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Jamaica’s Kingston Takes its UNESCO Creative City Of Music Designation Seriously

Kingston, Jamaica's captivating, luminous evening skyline, as seen from the Kingston Dub Club in the hills of St. Andrew. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

Jamaica’s Kingston Takes its UNESCO Creative City Of Music Designation Seriously

By Neil Armstrong
Contributing Editor

Neil ArmstrongTen years ago, while on a press trip to Jamaica, a group of us headed to the Bank of Jamaica for its lunch hour concert in the auditorium, to see the 50/50 Band with well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Aggrey Irons, on the percussions. The pulsating music had some of us dancing in the aisles in 2012.

Nestled near the waterfront of downtown Kingston, the central bank — which was established by the Bank of Jamaica Act 1960, and opened on May 1, 1961, more than a year before the island gained its independence on August 6, 1962 — has presented bands, such as Chalice and the Fab 5, at these regular sessions.

Fast-forward to May 2022 and, on another media trip, we travel up the hills of St. Andrew to the Kingston Dub Club on Skyline Drive, overlooking Kingston. Dub Club is the leading spot for conscious roots reggae music and entertainment in Kingston. It offers a great view of the cityscape, and food and liquor are readily available.

On our way there, we passed several street parties and a colleague commented on the different ways, in which class plays a role in where different kinds of entertainment happen.

Between downtown Kingston and the hills of St. Andrew are many venues, where Jamaica’s creatives are showcasing their music, dance, art, theatre, performances and cultural productions, regularly. These are some of the places where anyone, visiting Jamaica to celebrate the country’s diamond jubilee, can go to experience this rich culture, while participating in the 60th anniversary of independence events.

Kingston is the cultural capital of the island and a major player in the Caribbean in the production and promotion of arts and culture. In 2015, the City of Kingston was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Music meaning that: “Music is deeply etched into the historic foundations of Jamaica with its capital, Kingston, home to 660,000 inhabitants, leading the way with urban development. Legendary musicians, world famous recording studios and production houses have made Kingston an internationally renowned centre for music-making. The hometown of Bob Marley and Dennis Brown has been the breeding ground of six musical genres: reggae, mento, ska, rocksteady and dancehall. Today, the music sector remains the driver of the local economy, with a global value of over US$130 million and employing around 43,000 people.”

Kingston Creative, a non-profit arts organization founded in 2017, is fully invested in that vision of a creative city.

“Our mission is to enable Caribbean creatives to succeed, so that they can create economic and social value, gain access to global markets and have a positive impact on their local communities.  We believe in collaboration and work with a public-private and third sector partnership, a team of organisations that are committed to empowering creative people and transforming Downtown Kingston.  We want to develop a vibrant, inclusive Art District and a Creative Hub for training and development and in the long term, achieve sustainable national development through growing our creative economy.”

Visitors can check out the Sounds of the City Tour, Water Lane Mural Tour, Taste of the City Food Tour, and Artwalk — all showcasing the artistic, cultural or culinary talent in Jamaica. Peruse kingstoncreative.org for more.

My friend, Lisa Tomlinson, recommends Trench Town & the Culture Yard, Peter Tosh Museum, the national gallery, live band at the Pegasus Hotel, and eating at Pages in the Garden at Hope Gardens, and at 22 Jerk on Barbican Road.

“The Trench Town Culture Yard is owned and operated by neighbourhood residents, organized to provide an engaging experience, authentic to life in this West Kingston district. Unassuming in their approach, the personalities one may encounter, may often deflect the desired historical script of Reggae music and Bob Marley. What you may sense is life steeped in present-day context. Expect more than the canned tourist speeches of ‘the way things used to be’ and be open to the Trench Town of the present and past,” notes the website, ttcultureyard.com.

The National Gallery of Jamaica, which was established in 1974, is the oldest and largest public art museum in the Anglophone Caribbean. It has a comprehensive collection of early, modern and contemporary art from Jamaica along with smaller Caribbean and international holdings. A significant part of its collections is on permanent view. The NGJ houses the premier collection of Jamaican art, from the Taino to the present day, significant parts of which are on permanent display.

Tomlinson is a lecturer in Literary and Cultural Studies at the Institute of Caribbean Studies, The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. She is the author of The African-Jamaican Aesthetic: Cultural Retention and Transformation across Borders and Una Marson in the Caribbean Biography Series.

Cheree Morris of the Jamaica Tourist Board, who arranged the itinerary for the press trip, recommends a session with Orville Hall, a lecturer, choreographer, dancer, and the director of Dance Xpressionz.

In late May, his dancehall musical, From Den Til Now, debuted in Berlin, Germany, at the CDC Festival, Europe’s biggest dance festival celebrating Black cultures. It narrates “the journey of dancehall through movements, music and words in a new afrodiasporic,” notes the festival’s program. In Germany, the dance troupe was joined by “dancers from Ghana and afrodiasporic dancers living in Europe.” The musical premièred in Jamaica in December 2018.

•Orville Hall, dancer and choreographer. Photo contributed.

Orville Hall, dancer and choreographer. Photo contributed.

Hall says the show is a history lesson of how Jamaica’s music and dance evolved from traditional folk form to present day. “You would have heard the music, you would have seen the movements and you would have also gotten a chance to see the dress code that goes with the different eras,” says Hall on a call from Kingston, about what our contingent did not get to see in a curated show for us because he had to be in Germany for the festival.

They had sold-out audiences and standing ovations on both nights at the dance festival and also facilitated classes and lectures.

“Some persons were moved to tears. There were persons who did not have a full understanding of how music and dance have been instrumental in the whole development as a people. Some persons said they have more respect for the culture now.”

If Hall had the means, there would be a permanent place showcasing presentations of the evolution of Jamaica’s music and dance regularly.

“The truth is it’s an expensive venture. We would need a space where this thing can be running when people get there and it has to be an accessible space,” says the choreographer noting that his company has not been successful securing one, but they are still pushing given its importance.

Hall, who supports community tourism and runs a hostel with his business partner, says people are now coming back to the island and would like to see such performances.

“Our community is one of the communities that has history surrounding it. We have been holding dance classes from 2014 til now. There’s a shortened version of it where we are not in costume but we do a whole narration and do the movements for people to see, but we would love to have a space where we can show it as the theatre production that it is,” says Hall minutes before conducting a dance class with a dozen visitors from Europe.

Dance Xpressionz used to host a dance camp in February in which participants would stay at the hostel have one week of dancehall classes, go on tours to historic sites, attend dancehall parties and live band performances, and visit St. Thomas or Portland to experience kumina or bruckins. Everything stopped when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The hostel is in Jackson Town, located in the Molynes Road and Red Hills area. “We are seeking to rename it the Dancehall District because of the level of entertainment that happens around here and the history behind it. This is where Buju Banton’s first studio was, this is the studio where every single song on the ‘Til Shiloh album was done. This is where Beres Hammond’s Love From a Distance was done, Marcia Griffiths’ Focusing Time, Jah Cure’s album as well — Free Jah’s Cure — this is where Sean Paul’s Temperature was mixed that went #1 on the Billboard charts,” says Hall about the 10n acres of land that they would like to use to showcase the community to visitors. There are themed nights such as one dedicated to stage shows, another to seafood, and various events happen in the community.

“Dance chose me; I’ve been dancing all my life,” says Hall, who did an associate degree at Excelsior Community College, where he was as a student teacher and then stayed on as a teacher.

Hall says he wrote the first dancehall course outline for EXED, but the school did not want to call it dancehall so he subsequently wrote another in 2015 and sent it to the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust/National Training Agency, known as HEART, and it was accredited in 2020.

“I now have an accredited dancehall course — the first of its kind — with an institution like HEART so I am commissioned to train 240 dancers over a three-year period.”

His travels to Europe to share information about dancehall has resulted in Europeans giving him the name ‘dancehall professor.’ Visitors can contact Hall online to participate in a dance class.

Beyond this, Morris readily lists the parties that happen almost daily in the city — Uptown Monday, Boasy Tuesdays, Weddy Weddy Wednesdays, Dolly Sundays, — parties held to preserve Jamaica’s musical heritage, she quips. They can all be found at www.reggaetourist.com There is also Janga’s Soundbar & Grill in Kingston.

Some Other Places You Can Visit in Kingston

Independence Park
If you have never seen Jamaica’s great athletes such as Usain Bolt, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Asafa Powell, Herb McKenley, Arthur Wint and others up close and personal, this is the next best — a celebration of them in sculptures by renowned sculptors Alvin Marriott and Basil Watson in Independence Park. How many of us knew that the area is known as Independence Park, has been around since 1966, and includes the National Stadium. A statute of Bob Marley is just across the road from it at Celebrity Park, which is at the corner of Arthur Wint Drive and Herb McKenley Drive.

•Sculptures of Jamaican athletes Donald Quarrie, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Asafa Powell at Independence Square, outside the National Stadium. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

Sculptures of Jamaican athletes Donald Quarrie, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Asafa Powell at Independence Square, outside the National Stadium. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

Bob Marley Museum
The Bob Marley Museum is the former home of the reggae legend. Marley’s home is filled with rich memories and treasured mementos, which seek to preserve the life and accomplishment of this great Jamaican and outstanding musician.

Peter Tosh Museum
The Peter Tosh Museum was officially opened in November 2016, dedicated to one of Jamaica’s most creative songwriters and musicians. Tosh made his international career as a soloist as well as part of the accompanying singers in the Bob Marley and the Wailers group. The museum highlights his work and influence in the exposure of reggae to the world.

Emancipation Park
“The morning breeze ushers in dawn’s new light as joggers commence the day’s ever-changing cycle. A rare jewel in the heart of Kingston city, Emancipation Park is a refuge for many, who seek solitude and a soothing ambience away from the hustle and bustle of daily living. It’s an oasis, where one can rejuvenate among its lush seven-acre landscape that symbolizes the legendary beauty of the island of Jamaica. Nature lovers can bask in the Park’s scenery lined with tropical flowers and trees such as the majestic Royal Palm, its branches stretching outwards beckoning to the skies. Art lovers can appreciate the beautifully crafted 11-foot bronze sculpture “Redemption Song” by celebrated Jamaican artist, Laura Facey, that graces the ceremonial entrance of the Park. The opening of Emancipation Park in July 2002 is a significant milestone in the journey of our nation. The Park was created to be a symbol of our Freedom to Hope, to Excel and to Be,” notes ‘Welcome to Emancipation Park: A Tribute to Our Freedom’ at emancipationpark.org.jm

The historic -- and enchanting -- Devon House Mansion. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

The historic — and enchanting — Devon House Mansion. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

Devon House tour and I-Scream
Devon House I-Scream, makers of Jamaica’s premier brand of ice cream has its flagship store at the location. Devon House is home to over 27 flavours including their famous bordeaux cherry, rocky river, strong back, mango, coconut, coffee and soursop and their most popular flavour, the Devon Stout. The ice cream at Devon House was voted the 4th best ice cream in the world by the National Geographic on its traveller’s list of top places to eat ice cream in the world.

One of Jamaica’s most celebrated historic landmarks, the Devon House Mansion is the architectural dream of Jamaica’s first Black millionaire George Stiebel. He was among three wealthy Jamaicans who constructed elaborate homes during the late 19th century at the corner of Trafalgar Road and Hope Road which fittingly became known as the Millionaire’s Corner.  Daniel Finzi and the Verleys were the other families that resided in the area, however, both homes were eventually demolished to make way for development ventures, including the construction of Abbey Court Apartments.

Stiebel’s legacy lives on with the beautifully maintained Devon House, which was declared a national monument in 1990 by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. Tour guide Barbara Beckford meets visitors at the steps of the entrance and conducts a detailed history of the house and the property.

Harbour View Roundabout Street Food Experience
The Harbour View Roundabout has been a location for street food vending for over 30 years. The site has become a popular spot which excites the taste buds of many Jamaicans offering a wide variety of popular Jamaican foods such as conch stew, jerk chicken, jerk pork, festival, bammy, oysters, fried chicken and roast breadfruit to name a few. Street food in Jamaica is very popular and has been an important part of Jamaica’s culture.

National Heroes Park

•Miss Lou and her husband's grave at the National Heroes Park in Kingston. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

Miss Lou and her husband’s grave at the National Heroes Park in Kingston. Photo credit: Neil Armstrong.

The site was officially renamed the National Heroes Park in 1973 and is now a permanent place for honouring our heroes — such as the legendary Marcus Garvey, whose 135th birthday is on August 17 — whose monuments are erected in an area known as the Shrine.

Another section, reserved for prime ministers and outstanding patriots, adjoins the Shrine area, to the north, notes the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. This is where Louise Bennett-Coverley, affectionately known as “Miss Lou,’” and her husband, Eric “Chalktalk” Coverley; Ranny Williams, Dennis Brown, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Toots Hibbert and some other distinguished Jamaicans are laid to rest.

Coronation Market
The largest and most vibrant market in Jamaica, Coronation Market, or ‘Curry’, accommodates between 6,000 to 8,000 persons per day. Peak days for business are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, notes a story in the Gleaner in May 2010. On a hot day while downtown Kingston, it is a welcoming place to buy a jelly coconut and enjoy the cool coconut water and eat the jelly.

Gloria’s Seafood Port Royal
The name Gloria’s is synonymous with good food and great vibes with friends. Located in the historic town of Port Royal, the team at Gloria’s has perfected the art of making Jamaican seafood dishes simply delicious, notes visitjamaica.com

Go to visitjamaica.com to check out more places to see while in Jamaica.

Editor’s Note: From May 26-30, the Jamaica Tourist Board organized a Canadian Diaspora Press Trip for journalists to visit different attractions in the island to share stories with Jamaicans and friends of Jamaica living in the diaspora and entice them to visit as the country gets set to celebrate its 60th anniversary of Independence (on August 6). Krishna Maharaj of Burton’s Transportation, Cheree Morris of JTB and Indira Tarachandra of Fever Pitch Marketing Communications Inc. were involved in making the trip possible.

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