COVID hit Trench Town Culture Yard feels the pain
What once hosted a bustling business, which provided bread and butter for tour guides, Jamaica Union of Travellers Association (JUTA) drivers, and the community of Trench Town, is now glum buildings devoid of energy, the patter of feet, the clicks of cameras and exhilarating expressions of amazement from happy visitors.
It is hard to connect the sweeping online narrative — “live music and conversation with Trench Town residents, and a bright mural await your enquiry. An authentic and unassuming vibe lets you experience West Kingston as it was and is, present-day” — with the reality of the Trench Town Culture Yard today.
“We are open for business, but there is hardly any business,” Donnette Dowe, chief tour guide and tour manager, told The Gleaner.
“Right now, we really don’t have anything much going on in the Yard. The tour guides have all gone because they are forced to do other stuff in order to try and make ends meet. They are still employed here, and when things pick up back, then they can start working again,” Dowe added. But she admitted that currently, there is no timeline for that.
Dowe sums up the dearth of activity in one word, “COVID”. She pointed out that the closing of the borders internationally and the different waves of the pandemic affecting various countries across the globe were the recipe for potential disaster. The Trench Town Culture Yard, she explained, depends heavily on overseas visitors, as “there is no big traffic from Jamaicans”.
Prior to the pandemic, Dowe had been entertaining visitors from around the world to the fascinating place, steeped in rich musical history and famous for being the birthplace of rocksteady and reggae music, and the home of reggae ambassador Bob Marley.
“We had agreements with tour companies located in Europe, and we were getting a steady flow of visitors from Belgium and other European countries, and we even had people from Russia. And then, when Port Royal opened up, we started getting traffic from there as well, but everything stopped on March 10, 2020,” the chief tour guide lamented.
Dowe, who has worked at the Culture Yard for the past 10 years, said that she is lucky to have one set of visitors per month.
“Some of the JUTA drivers who used to carry the tourists here are no longer in that business. They have had to sell their buses because they couldn’t afford the loan payments and are now hustling taxis,” she told The Gleaner.
Dowe said the Culture Yard is not eligible for any grants. “The Culture Yard pays for itself. We don’t get paid through a bank with a cheque or anything like that. Whatever we would collect here on a weekly or monthly basis, that is the money that pays the bills. So we just have to hope for the best.”
Situated on premises at Lower First Street, the Trench Town Culture Yard houses a museum that showcases the history of Trench Town. There are also articles, instruments and furnishing used by prominent names such as Tata Ford, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Originally built in the 1940s, the Culture Yard’s bio states that “the buildings have been restored to their former glory and the site is truly a heritage tourism destination. The Casbah Café, Lion of Judah Courtyard, in-house artisan shops and restrooms are available to visitors”.
Reports are that the Culture Yard is the place where community leader, Vincent ‘Tata’ Ford, taught Bob Marley how to play the guitar and the place where Bob Marley and Ford co-wrote the classic, No Woman No Cry. The song narrates their experiences living in the yard. In the song, Natty Dread, Marley references Trench Town as he describes his journey from First Street through to Seventh Street, and he immortalises Trench Town with the single titled Trench Town Rock, the song which shouts, “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain”.
History says that it was while living at number 6 and 8 First Street that the Wailers were formed, and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ first album Catch a Fire was recorded.
Trench Town Cultural Yard was designated a protected national heritage site on May 10, 2007.