Like a Miami-Nairobi cross, Jamaica’s capital throbs with the energy of a third of the country’s population hustling a living. Culturally curious travelers can easily fill a day or two here.
Kingston spreads like a ganglion around the world’s seventh largest natural harbor, framed by the Blue Mountains in rainforest green. An international crowd does business on New Kingston’s uptown streets, while Old Kingston teems with market stalls, record stores and tattoo parlors among colonial buildings left to decay. The neighborhoods transition from mansions to malls to slums in quick contrast. If the city has a glue, it’s music, pouring everywhere from boom boxes and open doors.
Each week in Kingston, a dancehall CD is born. The beats are laid down in high tech studios and improvised on by the artists, a process you can see first hand. Dancehall cranks the night clubs and street parties, making Kingston nights cathartic. It’s a place to dress up, take a friend and a cab, and dance.
Located in the Marketplace alongside trendy eateries, Fiction Lounge has a South Beach glam. Here, you’ll dance to the softer sounds of Lady Gaga and Rhiana as the DJs connect with an upscale crowd.
The Quad in New Kingston mixes it up with Oxygen, whose brilliant dance floor and non-stop dancehall are pitched to young hipsters; and Christopher’s, a cozy lounge where you’ll hear live jazz artists like Seretse Small.
Salt-of-the-earth Jamaicans party at The Building Nightclub (formerly The Asylum), with lots of preening and dancing that goes to the edge. The city’s renowned all-night street party, Passa Passa, drew thousands until gang violence erupted last year in West Kingston. But while the community’s mood is subdued, street parties still pop up with changing names and locations. Ask a local and go with a friend.
“Studio energies ebb and flow,” says Clyde McKenzie, a talent judge on “Digicel Rising Stars,” Jamaica’s version of “American Idol,” McKenzie advises scheduling a recording studio tour in advance. “Afternoon is a good time to visit, when you might catch young artists testing their material,” he says. Some popular choices include Shaggy's recording studio Big Yard, Copper Shot (Sean Paul), and Big Ship (Freddie McGreggor).
A chance invitation brought me to Grafton Studio located in Vineyard Town. In Bob Marley’s day, a recording studio could be any house with a plum tree for shade. Grafton, with its domino players under a backyard tree and ital kitchen run by earth mother Angela Shakespeare, evokes that vibe.
Seretse Small, who studied at Berkeley School of Music and is probably his country’s greatest guitarist, was rehearsing with five young talents who you won’t hear on the dance floor. “My goal is to make Kingston a live music capital again,” he said. Acoustic performing artists like him, Michael Harris and Bijean Gayle are filling the city with fresh sounds. City sophisticates gather to hear them at Redbones Blues Café, Whitebones Seafood Restaurant, Jo Jo’s Jerk Pit, and the outdoor Terrace Bar on the premises of Susie’s Bakery and Coffee Bar.
Marley die-hards will want to head to the family’s Tuff Gong Recording Studio, painted in the Rastafari colors of red, green and gold. Here you can see the whole high tech process and maybe one of the Marleys -- Ky-Mani Marley was working on an album when I arrived. But the kicker is the vinyl record press of ancient machines that look like a scene from the techno primeval. And they work. The tour ends in a gift shop copiously stocked for reggae lovers. Be sure to chat up Humble Lion, a Rasta from Bull Bay who keeps the Tuff Gong garden filled with black mint, yams, June plum and noni fruit – he’ll tell you a medicinal use for every one of them.
We all have different travel DNA. When friends ask, “Is Kingston safe?” I want to say it depends on you. Most of the city is easily negotiated with street sense and local knowledge.
“Go with a Jamaican friend and you’ll be fine,” was the word on attending street parties.
“The way you look, you shouldn’t walk alone after dark,” was another caveat. (I’m white.) With these cautions, Kingston is full of fascinations and rewards.
If you go
Kingston is Jamaica’s gateway to the Blue Mountains, and side trips abound. Thirty minutes away and 3,100 feet above sea level, Strawberry Hill puts on a popular Sunday feed For $40.96, the all-you-can-eat spread – jerk lamb, shrimp escovitch and smoked marlin, curried goat, bammy, the list goes on -- is jaw-dropping, and so is the 360-degree view.
To make the 7-mile trail to the peak, rent a 4WD jeep and drive to the base camp. From there, it’s a four-hour hike up and four back on well-marked trails. Go in the morning, sleep over at Whitfield Hall and return to the city the next day.