hits you feel no pain.”
The death of Marley in 1981 left a political and musical vacuum. The truce established between the gunmen of the warring political parties in the aftermath of the 1978 One Love Peace concert, headlined by Marley, had all but broken down three years later. And no singer was quite able to capture hearts and minds as Marley had.
The musical vacuum was filled by dancehall DJs who spurned “One Love” consciousness in favour of “slackness” – lyrics with an emphasis on sex and violence. Although there have been singers such as Sizzla, steeped in the tradition of old-school roots reggae, most of the attention has been focused on controversial dancehall DJs, some with a defiant accent on homophobic lyrics.
Notwithstanding the uglier side to some Jamaican music, you’d be hard pushed to find a Jamaican who is not proud of the way that music raised the country’s profile. “Music put the island on a world stage,” says cultural historian Viv Adams. “It gave Jamaica the appearance of being a giant when it was destined to be a minnow.”
And the hotel porter improvising a song at breakfast is part of that.
“Me can sing, you know,” says the porter in local patois, and he’s right. His voice is tinged with ethereal beauty. It’s no great surprise though, as everyone you meet in Jamaica seems capable of carrying a tune and is ready to demonstrate, just in case you know someone who knows someone who may be able to help a fledgling reggae star. The porter whispers as he hands me a business-card on my way out, “Take it. You never can tell!”
Colin Grant’s documentary Wheel and Come Again was broadcast on the BBC World Service