With the kids sprung from school and on spring break, I took the family to a little island that broke the shackles of slavery under British rule and made a huge cultural impact on its own when it gained independence from the crown.
If you guessed Ireland, you guessed wrong.
We headed south to Jamaica so that I could fulfill a lifelong dream to visit the birthplace of Bob Marley.
Any music fan of a certain age probably feels the same pull to reggae music that I do. If you began your love affair with pop music in the late seventies and early eighties (or if you were born after the fact and are currently enjoying the resurgence of this music that I can’t yet bring myself to call “oldies”), your pop idols knew their way around island rhythms.
You could hear Marley’s influence on tracks like Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” the British ska movement, UB40’s “Red, Red Wine,” Boy George, and pretty much everything Sting and the Police recorded at the time.
Just as the Rolling Stones introduced a new generation to the blues, those pop culture references inspired a deep affection for Marley’s music.
Our tour bus in Jamaica hugged the mountain. The wheels of our vehicle perched on a strip of crumbling asphalt that made an Irish bog road look like a superhighway.
The poverty all around us was sobering. Sensing this, our guide led a sing-a-long of reggae tunes as we made out way through the villages leading to Nine Mile, Marley’s birthplace.
The gates to the Marley compound opened as townspeople slithered behind the bus, despite the protests of the guards.
"Excuse me while I light my spliff/Oh God I gotta take a lift/From reality I just can't drift/That's why I am staying with this riff."
The lyrics from Marley’s “Easy Skanking” came to mind as the door opened and we were greeted with the dense smell of cannabis.
The locals were all too eager to sell us joints that were the width of your big toe, which took some considerable explaining on my part after we ushered our daughters up the stairs.
The herb is legal on this mountain, and let’s just say the people here breathe in deep. The weed isn’t just part of a stoner’s paradise; it represents the lifeblood of the Rastafari movement (also known as Rastafarianism or simply Rasta).
The tour guide told us that the Rastas accept Haile Selassie I, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as the incarnation of God, or Jah.
Cannabis is used spiritually here, and while that is not part of my religion the clouds of secondhand smoke made me momentarily forget that I was missing Mass for this tour.
Peace and love. This was the greeting that each Jamaican gave us as we toured the meager shack where Marley was born.
The Rasta’s beliefs might be colorful and the overall scene in this hillside compound a bit on the freaky side, but if the vibes coming out of this remote mountain village could be bottled and sent over to the remote mountain villages that line the Pakistani border, bin Laden might drop the hate.
“Let’s get together and feel all right,” indeed!
The last stop of our tour was Marley’s burial site. The above ground mausoleum takes up almost the entire footprint of the small church that houses it, and its marble walls make the room about 30 degrees cooler than the outside temperature.
All must be silent, and when you allow this cool vibe to take over you, you find that being at this epicenter of reggae music, learning about the stories behind these songs and being present to the spiritual and cultural global impact this man made from such humble beginnings is a profoundly moving experience that alters your life forever. For me, it deepened my love and understanding for this music and culture (if that were possible).
I was worried about weaving this experience of a lifetime into a column that is supposed to feature Irish music, but a few clicks of the mouse quickly fixed that.
Perhaps it is the fight against oppressive British rule that binds Ireland and Jamaica together, or maybe those island rhythms deliver the perfect amount of heat to shake off the cold Irish rain, but the cultural connection is surprisingly strong between the two nations, according to Shimmy “Irie” Roberts, the Cork native who runs GigEvent in Dublin and started Irie Ireland in 2006.
Shimmy and her partner, Carlos Irie, began Irie Ireland to promote all factions of reggae, to include roots, dub, dancehall, and ska. GigEvent hosts a showcase every Sunday afternoon at a Dublin venue called the Mezz, which is filmed for Internet broadcast. You can check them out on myspace.com/irieireland.
“Every country has its own folk roots music, so I don’t think it’s just that our history is alike,” Roberts says.
“I think it is our people that are very alike! There’s the line I love from the film "The Commitments" by Jimmy Rabbitte, ‘Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.’ I think that line is right on. Irish can identify with the Jamaican people based on our status in Europe.”
Reggae took root, according to Roberts, during the Celtic Tiger era, a time where Ireland welcomed an influx of other nationalities into her borders.
“You’d see island people moving to Ireland to work or study and when they did, they brought music with them,” she says. “I think they opened our eyes a little bit more and our souls as well.”
Reggae has been a fixture at the Mezz for over a decade, and Roberts credits a hot band called Seven Deadly Skins for inspiring her to form Irie Ireland.
The band has been playing there since forming in 1997. The Seven Deadly Skins include Ciaran Nugent (bass), Andy "Familyman" Barron (vocals/guitar) and Alan "Spike" McEvoy (drums).
All three shared a love and experience of reggae and ska music, and developed their set of both original and cover material.
Soon the Skins needed to expand the sound, so they recruited Paul "Scratch" Ward (guitar/vocals). The line up was completed in early '98 with the addition of Eoin Gillard (sax) and Shane Conway (trumpet). You can find them on myspace.com/sevendeadlyskins.
Reggae is not only confined to Dublin. You can find the cool island vibe in Galway, where my tribe hails from, mon!
Intinn, a four piece reggae band calling from the west of Ireland, plays a sultry blend of conscious reggae, raggamuffin, heavy dub, dancehall and drum ‘n’ bass.
Over the past three years they have hosted regular nights in Cork and Galway and have toured Ireland extensively, playing the Galway Arts Festival every year since 2005. They weave the Irish harp into their thick, skanky beats, making a reggae sound that is uniquely Irish!
As the days get longer and the mercury rises, keep your eyes peeled to this column in the coming weeks for more details on the “Irie Ireland” sounds of our homeland!