Saturday, March 5, 2011
The Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival 2011, Royal Plantation, Goldeneye, Geejam and The Jolly Boys
There have been several inquiries into the whereabouts of The Busybuddy, including one from colleague Sergio Ortiz (http://www.sergiosfstop.com/), travel writer/photographer and former war correspondent. Taking pictures while people are shooting at you -now that's what I call a real photographer. Anyway, Busybuddy has been busy -despite The Fleshtones current (lengthly!) sabbatical. We finally took a log-delayed family road trip to Florida last summer, and the band headed up to the land of Ken Fox for a few shows including one at 'This Ain't Hollywood' (it sure isn't!) in one of my favorite cities -Hamilton, Ontario. In the fall, the band cut a new album in collaboration with friends Phast Phreddie Patterson and Lenny Kaye. It will be out next week (mid-March) -with lots of shows to follow. I'll have more to say about all that later. Right now, I've always said it's nice to read about a sunny place while we've all shivering through the darkness of winter, and even better to actually go to one. Most recently...
Jamaica -And All That Jazz: 01/28/11 -02/02/11
...it was my good fortune to be invited by the Jamaica Tourist Board to attend the 15th Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival (www.jamaicajazz&blues.com). Musical events like this are held all across the Caribbean, but Jamaica's festival is one of the biggest and the best, attracting up to 35,000 fans. Of course, Jamaica is a great place to enjoy music, and I'd guess even a better place to play. As each successive performer seemed to declare, Jamaicans make a great audience (but as Diana Ross unhappily found out a few Jazz Festivals ago, also a very discerning one). I had hoped to see performers like Jamaican jazz great Monty Alexander, but he wasn't appearing this year. In reality these festivals lean more to popular music, with a stiffening of R&B. This year's headliner's were: Thursday -Alison Hinds, Brenda Russell, Diana King and Ron Isley; Friday -Tavares, Regina Belle and Maroon 5; and Saturday -Laura Izabor, Natalie Cole and Air Supply.
Diverse line-ups like these remind me of working the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park in the very early '70s. Dig up a tape of the TV special 'Good Vibrations From Central Park (1971) starring the Beach Boys, Carly Simon and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, and you might be able to catch a glimpse of a long-haired Zaremba painting the stage in the opening credits.
Of the R&B artists appearing, I most regretted missing Ron Isley -whom I credit (together with his brothers and The Contours) with personally provoking my Dad to swear off listening to the 'Hit Parade' -especially while driving the car -forever. Of course my sister and I were there to pick up the torch, right through into The British Invasion -which for Dad might have been even worst. Anyway, because of the incessant snow-related flight disruptions, I was forced to spend the night Isley was performing in a Florida airport hotel -in other words, nowhere.
I did make it to Jamaica in time for Friday night's show. Having outgrown a more pastoral setting at Cinnamon Hill's golf course (Cinnamon Hill was also home to Johnny Cash and June Carter), the festival moved last year to Greenfield Multi-Purpose, a gargantuan stadium built for the opening ceremonies of the Cricket World Cup in 2007 and used for little since. Without a doubt the stadium features excellent facilities and production values, but is stranded in the rural parish of Trelawny. That's a good 2 1/2 hours over the mountains from Kingston, but strategically sited between the island's north coast all-important tourist centers. Despite this, and what you would think to be a rather hefty ticket-price for a relatively poor island (general admission, Thurs -Sat: US$ 250), the festival audience is overwhelmingly Jamaican, a telling sign of Jamaica's devotion to music -and a good party. That's a lot better than playing to a lot of tourists, and gives the festival its unique energy and soul.
peanut vendor -Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival
'General admission' equaled standing room on the enormous cricket 'pitch', so 'higglers' were doing brisk business in folding chairs. Jamaica is one country where vendors will approach you with things you might actually want. Unfortunately, umbrellas were to be a hot item this year as well. Since it was not possible to approach the stage without a premium ticket, a lot of the action gravitated to the private hospitality 'tents' -some featuring buffets and open bars, that ringed the field. A hot spot was the Jamaica Tourist Board 'tent'. This being Trelawny, the very open bar was (for once) well-stocked with Gold Label Rum. It's vaguely whiskey-like and inexpensive. Versatile too -lacking ginger ale, it seemed to mix well with 'Sprite' and a dash of Angostura Bitters. I didn't think of asking for it with 'Ting', which would have been too 'heavy' for the light-bodied rum anyway.
Super-smooze -the JTB hospitality 'tent'.
Instead of the usual back-stage scene, the festival 'press' was headquartered in a 'media center' in the grandstands. This was some distance from the stage and with the overcast weather, I expected clouds to pass between us and the performers. Still the centre was a lively scene, with acts dropping to meet the press and lots of energy courtesy of 'drop-ins' from the Kingston entertainment world. I spent some time hanging around trying to get a word in with Walter Elmore, the festival's mercurial director. One of the many people I did chat with was Wayne McGregor of 'Black Zebra' (http://www.myspace.com/blackzebramusic) a Kingston-based rock band that he describes as a "cross between Led Zeppelin and Steel Pulse". That's right, rock & roll -in Kingston. This festival was going to be an education.
Tavares hold forth in the 'media centre'.
Take Tavares. I'll admit I wasn't much of a fan back in the day, but their performance was exhilarating. Despite the disco legacy, Tavares is basically a soulful vocal group at heart, working out to a insistent beat -matching white suits and all. They delivered a string of hits -their own and others, like 'Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel' with an edge the slick original recordings never seemed to have for me. Later, in the Media Centre, the group was still bubbling with boundless enthusiasm, praising Jamaican audiences and breaking into song 'a cappella' at the drop of a hat.
In between acts on the main stage, attention shifted to the Heineken 'small' Stage. The stage was easily approached and the talent consistently entertaining -like Tina Moore & Family, who laid down a soulful 'retrofitted' version of Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love', featuring real horns and drums in lieu of electronics. The Love Delegation or 'horns period' Fleshtones would have been inspired.
The night wound up with the 'Sting'-like vocal delivery of lead singer Adam Levine of platinum-selling Maroon 5. What surprised me was not only did the crowd know who they were, they knew the words to all their songs. It was after 5AM before we got back to the hotel.
Hilton Rose Hall
Visiting journalists, as well as a lot of the talent, were put up at the 488-room Hilton Rose Hall (www.hilton.com/RoseHall). With twin 7-story wings, newly renovated in the sleek, contemporary 'new Hilton' style -beige with lots of polished, dark wood details, this former Wyndham resort recently underwent an identity switch with the Hilton Kingston (which itself became a Wyndham).
Although Hilton is the quintessential 'international' hotel brand, the property makes a good effort at providing local flavor. I wasn't at the hotel for dinner, but Jamaican specialties like salt-fish and ackee, brown stew fish, steamed vegetables, and dumplings, were available at breakfast and lunch. The staff at the beach grill went out of their way to rustle up (and chop open) 'water coconuts' for us. Bartenders were friendly and forthcoming, especially at the breezy terrace bar, where they mixed up a good 'dark & stormy'. From my informal 'overheard conversation' survey, I'd reckon the guests were mostly North American -the twangy accents of the US heartland predominating, reinforced with a smattering of off-balance Brits, one of whom was left flabbergasted at the lack of English beer at the bar. He made do with Red Stripe. The hotel also boasts the Caribbean's largest water park complete with a wonderful slide spanned by a suspension foot-bridge and an long, 'lazy river' circulating through ultra-tropical gardens. Pretty good, especially for families with children.
Saturday evening had the festival audience patiently waiting out a lengthly rain delay. It was the uplifting Tarrus Riley, a late addition to the line-up, who set the evening on the right course. The reggae star topping off his cloud-chasing performance with a rendition of his monumental hit 'She's Royal'. Tarrus did the advance work for the men in the audience and if women in the crowd haven't already melted, they now swooned into their date's waiting arms.
She's Royal! Tarrus Riley at JJ&BF 2011
Along with Regina Belle, Natalie Cole was the 'jazziest' of the scheduled performers. She delivered a cool and sophisticated set, the highlight of which was 'Unforgettable', her somewhat disturbing posthumous duet with her dad Nat 'King' Cole, who appeared on a huge video screen.
Air Supply are regulars on the Caribbean 'Jazz Fest' circuit. Air Supply? I had seen them play to an appreciative audience in Aruba, but nothing prepared me for the Jamaican reaction to the Australian soft-rock duo. It was a veritable sing-along from the first note. The mega-hits came flowing out - 'All Out Of Love', 'Every Woman In The World' -the soundtrack to the love-lives of all present and departed. Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock soaked up the love, heading off stage to work the crowd in the premium priced seats, hugging and singing to the fans, many of whom were moved to joyous tears. Even our 'keeper', the normally unflappable Lyndon Taylor of Ruder-Finn PR, burst into a chorus of 'Making Love -Out Of Nothing At All' in the JTB tent. Yet another reminder -Jamaicans don't only listen to reggae.
Lyndon does Air Supply in the JTB Hospitality 'tent'.
Next year, Shirley Bassey is slated to headline the festival. That's something I wouldn't want to miss. Imagine teaming her up with Tom Jones to tear up the JJ&B stage? From 'Burning Hell' to Thunderball' now, that would be a blast.
An Extraordinary Dinner
Zaremba discovers what he's been missing... photo: Dwiaitt Watson
After the festival, I was invited to check out Sandals Royal Plantation (www.sandals.com), a small luxury property that the Jamaica-based hotel group acquired in 2000. Since then, the chain has set about making the Royal Plantation the jewel in its crown of resorts. The hotel perches, Riviera-like, on a rocky promontory above twin beaches just east of Ocho Rios in the parish of St. Ann. Besides being the location of Ocho Rios, St. Ann has given birth to two of Jamaica's most famous sons - Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley.
All 74 rooms are suites, and all suites are 'oceanfront'. Live peacocks, and butlers who have your clothes unpacked before you finish your welcome drink, greet you at the stately 'Gone With The Wind' entrance. That is, the butler unpacks your clothes, the peacocks just strut about preening themselves and emitting that eerie child-like cry of theirs. Behind the columns, on the second floor there's a magnificent drawing room done up in full-blown regency decor. I'd later find out what the salon was used for. Enveloped by lush- tropical foliage, I have never seen a more lovely pair of tennis courts in my life. Too bad I don't play -another result of my confused youth -imagine growing up in Flushing and avoiding learning how to play tennis. Too busy wearing out Yardbirds records.
The hotel takes great pride in fulfilling guest's every request. I've always have trouble figuring out what to do with a butler, after all I've only just recently figured out how to pick up after myself. Now my son Sergei -he's 14 - he could use a butler -other than me and his Mom, that is. Apparently, guests adapt to the butler thing quite well. Once a butler buried an extra-long extension chord under the sand so a guest could watch a TV program he didn't want to miss at the beach.
When I arrived, most of the guests were having lunch, while enjoying the sounds of a 'mento' trio called 'The Happy Smilers'. Then it was a few steps to the beach, where the guests looked super-relaxed and well-tended, the appropriate drinks reaching their hands, barely needing to be requested. It reminded me of an acquaintance of mine who once had the honor of waiting on Frank Sinatra at some event. He sincerely told Sinatra that he admired his work. Sinatra: "Whiskey on the rocks. Doubles. Keep 'em coming. Don't make me ask..."
That night I was invited to dinner with Lindsey Issacs, Sandals Regional PR Director, and Shupatrik Guha, hotel manager, in that grand drawing room I mentioned. Now reserved for special occasions like visits of Prime Ministers or members of The Fleshtones, it had once been the hotel's main dining room, seeing the likes of Sir Winston Churchill as well as Ian Fleming and Noel Coward, both of whom lived down the road. We started with osetra caviar, served from an iced silver server. I've got to admit I've always found caviar too 'sophisticated' (okay, fishy) for my tastes. Sprinkled on a nice cracker, however, with a dab of sour cream and some finely chopped shallot, and I was starting to get an idea of what all the fuss was about. Better not get too used to it.
Since champagne goes with everything, champagne, Vevue Cliquot, was served as an aperitif (again, to be honest I'm not too choosy when it comes to the bubbly, perhaps a result of toasting the first moon landing in 1969 with Andre 'champagne'). This was a night for grand flourishes, so the champagne was to be opened via 'sabrage' -that is by lopping off the stopper with a sword. I instinctively drew back. I had once attended a party where our very French host, complete with legionnaire's kepi, misjudged his stroke, exploding the bottle and showering us with glass shards. He was left holding the label -and wet. Ces't manifique -yes, but what a waste of champagne. This night, the bottleneck was expertly whacked off with a special ceremonial sword made just for this purpose. At this point I should add that the Royal Plantation operates the Caribbean's only champagne and caviar bar. The meal proper proceeded with an entré of jerk chicken wrap with greens, then Jamaican 'pepperpot' soup with calaloo, followed by curried lobster tail in its shell and black angus steak tournedos with asparagus. Perhaps there was some dark rum deglazing/reduction involved. After all that, I could barely remember what dessert was.
The next morning GM Peter Frazer graciously found time to chat with me about the hotel, the Jazz & Blues Festival and rock & roll before I headed eastward along Jamaica's north coast.
Birthplace of Bond
'Bond' meets Fleming -Goldeneye.
Not far east along the coast is Oracabessa. The Spanish didn't bequeath much to Jamaica save the Maroons, the ancient 'Flat-Bridge' (still a notorious choke-point for traffic between the island's north and south coasts) and some place-names. Oracabessa is the English corruption of the original Spanish name 'Ora Cabeza' -or 'golden head' because of the area's beautiful late-afternoon light. From this name was derived 'Goldeneye' (www.goldeneye.com), the beloved, tropical retreat of Ian Fleming -creator of James Bond. It's now a high-end resort. Over the years, notable guests have added to the profusion of the lush, jungle-y property, by planting trees, beginning with Sir Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister who was invited by Fleming (who was begged by HM Government to invite?) to recover at Goldeneye after suffering what amounted to a nervous breakdown in the wake of the Suez Crisis of 1956. I'm not sure if Hillary Clinton planted anything after she recovered here from her bruising presidential primary bid -people only asked me about Johnny Depp's tree.
Goldeneye recently re-opened after a major expansion -but any expansion would be considered major for a resort that had consisted of only 5 villa/compounds. The best things have been wisely left rather unchanged. You're still offered a frosty 'Goldeneye', the resort's rum-based welcome cocktail, upon arrival. I still like the Gazebo Bar, which rambles along a rocky ledge overlooking the narrow canal that guests used to have to swim across to reach the beach on Low Cay. The channel is now spanned by a suspension foot-bridge -a nifty thing really and a necessary bow to progress -you can't have all those new guests getting wet every time they want to dine at the Gazebo or go to 'reception'. The beach is now lined with a handful of new cottages, that fit into their settings so naturally that they appear to have been there all the while. Despite their down-home West Indian appearance, they are all quite luxurious and stylishly -if understatedly, appointed. Fleming's own villa has been spiffed up a bit, but remains marvelously 'open' and simple, the way the author designed it. The desk at which he wrote all of his Bond stories is still in the master bedroom, tucked into a windowless corner, it is said, so he would not be distracted by the vivid colors of the flowers and Caribbean Sea outside.
A National Brouhaha
This being Jamaica, there was a national brouhaha over the re-naming of near-by Boscobel Aerodrome to 'Ian Fleming International Airport' -providing a pleasant diversion from the country's problems. Was this not another manifestation of a national inferiority complex? Wouldn't it be a sign of national pride and maturity to name it after a Jamaican? The name did have a bit of a craven ring to it. It was a hot topic on talk radio as I continued my drive to Port Antonio. One caller suggested that since this re-naming was meant to satisfy tourism interests (that is the interests that generate the largest share of Jamaica's economy by far), why not just name it after Fleming's creation -James Bond. After all, everyone knows who James Bond is. Good point, but I don't know about naming something serious like an airport after a fictitious character. We do have our own precedent with New York State's Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which I like, maybe more liking renaming LAX for Bugs Bunny or more precisely, Newark International after Santa Claus -he's not an American, but wait, there really was a Santa Claus. In the end, maybe it would be a sign of even further national self-confidence to just leave it at 'Fleming International'. Not that anyone ever said he was a nice guy, but he did love Jamaica and chose to do most of his work there. The French would honor a writer or artist that way -and they're pretty self-confident. Anyway, I'll always call it Boscobel Aerodrome -just like I still say 'Tri-Borough Bridge'.
Port Antonio, Geejam and The Jolly Boys
My final destination in Jamaica was Port Antonio in the north-eastern parish of Portland, to interview British hip-hop pioneer Jon Baker, creator of Geejam Hotel and Recording Studio (www.geejam.com) for Tape Op Magazine, as well as cover the hotel's Bushbar for Caribbean Travel & Life.
According to the tourism 'line', Port Antonio was 'discovered' by actor Errol Flynn, who fell in love with the sleepy town and it's lovely surroundings. Apparently, the locals fell in love with the gregarious Flynn as well. It became a hideaway for Hollywood types and International society figures like the Aga Khan. Then the area dozed off into a long beauty-sleep, insulated from the tumults of the rest of the island by the appallingly bad roads. All of this is true and as it is, 'PA' is a link to an earlier Jamaica of the jet-set era -and before. While in 'P.A.' I also hoped to catch veteran mento band, and Port Antonio locals, The Jolly Boys. After all, the first time I visited 'Portie' hoping to catch a glimpse of Errol's widow, actress Patrice Wymore (Ocean's 11 -the original), I wound up having dinner with her at Geejam. Port Antonio is like that.
To say 'hotel' might give the wrong impression, this exclusive 'boutique-of-a-boutique' property only has three high-tech cottages, a suite and a 3 bedroom villa, which was originally used as the recording studio, nestled on a lush, wooded hillside over looking the Caribbean Sea. No statues or fountains, just towering, vine draped pimento and cottonwood trees. Now the recording studio is in its own building, complete with roof-top sun-deck and a sound room with picture window views of the Caribbean -a nice place to make records. Amy Winehouse worked there recently. When I walked into the studio, The Jolly Boys just happened to be laying down a version of one of my favorite old mento tunes -'Sly Mongoose'. Now lead singer, 72 year old Albert Minott, was originally the fire-dancer for the group back in the days when Errol Flynn changed the group's name from 'The Navy Island Swamp Boys', dubbing them 'The Jolly Boys'.
Like the 'rake and scrape', 'fungi' and 'string band' music of other English West Indian islands, 'mento' developed along with calypso, employing guitar, banjo and a 'sitting bass' or 'rhumba box' -much like a fender amp-sized 'kalimba' that the player sits upon. The music has a 'light' feel that makes it extremely fun to listen and dance to. The advent of ska and reggae, however, relegated mento to the lobbies and pool-side parties of the resorts -for decades. Realizing that the group would not be around forever, along with co-producer/engineer Dale 'Dizzle' Virgo (who also drummed on the record) Baker recorded a new album, 'Great Expectation' with The Jollys at Geejam and sent them off on tour to Britain and Europe. The record avoided the old mento standards, instead featuring a surprising selection of covers familiar to anyone who spent a lot of time in nightclubs in the early '80s. There's even a couple of Iggy Pop tunes and a version of Winehouse's 'Rehab' -a pretty smart move. Even I admit they couldn't just keep singing 'Dandy Shady' forever.
Dale 'Dizzle' Virgo records The Jolly Boys
Down time between interviews with Jon and bartender Jason Brown gave me a chance to met Jon's business partner -Hong Kong musicman and fellow British expat Steven Beaver. Steven was kind enough to invite me along on his swims at dusk. The coast around Port Antonio is notched with a series of beautiful sheltered coves, and now that the resort/studio has opened it's own private beach on gin-clear Mack Bay, the situation at Geejam is pretty near perfect.
Steven was also keen to lay some Stephen James (www.stephenjamesluxuryorganics.com) natural food products on me that he brought from Hong Kong. The all-organic, non-dairy 'pizza' bar did keep me alive on my flight back to JFK. I also tried the 'volcanic' Pili nuts from the Philippines -five times more vitamin E than almonds, and quite tasty. I'm not sure if munching them along with the house 'Blue Geejam' cocktails negated their beneficial properties. According to Steve, the Stephen James 'organic smart bars' are actually made in Macau. Since my childhood obsession with fireworks, I've been fascinated with Macau. Besides avoiding the dubious distinction of a 'Made In China' label, it occurred to me that producing the bars in Macau made sense given that territory's long tradition of preparing dried foods -like the delicious, jerky-like 'meat roll-ups' I sampled on my visit to Macau a few years ago.
Jon Baker -plotting a course for the future.
The next morning I hitched a ride back to Kingston with Jon in the smallest Cessna 4-seater I have ever seen, none the less flown in. This would turn a two-hour plus drive over the 7,000 foot high Blue Mountains into a 20-minute hop. In the aeronautical equivalent of a Fiat 500, the up-drafts bumped us over the mountainous 'spine' of the island. Then, spread across a broad plain, Kingston -the big city, came into view. We touched down in a small aerodrome in an industrial zone near the harbor, then a taxi took me across town and down the same Palisadoes Causeway along the sea that as a boy I saw James Bond traveling upon after his arrival in Jamaica on his very first international screen assignment. That was in 'Dr. No', a half a century ago in the final years of Jamaica as a British colony. Now the airport is named for Michael Manley, fourth Prime Minister of an independent Jamaica. I was headed in the other direction -and a Jet Blue flight back to New York.
Dr. No -Bond rumbles upon arrival in Jamaica, location: Palisadoes
next: The Jolly Boys go to New York and The Fleshtones leave it -as part of the Brooklyn Sound Solution.