Tuff Gong International’s Making of the Music Tour is an engaging behind the scenes look at the record-making process from rehearsal to album. My Bob Marley Museum tour guide had done an excellent job at not-so-subtly dropping hints that no Bob Marley experience in Jamaica is complete without visiting the studio where it all began. Six months later I finally heeded the marketing strategy and paid a visit. Tuff Gong International was founded by Bob in 1965. Its name is derived from Bob’s nickname “The Gong” which he shares with Rastafari founder Leonard “The Gong” Howell, and tuff you had to be to survive in the Jamaican music business. Tuff Gong boasts one of the planet’s few remaining operational vinyl record manufacturing plants and is one of the Caribbean’s largest recording studios. Artistes, musicians, producers and tourists travel from all over the world to see and use this studio because it is said to have a special creative vibe; maybe since its mixing board is the same one used by Bob on all of his records. Since its inception, Bob Marley and Tuff Gong International have sold millions of records and continue to do so with many of Bob’s children following in his musical footsteps and still recording at the studio today.
With its 220 Marcus Garvey Drive address, Tuff Gong International is easily accessible by public or private transport. From Kingston, take any JUTC bus heading to Portmore from the Half-Way-Tree Transport Centre as the route these buses drive will pass the studio. Ask the driver to let you off near Bell Road on which the entrance is actually located. Taxis are more expensive but will carry you right onto the property if you don’t feel up for trying to figure out the Jamaican bus system. And of course, if you have your own private transport, no worries. Parking spaces are ample. P.S. Google Maps will suffice better than my directions can.
Tours are available Mondays to Saturdays except on most national holidays and Bob Marley’s birthday (February 6). They require an appointment for groups of over 10 persons on Saturdays but otherwise walk-ins are welcome. The first tour begins at 9:30 am and every half hour afterwards until 4pm. Each guided tour lasts under 2 hours and costs US$20 per adult, US$10 per child and US$5 per student with a valid Jamaican student ID. If you plan to take the Bob Marley Museum and Tuff Gong tours on the same day, you could buy a combined ticket called the Combo One Love Tour for US$40 and US$20, adult and child respectively, to save a few bucks. There is no similar deal for local students however.
The Tour & Highlights
The tour begins in a store-room for music equipment that was around from Bob’s time and is made available if you book recording time at the studio. Since I was the only person on the tour this afternoon, I got a chance to test out all the equipment and have my musical-instrument-playing-inability revealed to my tour guide. Tour guide Desmond could knowledgeably reel off the names of famous people who have recorded at the studio over the years, the most recent popular artiste being American rapper Jay-Z. As usual, the inadequacies of my music knowledge emerged too but at least I was able to sing along with a few. The tour guides always seem to think that Bob’s fans are musically talented. 😅
Desmond had a lot to tell but the story which stands out most is that of Bob not being allowed onto the property on which Tuff Gong is now located once. Previously, it was called the Federal Records Studio and the guards turned down their noses at him when he presented himself for a recording opportunity, saying how dare a man of his calibre expect to be allowed entry. This was during the era where Rastas were frowned upon in local society (sometimes still are) for being disturbers of the status quo with their philosophies, long matted hair, often military style clothing and marijuana smoke. He was eventually allowed entry but never forgot the insult, vowing to himself that he’d someday be rich enough to purchase the property. That he did in 1981 but sadly never lived long enough to enjoy its ownership, passing May 11th of that year. His original mixing board and other equipment, shockingly advanced for its time, are now located on the premises. They kept his vision alive by keeping the recording studio concrete-free since it would interfere with the acoustics and ensuring that real homemade percussion instruments are still used in the music-making today.
No visit to a Bob Marley property would be complete without stopping to admire the murals. Similar to the Bob Marley Museum, many of these were painted by inspired fans from all over the world. There are 2 by a Polish couple. The wife first visited the studio on a solo trip to Jamaica and begged to add a mural. When she went home and told her husband, he got rather jealous and insisted they return as a couple so he could add his own artistic splash. There are all kinds of stories behind the other murals too and nothing but positive messages threaded into them.
Lastly, I admit my naiveté in the making of records, LPs and the like. I was led from machine to machine and told the function of every bit. I even got to run my hands through bags of the black PVC (vinyl) chips used to make the records, hold the molds and see the finished products. Who knew vinyl record manufacture was so sophisticated, and to think that these equipment were around from during Bob’s lifetime and still run smoothly today!
This afternoon adventure of sorts proves that there’s always somewhere new around the corner waiting to be discovered or explored. Here I was for months thinking I can’t travel for a while because of school yet the 2 hours I took from my day to visit here was just enough to clear my mind, get my productive juices flowing and give me something travel-ly to quickly blog about. If you’re ever in Kingston, do pay a visit. The tour is worth your while especially if you’re into reggae music, vintage things and learning new stuff just for the heck of it. Being the only tourist and a female at that on a male-led tour.. you can imagine how that went if you know anything about the persistence of Jamaican men. Nonetheless I had a good edutaining afternoon and I rate the experience full stars, ☆☆☆☆☆.
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‘Til next time. ✌