Last updated: March 10, 2012 12:31 am

Expat lives: For the record

The authenticity of Port Antonio is what first charmed British music executive Jon Baker, who has set up a hotel and studio in Jamaica

There are few major pop culture “scenes” from the last 35 years that British music executive Jon Baker hasn’t been a part of. From Britain’s punks and New Romantics in the 1980s to New York’s hip-hop pioneers in the 1990s and 21st-century stars such as No Doubt and Amy Winehouse, 51-year-old Baker has been a constant presence at the meeting points between music, fashion and art in the Caribbean and on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in London to a fashion designer mother, Baker was introduced to the city’s underground music world as a student at the Chelsea School of Art. His studies were augmented by streaks of the entrepreneurship that would ultimately lead him to the Americas – including a pair of “punk” fashion boutiques along with styling gigs for bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Indeed, it was fashion that first brought Baker to New York, though music ultimately kept him there. Introduced to the city’s burgeoning hip-hop culture while in town producing a catwalk show, Baker moved to New York in 1981 where he promoted local hip-hop acts and imported London club events to Manhattan night spots. Home for Baker ranged from a converted Lower East Side warehouse to the Gramercy Park Hotel until he returned to Britain nearly five years later.

Back in England, he met his future wife – the German-Jamaican model Ziggi Golding – and had two children, Savannah and Troy. The family returned to New York in 1991, where Baker became senior executive at Island Records and later co-president of Sir Richard Branson’s V2 Records.

Baker says it was during this second New York stint that the city truly became home: “New York was where my career flourished, where my kids went to school, where I made many of the friends I still have today.” Yet by 2001 Baker was burnt out; stung by a recent divorce, depleted by music industry demands and saddened by the 9/11 attacks. Baker retreated to the sea-front lot he had purchased years earlier as a vacation property near Port Antonio on Jamaica’s mountainous, undiscovered northern coast. A decade later, Port Antonio – which had lured the likes of Errol Flynn, Ian Fleming and the Aga Khan during its 1950s heyday – remains Baker’s part-time home.

Although he had visited Jamaica for years, living there required an entirely different mindset. “The first thing I had to learn was patience,” says Baker, who has now taken Jamaican citizenship and is a doting father to his half-Jamaican son Che, whom he is raising with his Kingston-based partner. “You have to understand the rhythm of how things get done here or else you’ll go out of your mind.”

And Baker is certainly doing a lot. His estate has evolved into Geejam, a seven-room private hotel with an on-site recording studio. The studio is where artists such as Drake, No Doubt, the late Amy Winehouse and local band The Jolly Boys have all recorded albums; Geejam’s hotel is where they rest their heads, while Baker lives in a mid-century Caribbean-style villa just up the road. “First came the studio, but then the record industry began to implode,” Baker says. “I shadowed general managers at Jamaica’s top resorts so I could learn the business.”

The artists are drawn to Port Antonio for the same reasons that first charmed Baker, and help keep him there: authenticity. “Many places in the Caribbean are like toy-town or a fantasy-land, but Port Antonio is very different,” says Baker. “This is a real destination, not some cookie-cutter resort.”

With Geejam running smoothly, Baker is helping revitalise the rest of the town. He’s restoring Port Antonio’s Trident Villas and adjacent Castle, and modernising the facilities at the nearby Blue Lagoon in partnership with Jamaican-Canadian billionaire Michael Lee Chin. The harbour he helped upgrade more than a decade ago can now accommodate mega-yachts. “We’re barely a 90-minute flight from Miami,” he says. “I want Port Antonio to become the ‘St Barts of the northwest Caribbean’, only with a much better tagline.”

Meanwhile, Baker is also spending half of each month back in New York to launch yet another independent record business. For his third round in Manhattan, Baker is living in a new-build residential tower in the heart of the financial district. “Manhattan isn’t thought of as a place to chill, but this apartment is where I can meditate and collect my thoughts,” says Baker.

With his mum and three of his four children still based in the UK, Baker visits London at least every three months. “There isn’t much I long for in Britain,” he says. “But I do miss British street fashion, that dry sense of humour, the Groucho Club and, of course, my kids.”

Baker is mostly focused on ensuring that people experience an authentic, inspiring side of Jamaica. But his tri-national Caribbean/American/English existence leaves him little room for rest or relaxation, even amid Port Antonio’s idyllic surroundings. “Sure, it is calming, mountainous and in the rainforest,” Baker says. “But I’ve got a staff of 45 and a hotel to run.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Jamaica is a short flight from Miami

● A long tradition of higher-end tourism has kept Port Antonio free of mega-resorts

● A mini-boom in development is bringing much-needed growth to the area

Cons

● A 2.5 hour drive through the Blue Mountains from the closest international airport at Kingston

● Small-scale tourism industry offers limited leisure amenities

● Area is prone to hurricanes

What you can buy for ...

$195,000 An 8,900 sq m vacant plot with Caribbean and mountain views

$700,000 Traditional three-bedroom/two-bathroom Caribbean-style villa on 2.16 acres

Contact

● Valerie Levy & Associates, www.vlarealtors.com

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