A store in Nine Mile. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

Forever lovingJamaica

November 14, 2016

Artist, photographer, film director, musician. Lee Jaffe has comfortably inhabited all these roles in many parts of the world, but his attachment to Jamaica, where he was, for a period, a member of Bob Marley's band, the Wailers, led him back to the island more than 200 times over the past 40 years. His photography of Jamaica and recommendations of what to see and do provide an unusual insider's guide to the island in the latest installment of Travel Weekly's Masters Series.

In 1972, before reggae music became the soundtrack for every Caribbean vacation and when few people outside of Jamaica recognized the name Bob Marley, a 22-year-old American multimedia artist, photographer, musician and film director named Lee Jaffe arrived in London, hoping to persuade expatriate Jamaican actress Esther Anderson to be in a film he wanted to make in Chile.

As their initial phone conversation came to a close, Anderson invited Jaffe to join her and some friends to go to the movies that evening.

He would discover that they were going to a premiere and would, in fact, be in the company of the director and a producer. He rode with the group to a theater in Brixton, a part of London populated mostly by West Indians at the time.

Lee Jaffe’s self-portrait.
Lee Jaffe’s self-portrait. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

The movie was "The Harder They Come," directed by Perry Henzell and co-produced by Chris Blackwell, his companions for the night. The film would introduce reggae to much of the world and make international stars of Jimmy Cliff and the other recording artists who appeared in it.

Blackwell, the founder of Island Records (and, eventually, the Jamaican hotel collection Island Outpost), signed Marley's group, the Wailers, that year, and their first album for the label, "Catch a Fire," helped Marley become one of the most recognized musical artists in the world.

"I didn't know anything about Jamaica, and all of a sudden I was watching this revolutionary movie with amazing music that, outside of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora, nobody really knew about," Jaffe said. "And the audience was going crazy."


Jaffe estimated that he's been to Jamaica 200 times since then, and his travel tips here derive from a personal perspective: Much of his insight into the island's culture is a result of his close friendship with Marley. He would eventually record and tour as a member of the Wailers (playing harmonica) and was the producer of Wailer Peter Tosh's first album, "Legalize It."

Jaffe, left, with Peter Tosh in 1975; Jaffe produced Tosh’s first album, “Legalize It,” which was released in 1976.
Jaffe, left, with Peter Tosh in 1975; Jaffe produced Tosh’s first album, “Legalize It,” which was released in 1976.

During his times in Jamaica, Jaffe always had his camera with him, using his visual artistry to capture the imagery of his friends and the island he came to love. There is no separating the music, the people and landscape of the country for Jaffe. 

"The mix of cultures -- Spanish, British, West African, Irish, Chinese and East Indian -- gave birth to a profound new culture and a new music of love, defiance and spiritual awakening," he said.

Most visitors to the island gravitate to the developed tourism regions of Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Negril, but Jaffe explored a fair amount of what he estimates are the "10,000 miles of tiny, remote roads. Some paved and potholed, some just rich, red earth."

Bob Marley in 1974, preparing a meal in Little Bay, an area in western Jamaica near Negril.
Bob Marley in 1974, preparing a meal in Little Bay, an area in western Jamaica near Negril. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

His first trip to the island can be traced to a conversation with his friend Jim Capaldi, the drummer for Traffic, a very successful band for Island Records. Jaffe was visiting him in a Manhattan hotel room after a concert at Madison Square Garden in 1973. Sitting in a chair in the corner of the room was a young Jamaican man with "dreadlocks and warm but piercing eyes" -- Marley.

Capaldi put "Catch a Fire" into his boom box and, again, Jaffe found himself mesmerized by "powerful, hypnotic voices."

Marley and Jaffe became fast friends. Jaffe's dream of making a movie in Chile had slipped away earlier that year following the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power there, so he had no conflicts on his calendar when Blackwell invited him to join some friends in Jamaica.

Jaffe was taken straight from the airport in an open Jeep to Strawberry Hill, now part of Island Outpost but then a white, wooden colonial house. Arriving at the property's mountaintop perch, he looked down at the city of Kingston and saw what he said is still, 43 years later, "one of the most awe-inspiring sights I've ever seen."

What began as an eight-day vacation turned into a four-year residency in Jamaica and, Jaffe said, the beginning of a lifetime journey.

Bob Marley’s cousin, Hugh “Sledger” Peart, in front of the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston.
Bob Marley’s cousin, Hugh “Sledger” Peart, in front of the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

He and Marley soon moved into a two-story colonial great house in Kingston that Blackwell had obtained as an office for Island Records. Marley and Jaffe took up residence in bedrooms in the house, behind which was former slave quarters that served as a rehearsal studio. Today, that building houses Kingston's most-visited tourist attraction: the Bob Marley Museum.

Jaffe also was an occasional guest on the south side of Kingston, at Marley's family house while it was still under construction, even though it meant sleeping on the porch floor of the unfinished residence. It was a circumstance, Jaffe said, that helped inspire the Marley song "Talkin' Blues," with the opening lyrics, "Cold ground was my bed last night, and rock was my pillow, too."

Jaffe said that in addition to the museum, he recommended that visitors to Kingston check out the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Hope Botanical Gardens and Zoo, try Ashanti restaurant for Jamaican vegetarian/vegan food and sample the ice cream at Devon House Bakery.

"Having Bob as kind of a tour guide of the island was really exciting," Jaffe said. And sometimes, more than a bit dramatic. One night they "had been harassed by the police at a roadblock." The experience and, Jaffe said, his bluesy harmonica playing as they drove away, inspired a No. 1 local hit, "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)."

Marley eventually built a house on the west side of the island, about 10 miles from Negril, in a secluded, rocky part of the coast. Jaffe visited him there, and although he eschews most of the developed tourist areas, he conceded that Negril, even after development, is "still beautiful, and there's a lot of music in Negril. That's a big plus."

Reggae musician Peter Tosh.
Reggae musician Peter Tosh. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

He also recommended Blackwell's Island Outpost properties "for those who can afford it."

Jaffe lived in Spanish Town while he was producing "Legalize It" but said it doesn't really hold much appeal for tourists.

Although he has been to the island frequently, he believes that in one person's lifetime it would be impossible to know Jamaica completely.

"When I got there, it seemed like a microcosm of the world, and the music reflected its eclectic nature," he said. "It's physically huge, 100 miles long, 50 miles wide, with 7,000-foot-tall mountains running through it."

And there is music everywhere you go.

It can be "an amazing vacation," he said, best experienced just traveling from one place to another along "thousands of miles of tiny roads, roads you can only go five or 10 or 15 miles an hour."

Its white-and-pink-sand beaches on the north coast are legendary, he said, but he "loves the east end of the island," in particular the area between Oracabessa and Port Antonio, including Port Maria.

"The whole area is still extremely, extremely beautiful, unspoiled and still quite pristine," Jaffe said. "There are brilliant attractions, nice small hotels and even a great touristy thing: a raft ride up the river in Port Antonio."

It is a region, Jaffe said, that "still has that Old Jamaica feel."

A man known as “Bigs,” shown here in Kingston, was Tosh’s road manager during his first solo tour in 1976.
A man known as “Bigs,” shown here in Kingston, was Tosh’s road manager during his first solo tour in 1976. Photo Credit: Lee Jaffe

He also likes the black sand of the South Coast, and Jaffe recommended the area around Treasure Beach: "Still very beautiful and still mostly unspoiled."

The soul of the island, he said, is in the Blue Mountains.

"The Blue Mountains are exceptional, gorgeous, spectacular and mystical," Jaffe said. "I don't have a special spot to recommend. There are no real towns, just tiny villages. Some have really nice, little cafes. It's very unspoiled. You can pick out one or two of the coffee plantations to visit in the mountains, but it's really just the drive, the views and the forest, the plants and the birds."

Jaffe said he can think of no better way to tap into Jamaican life than to stop at the ubiquitous fruit stands that line roads throughout the island.

"They're still so much a part of the fabric of the culture," he said. "Drinking coconut water from a fresh coconut is spectacular. There are amazing fruits you don't see often elsewhere: sweetsop, guinep, star apple, neesberry, a wide variety of mangoes and bananas, each with distinct tastes and textures.

"The fruit stands are a wonderful thing. Very traditional Jamaica. Incredible."

In fact, the whole of the island, he said, exudes "glorious physical beauty." He has spent more than 40 years capturing those landscapes and the people who populate them through his photography. And the photos he has provided to Travel Weekly include some of his favorites.