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A Supposedly Irie Thing I'll Most Certainly Do Again

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, performing on the Norwegian Pearl, is the coordinator of the Welcome to Jamrock cruise. Empress K/For NPR hide caption

toggle caption Empress K/For NPR

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, performing on the Norwegian Pearl, is the coordinator of the Welcome to Jamrock cruise.

Empress K/For NPR

DAY ONE

How much Bob Marley paraphernalia can you cram on a single boat?

That's no riddle. I'm sincerely pondering this as I stand in line at the Port of Miami, about to board the Norwegian Pearl. I am going on a cruise.

I am going on a cruise.

Never did I think I'd utter those words. With all due respect to the millions of people for whom it's the epitome of ecstasy, to me a cruise has long represented the very heart of hell. I envision what David Foster Wallace described in his uproarious essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again": a tacky all-inclusive resort on water, complete with cramped quarters, all-hours stuffing-of-face with mass-produced eats, sunburned tourists getting more and more toasted by the minute. And, unless you're docking that day—you can't leave. Some dear friends of mine got married on the Norwegian Pearl a few years ago. Hell no, I told them.

What, then, could prompt me to put principles aside and get on the boat? Blame it on the music. Damn you, Damian Marley.

This is the first-ever Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise: a five-night pilgrimage from Miami to Jamaica, coordinated by Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley and featuring pretty much every big name in contemporary Jamaican music, from dancehall to dub, singer to sound system. The moment I saw the star-studded lineup, I knew my time had come. For this, I would suck it up and get to cruising.

Right now, though, I'm having profound second thoughts. The masses are descending on the monster of a vessel—some 4,000 of them, to be exact; the ship is totally sold out, with 42 countries represented. The scene looks like a cartoonish caricature of "reggae fan, irie mon": more Marley gear than I've ever laid eyes on, marijuana-leaf logos at every angle, dreadlocks in all shades and styles—blonde and black, on Rastas, hippies, granola-types. Two fifty-something ladies from Queensland, Australia, stand in front of me in line; when I show surprise that they flew all this way, they glare at me as if I'm Babylon personified.

"How could we ever miss this historic event, mate?" comes the rhetorical question.

Monika, my partner-in-crime on this mission, shares my love of reggae and loathing of cruise ships. Giving each other a "lets-do-this-sis" look, we step up to the check-in counter.

"Welcome to Jamrock!" booms the suited-up man at the desk, whose nametag identifies him as Luis from Colombia. We're handed personalized "Jamrock" key cards and, to the tune of Bob Marley's "One Love," make our way up the ramp and onto the boat.

"After this week I'll probably never want to listen to Bob again," I mutter, as "One Love" segues into "Three Little Birds."

"Wait—is that Jr. Gong?" Monika whispers, pointing to the elevators. It's not—the bearer of those floor-length locks is Japanese, not Jamaican. But there's Julian Marley entering the cafeteria—er, restaurant. There, too, is Delano from the feted Renaissance sound system, and Sami-T from the formidable Japanese sound system Mighty Crown—the first non-Jamaican sound to win the prestigious World Clash competition in New York. And there are dancehall artists Wayne Marshall and Cham, with entourage. We follow them all and join the hungry hordes.

"Happy happy, washy washy!" comes the greeting at the door, followed by a dollop of antibacterial spray. Apparently there are two human beings whose job it is to ambush passengers as they enter the buffet and dole out disinfectant.

"How appetizing," Monika declares flatly, dutifully holding out hands to accept the antiseptic.

Inside, Dennis Brown emerges softly from the speakers. The scandalously extensive buffet features everything Americans love to cram in their mouths: pizza, pasta, mounds of meat drowned in multihued, viscous sauces. But there are also more apt offerings: jerk chicken, the most colossal wok of rice and peas ever cooked, a vat labeled "ital stew," in homage to Rastafarian dietary laws, which forbid meat and salt.

Bellies full, Monika and I settle into our room. It's more like a closet or a cell, actually, but never mind that; the twin beds are comfortable and we don't plan to spend much time in them anyway. As our funky "Welcome to Jamrock" program—well, not program, but "guide to who's who and wha gwan pon the first ever reggae cruise"—makes clear, the coming days' schedule is nothing short of daunting. There are concerts, after-parties, after-after-parties, day parties, soccer games, movie screenings—it's a 24/7 experience. I've been loyally attending Reggae Sumfest in Jamaica annually for over a decade; long ago I earned my hardcore partying stripes at many a Trinidad Carnival. This, though, is clearly equally demanding.

Let the games begin. All bodies on deck. The outdoor pool has been drained and the area transformed into a massive stage and party zone. Weaving my way through buckets of Corona and Filipino waiters peddling drinks at every turn—alas, "all-inclusive" doesn't apply to alcohol, which is how the boat makes its real money—I roll up to the bar and order an Appleton rum and soda. Alas, I must settle for a Mount Gay—there's no Appleton on board.

"Welcome to Jamrock onboard the beautiful Norwegian Pearl!" comes the booming, robotic-sounding welcome from the loudspeakers.

And suddenly, the boat is moving. And Jr. Gong is onstage waving and hailing us up, and the crowd is cheering and here I am, vibing to "Welcome to Jamrock" amid the most bizarre blend of peoples—in terms of race, age, nationality—I've ever shared a dance floor with. There are barefoot hippies and white-boy frat-types; sixty-something West Indians, skanking away; Jamaicans hailing from the suburban enclaves of uptown Kingston; already-drunk American couples, black and white, who welcome any opportunity to eat, drink, cruise and eat some more; reggae lovers repping other parts of the Caribbean, from the Virgin Islands and Haiti to Trinidad and Antigua. There are Germans, Australians, Brazilians, Japanese—you name the demographic and I'm seeing it, on a single deck. It's as if we're myriad members of the same cult, on some hajj together to the holy land: birthplace of our beloved music. Well, either that or we're part of a grand, Gilligan's Island-style social experiment: How will this motley crew get along for not a three-hour tour but a five-night cruise?

If the first night's concert is any indication, the answer is swimmingly. The Marleys' show has everyone mellow and grooving. Julian delivers the longest set I've ever seen from him, performing most tracks off his latest album, Awake. Jr. Gong mesmerizes us with his usual solid performance: not much interaction with the crowd—the youngest of Bob's sons wears his Marley mantle quietly, humbly, even haltingly; onstage he thus comes across as shy and unassuming—but he's powerful singing songs like "Road to Zion," "Confrontation" and the stunningly haunting "It Was Written."

Backstage I bump into the two Marleys, who explain that it's their first time on any cruise, and this grand event has been four years in the making.

"We didn't do much advertising—just marketing to the right people. And Facebook, really," Julian says.

Damian's Facebook page, that is; he's the Marley with the most pull. Attribute that to the fact that his music doesn't imitate his father's but is a thrilling, inventive update of it—a marriage of traditional reggae with the vocal style and electric riddims of contemporary dancehall.

"We had to find the right cruise company, who would take a gamble, so to speak, on a reggae cruise," Damian tells me. "They thought, 'There's no money there.' But we knew from the beginning that they were wrong. Reggae has always been marketable. And look, see—we were right. And here we are."

DAY TWO

Wait—where are we? Opening my eyes the next morning, I forget.

A hangover headache and the sound of faraway bass is reminder enough. I've returned to the reggae-fied alternate universe. Last night ended with morning; after-parties featuring legendary sound systems and selectors like David Rodigan, veteran architect of Britain's reggae scene, kept us all feeling the vibes.

I pull open the curtains: no land in sight. Monika and I scan the day's schedule with a sigh. We'll get a nap in at some point, somehow, because we have to get our retro on at the '90s dancehall party after tonight's show, even though it starts at 3 am and we dock in Montego Bay a few hours later.

Breakfast means more antibacterial washy-washy—happy happy!—and, more saltfish stew; I'm again impressed by the local dishes included with the American bacon-and-egg staples. Relishing the morning selection of tunes—"Rivers of Babylon" serenades me as I sip coffee—I catch a faint whiff of weed. Utter the words "reggae cruise" and surely you envision a colossal cloud of ganja smoke sailing down the high seas. But I've actually seen little smoking on the boat thus far. There are lots of whisperings: who's got it, how much the Marleys managed to smuggle on, the number of people arrested while boarding, after the dogs sniffed out their stash—but not many glaring displays of the herb itself.

On the main deck it's another day, another set of Jamaica-fied T-Shirts, sported like religious attire. Monika and I decide there's an unspoken wardrobe competition at play on the boat and the going rule is, the more obscure and unique, the better. Thusly, the Tuff Gong T, or the one featuring an Adidas-logo pot leaf branded by "Humboldt County"—these earn one or two points. But that decades-old souvenir from Sunsplash Reggae Festival, back in the day—twenty points. Also in the mix are a plethora of Lion of Judah tattoos and tie-dyed everything; in the pool I spy a burly white man with a Rastafarian-colored tattoo running down the entire length of his back. Who knew?

"Good morning, Jamrock cruisers!"

The robotic announcement voice booms overhead, again making me feel as if I'm somewhere between a summer camp and a military regime. With that uber-sunny tone of his, Mister Announcer must surely be providing details about today's Bingo game. But no, he's letting us know that after lunch singer Tarrus Riley will be signing his latest album, Love Situation, in the shop, and the movie theater will screen '70s-era Jamaican film Countryman, followed by the dancehall-inflected cult flick Third World Cop.

Then it's music time. All day long, in every nook and cranny of the colossal ship. From mainstream dancehall selectors like DJ Norie and DJ Liquid, presiding over the massive jerk pit on the main deck at lunch, to the oldies decorating the various inboard restaurants, to the perfectly curated Jamrock radio station streaming in every room. It's a reggae fan's heaven—there's not a poor selection, ever. What would it do to a person, I muse, to live in this land of the omnipresent good tune?

Tonight's show kicks off with the Wailing Souls. But, Monika and I, along with our new friend Kelly from Antigua, miss their performance because we discover the cigar bar. We opt to leisurely puff a Cuban while watching great programming on Hype TV—Jamaica's version of MTV, streamed all over the ship. But we do catch the stellar set by Tarrus Riley, an artist I had already deemed incapable of delivering a bad show. He's always got the full package: sing-along hits like "She's Royal" and "Stay With You," an operatic voice, lovely accompaniment by saxophonist Dean Fraser. Tonight he makes me especially happy by performing a tribute to classic reggae singer John Holt, who passed away days ago; Tarrus—"Mister Singey Singey," as he calls himself—more than does justice to Holt love songs like "Stick By Me" and "Stealing."

Shaggy closes out the show with his usual energetic, bombastic—er, boombastic—stage shtick; if there's one artist whose songs everyone on this boat knows all the lyrics to, it's Shaggy.

If there's one artist whose songs everyone on this boat knows all the lyrics to, it's Shaggy. Empress K/For NPR hide caption

toggle caption Empress K/For NPR

If there's one artist whose songs everyone on this boat knows all the lyrics to, it's Shaggy.

Empress K/For NPR

"This cruise is a brilliant friggin' idea," Shaggy tells me after the show. "Me and [soca star] Machel [Montano] had this idea years ago, actually, so when Damian's manager came to me I said yes immediately. The price-tag was, what, two grand to get on this boat? You knew you weren't gonna get kids with that kind of money—you're getting hardcore people who are committed to this music. It's brilliant."

"It'd be just as brilliant to plan a soca version of this," I propose.

"Machel and I are doing it—it'll be dancehall and soca. It's a good thing that this one works and works well so we can point to it and say, 'Look. We can do the same.'"

Later that night I run into Shaggy again, jumping on the mic at one of the afterparties—legendary Jamaican sound system Stone Love is presiding—and proving that pop star or not, he can ride a classic reggae riddim with the best of them. At the "Dub Club" afterparty on another floor, meanwhile, tattooed white folks are entranced by the selections of an LA-based sound. And for a moment it really, actually moves me—the incredible diversity of this music we lump into the umbrella category that is "reggae." And the fact that I share a pretty profound passion with this disparate crowd of folks I'm starting to feel a kind of kinship with.

Before stealing a bit of sleep, Monika and I do a walk of shame: into the all-hours buffet, to consume nachos and other manner of drunk-friendly calories. Sizzla burns fire on Babylon as we pig out; even at godforsaken hours in the godforsaken belly of the beast, good tunes keep coming. I swear I spy a Rasta or two surreptitiously getting his jerk chicken on at a secluded table nearby, but hey, what happens on the Jamrock Cruise ...

DAY THREE

Hungover yet again, I open my eyes and tear open the curtains: Jamaica! There it is, beckoning kindly—rolling green hills, still aquamarine waters. And a warehouse parking lot. The boat's docked in what seems like a port under construction; there are "Best-Dressed Chicken" trucks and sea containers everywhere. I hear faint echoes of Jimmy Cliff singing "You Can get it if You Really Want." And I do really, really want to get it, so I hustle to make my way off the boat.

"Smiley smiley!" purrs a woman wearing a sexy pirate outfit, complete with fake dreadlocks, as we, the cruise massive, are welcomed to the real Jamrock.

Well, sort-of real. Piling into a van from the Montego Bay port to the beach, we're given a vocabulary lesson by the driver. Yah mon, Irie mon, No problem mon, he recites with requisite grin. I can barely contain my groan. This is the uber-touristy, cruise-ship Jamaica experience to which I've never, thankfully, been privy. The chock-a-block beach we arrive at might as well be the cruise ship on land. Here's everybody—beachy beachy!—but again, one thing saves the day. Emerging from speakers at the beach bar, complementing the Appleton I'm excited to finally imbibe, it fills the air. Great. Reggae. Music.

Back on the boat, tonight's show keeps the great thing going—the perfect antidote to the cartoon-Jamaica nonsense of the day. I dub it "Night of No Visa": Most of the artists on the bill cannot perform on U.S. shores. Etana is the exception to that; Jamaica's version of Jill Scott kicks off the show with a sweet serenade, including some divine Bob Marley covers. Jah Cure delivers his rock-star routine, stripping down to an undershirt, curling himself around the mic, clasping eager female hands and crooning love songs in a voice that sounds as if he's wringing out passion from every note. But he also stuns me by commenting on something I've never seen him address from the stage.

"I'm a man who's made mistakes," he says, before giving a shout-out to, arguably, Jamaica's two greatest living artists—both incarcerated: Buju Banton, serving a ten-year sentence in a federal prison in Florida on drug charges, and dancehall don Vybz Kartel, serving life in Jamaica for murder. Jah Cure, see, rose to fame while locked up in Jamaica on a controversial rape charge, for which he maintains innocence. Cure's rendition of "True Reflection," the song co-written by a prison official and recorded when he was behind bars, is especially moving in this context.

"I swear," he sings, every tone leaking pain—the signature Cure sound. "I can be a better man."

Busy Signal spent time behind bars, too, so when he takes the stage in his snazzy red suit and sings "me nah go a jail again," you can tell he means it. The gaggle of white girls next to me is feeling Busy's electric set, which blends his dancehall hits with his newer reggae material. They tell me they'd never heard of him—they came for the Marleys—but now they're Shazam-ing every tune.

It's Bounty Killer, though, who steals the show.

"Cross! Angry! Miserable!" he sneers, intoning the phrase he popularized. The lanky deejay known by many monikers—the warlord, the five-star general, the poor peoples' governor—launches into a ferocious rendition of his gritty tunes, from the '90s to the present day. His fast-paced chat about the garrison, the entrenched ghettoes of Kingston, is a welcome back to Jamrock from the touristland that was the afternoon. Ironically, the boat feels more authentically Jamaican than land did.

"We're getting spoiled," I tell Monika, when I find myself yawning at one of the after-parties. Hearing Stone Love's wicked dancehall set in New York would be enough to make my month, but here it's delightfully de rigeuer. And so we move on to find something astonishing. On the main deck is nothing short of a legend: selector and producer King Jammy, who, with his sound system, helped birth reggae in the late '60s and essentially spawned dancehall in the '80s. Jammy is poised behind the controls while England-born, Bronx-raised deejay Shinehead is delivering old-school dancehall toasting over classic riddims. Even in my bleary eyed and tipsy state, I know I'm watching history enacted: This, after all, is how dancehall was born, when dozens of artists recorded over Jammy's "Slang Teng" riddim, considered dancehall's first. And when our ever-present host, Jr. Gong himself, shows up to take the mic and improvise, I know I'm hearing more history—past and present converging, eras colliding.

You name the demographic and I'm seeing it. It's as if we're on some hajj together to the holy land: birthplace of our beloved music — or we're part of a Gilligan's Island-style social experiment. Empress K/For NPR hide caption

toggle caption Empress K/For NPR

You name the demographic and I'm seeing it. It's as if we're on some hajj together to the holy land: birthplace of our beloved music — or we're part of a Gilligan's Island-style social experiment.

Empress K/For NPR

DAY FOUR

I wake up to find two cards in my purse, neither of which I have any recollection of accepting last night. One is marked "intelligentRebeLion.org" and the other, "love is the answer." A donation envelope for the Reggae Girlz, the Jamaican soccer team, has been slipped under our cabin door.

"All roads lead to Margaritaville!" booms Mister Announcer overhead. We're docked in Ocho Rios, where the day party is on land. Actually, none of my roads lead to Margaritaville—I'll pass on Jimmy Buffet's Disneyland version of a Caribbean hangout. They instead lead to Jamaica Inn, a boutique beachfront hotel ten minutes from the cruise port and one of my favorite properties anywhere on the island. There, I lay back on the sand and indulge in the only two glorious things the reggae cruise can't provide: silence and wide-open space.

I'm relaxed enough, returning to the boat, to go for a workout at the gym.

"That's temperature," says the girl on the treadmill next to me.

"Huh?"

"Sean Paul," she says, with a no-duh stare. Ah, yes—she means the song. The crossover artist is doing sound check for tonight's show.

It's a show that leaves the boat's crew in star-struck bliss—Sean Paul's appeal is broad enough to reach all the nations represented by the staff onboard, from deckhand to cabin cleaner. As his backup dancers adroitly work the stage and he delivers a surprisingly competent edition of "No Woman No Cry," I spy staff sneaking in to snap phone shots of the dancehall deejay. Later, when I'd ask Sean Paul if even he—who, more than anyone else in recent years, has seen dancehall go international—is surprised by the mix of people on this boat, he'd nod vigorously.

"Definitely. It's, what, 42 nations represented? Crazy." For a decade, he'd go on, Damian has been saying that they should tour together. Neither of them has ever lost faith in the crossover potential of Jamaican music.

"A lot of people don't believe in the music like that, and every time a reggae song becomes international people say 'Oh, it's back'—but it never went nowhere! So that's the thing that this cruise is important in showing people, and that's an amazing thing for our music, our culture, our country."

I share his sense of pride. If he knows what it is to be told the music you make isn't mainstream enough, I know what it is to be told the same about the music you love and write about. This flawlessly coordinated cruise is a big, fat "I told you so!" to the naysayers.

Jr. Gong, Stephen Marley, Cham, Sean Paul — the list goes on. A massive jam session ensues and nearly everyone leaps onstage to spit some lyrics. To call this reggae history is no hyperbole. Empress K/For NPR hide caption

toggle caption Empress K/For NPR

Jr. Gong, Stephen Marley, Cham, Sean Paul — the list goes on. A massive jam session ensues and nearly everyone leaps onstage to spit some lyrics. To call this reggae history is no hyperbole.

Empress K/For NPR

DAY FIVE

I spy Cuba from my cabin. We're sailing by it, en route back to Miami. Today's another at-sea day, filled with more soccer games, day parties and movie screenings—I've got to to catch the classic 1972 Perry Henzell film The Harder They Come, starring Jimmy Cliff. I'm tired. But it's a good kind of tired—one born of arduous bliss and the pleasure of a mission accomplished. My musical brain can barely process all the stellar performances, heavenly DJ sets and surprise appearances I've taken in during the past few days. I've stopped doing double takes at seeing Damian Marley just standing around, chatting with people at every turn. Oh, it's just Jr. Gong again.

The main floor of the boat is crowded with passengers putting down deposits on next year's cruise—yep, promised to be bigger and better, maybe even doubled in size. Ogling the lines I find myself getting chills, actually, at the prospect of the possibilities this cruise holds, in terms of exposure for Caribbean artists, labels and brands.

I'm ready for the grand finale, a show that includes Morgan Heritage and Stephen Marley. Alas, the weather isn't so ready. As if to herald the successful climax of a holy journey, the skies open up and the rain douses us. Morgan Heritage brave it out and deliver their usual feel-good show. But when it's time for Stephen Marley to take the stage, the deck has become a lake and the showers turned torrential.

"Let we go!" Marley declares, as if leading the people to the promised land. And so we follow him inside to the main club, where a massive jam session ensues and nearly everyone leaps onstage to spit some lyrics: Jr. Gong, Stephen Marley, Cham, Sean Paul—the list goes on. Then the whole shebang gets even more surreal. Stephen Marley leads the motley crew—all these reggae-worshipping folks from sundry nations, races, ages and worlds—in a glorious rendition of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." I officially cave and become a mushy mess; the camaraderie is all-consuming and the positive energy electrifying. To call this reggae history is no hyperbole.

Has it really all been real?

DAY SIX

Waking up, I'm not so sure. A Shakira song greets me at breakfast and the Port of Miami is outside. Have I been turned back to pumpkin? Must I really leave the land of washy-washy and perpetual Jamaica-ness? I am about to be set forth into a world where everything doesn't revolve around reggae and really crappy music abounds.

Well, until next year.

For bookings on and further information about the 2015 Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise, see welcometojamrockreggaecruise.com.

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