Pilgrimage to home of reggae

The final installation of Barbados TODAY’s Discover Jamaica series takes us to Trench Town, the home of reggae.

A Jamaican friend once told me that his is a country of contradictions. Nowhere else is this more evident than in Trench Town, an impoverished community  that gifted the world such musical greats as reggae’s Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Rita Marley, the Abyssinians, saxophonist Dean Fraser, and Rocksteady artist Delroy Wilson, among others.

Marley paid tribute to the community in Trenchtown Rock and No Woman No Cry, recounting the simple community life in the Government Yard.

Entrance to Trench Town Culture Yard.
Tribute wall for reggae pioneers.

Today, the community is seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of the area through the Trench Town Culture Yard, the island’s first inner city heritage tourism product. It has also been declared a National Heritage Site by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

The first residences in Trench Town were built in the 1940s to provide housing for the rural and urban poor as well as ex-servicemen. They were government-owned properties for which tenants paid 12 shillings per month. These Government Yards were built from First Street to Seventh Street.

The house where Bob Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, lived.
Bob Marley’s room in the Government Yard in Trench Town.

It is widely believed that Trench Town, originally named Trench Pen, was named after the many trenches and gullies in the area. However, it was actually named after a wealthy Irish man who immigrated to Jamaica in the 1700s.

Given its rich musical history, minister of culture Olivia Grange described a visit to Trench Town as a visit to Mecca – and, indeed, it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

It was there that Marley’s friend and mentor Vincent Tata Ford taught him to play the guitar; it was there that  penned the hit No Woman No Cry. It was also there that Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, lived with Bunny Wailer’s father, Toddy Livingston, in the house on 19 Second Street, and where they had their daughter Pearl.

Marley’s old bedroom is also on display in the yard, as is his first vehicle, a blue Volkswagen van.

“Visitors from all over the world go to Trench Town because that’s where Bob Marley lived and they want to be a part of that experience. It is a rich cultural environment,” Grange told me.

“Trench Town is the most popular location for people to stay when they used Airbnb. So we’ve been able to build community tourism through that whole experience.”

Our tour guide Oswald Stoneman Comrie walked us through Second Street, where Booker’s home still stands occupied. Second Street was also the home of Wilson.

The community spirit still exists today, as is evident in the number of families, including some with young children, living in the yard. One of the oldest residents is 89-year-old Mammy Dolly, who helped look after Marley and Wailer as young children, when their parents were away.

“She’s a part of our heritage within the community . . . . So Trench Town community has taken up a responsibility where we care for the elderly. And we care for those who are homeless, fatherless. Trench Town love will never die,” Stoneman said.

Further down Second Street as well as on First Street, there are signs paying tribute to the ‘Legends’: Marley, Wilson, Booker and others.

“The Government Yards of Trench Town provided a unique creative environment, but even more importantly, provided a spiritual context to be shared and embraced by all cultures. This is a place designed for people to live together, drawing on each other’s energy, each one lifting up the other,” one sign reads.

There are plans for further development of the area to include the completion of the kitchen and restaurant, and provision of hostels for guests. Trench Town Culture Yard says this will form what will be called the Lion of Judah Courtyard.

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