SUDDENLY it’s five am, neither of us can see straight and Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love is booming out of the battered bass bins that teeter above us like so many rickety skyscrapers. The crowd goes bananas. Time for another drink.
Jamaica takes the birthdays of its heroes seriously and Bob Marley’s birthday is the cue for celebrations right across the island. The main event in Negril is an open air all-nighter fifty yards up the road from our hotel. The mighty Stone Love soundsystem rock a good-natured but progressively more boisterous crowd of fantastically well dressed locals in their Friday night finery and lamentably shoddy tourists in their day-glo holiday drabery.
Stone Love have become something of a Jamaican institution in the 30-odd years they’ve been doing parties like this. They know the local crowd inside out and play a breathless mix of creaky old lovers classics, bouncy dancehall numbers, more up to the minute shouty bashment and a sprinkling of pop R&B, interspersed with all manner of Space Invader sound effects and whoops, yelps and lewd banter from a decidedly cheeky MC.
Someone teaches us how to do something called the flying plane dance. I have to sit down I’m laughing so much. Then the crowd parts like the Red Sea and a figure in combat fatigues, flak jacket and metal helmet strides through the gap. He’s cradling a big, black rifle which he thoughtfully points towards the ground. I stop laughing and say hello to the Jamaica Constabulary. Yes, officer, we are feeling absolutely Irie, thank you.
Needless to say, it’s the only time we see a gun throughout our stay on the island. Rum, reefer and reggae (the so-called three Rs of Jamaica) however, are much harder to avoid.
Negril, in the parish of Westmoreland, is generally regarded as the centre of the very best marijuana-growing country on the entire island. The town has an unrivalled reputation for live music and is less than an hour’s drive from the old plantation where Appletons concoct 24 different though equally lethal varieties of rum.
Situated right on the very western tip of the island – cue jaw-dropping sunsets most nights – Negril boasts seven miles of white sand beach, stretching from the old Lighthouse on the cliffs in the south to Bloody Bay (someone was butchering whales the day they mapped it, now it’s just bloody lovely) in the north. And like most of Jamaica, most of the time, it’s a tropical paradise. There are hummingbirds just flying about.
It’s a world away from the island’s rather moody reputation. Holidaymakers in high-walled all-inclusive resorts might get all the sun, buffets and rum punch they can handle but they miss out on meeting ordinary Jamaicans in their natural element. Negril isn’t downtown Kingston. Plenty of people are trying to make a living – legit or otherwise – from your holiday spending money but most seem to treat tourists with kid gloves, like hypersensitive children who are not to be upset. They might take the piss but I’ve felt more threatened in Blackpool.
As my very good friend Sly Dunbar once told me: “The whole place is just a movie set .. and everybody in Jamaica thinks they a star.”
We can thank the hippies who ‘discovered’ the town at the tail end of the Sixties (in much the same way Columbus discovered Jamaica back in 1494) for the veggieburgers, but Negril’s relaxed, easy-going charm during the day and its free-wheeling no-holds-barred hedonism during the long, hot, sultry nights are strictly a Jamaican thing.
The town has a reputation for full-throttle partying even within the somewhat less-than-sober context of Jamaica: Heedonism, with its skinny-dipping swingers parties, is just up the coast and there is a thriving sex tourism industry, principally made up, it seems, of 20-something ‘rasta-tutes’ or ‘rent-a-dreads’ escorting middle-aged European and American ladies for a couple of weeks at a time.
It’s probably not an ideal family destination then, but the assorted hawkers, hustlers and higglers offering their wares (anything from hair braiding and Aloe Vera to aqua-biking and cocaine) are noticeably more relaxed and friendlier than some of their counterparts elsewhere. A walk to the shop is a laugh a minute.
In the race for the tourist dollar, bigger, brasher and uglier rival resorts Montego Bay and Ocho Rios have ended up looking like the Costa Brava in the Caribbean with their high-rise apartment blocks and garish neon signage but Negril avoids these pitfalls with a neat local by-law which prohibits construction of anything taller than a palm tree. It seems to keep everything a little more low-key and relaxed.
We give it all some serious thought as we spend a lazy day at Vital Ital, an open air café halfway up Norman Manley Boulevard in the shade of the palm trees between the Yoga Centre and the beach. Swinging in hammocks, stuffing ourselves with roast yam, rice and peas and bean stew and ackee – served in coconut shells by the tall, laconic dread who runs the place – before nipping down for a dip in the clear, warm waters of the Caribbean, we begin to wonder how much better it can get.
Well, there’s no booze, at Vital Ital anyway. Our host, like many rastamen, won’t have anything to do with alcohol or meat; neither does he use salt or water and cooks instead with coconut milk, though there are plenty of places in Negril that will serve you a beer. And then Mr Ital cranks up the battered old ghetto blaster – which seems to have the combined works of Bob Marley and Burning Spear on a loop – and it just doesn’t seem to matter.
[This piece first appeared in Manchester’s City Life magazine, in June 2004]