It is probably fair to say that Reggae is a genre of music that's not typically associated with China. Based on the fact the music genre that is typically strongly associated with religion and the habitual use of natural drugs alone naturally shelves it as a taboo in China. Coupled with the fact that a China preoccupied with the cultural revolution missed the heyday of Reggae meaning that the Caribbean music art-form has been slow to take off in mainstream China.
However, try telling that to the south-western provinces of Guangdong and Yunnan and they may very well disagree. Yunnan, the jewel in Chinese reggae's undersized crown, has birthed some of China's most famous reggae acts in recent years with bands such as Jiang Liang Sound System (蒋亮的声音系统), Yunnan Reggae (云南雷鬼), Pu'er Dub Allstars (云南民间的回响) and San Duo Jiao (三跺脚) all hailing from China's most south-western province (that chunky one that borders Vietnam and Burma and which holds modern-day Shangri-la).
Just listening to the rhythmic and almost therapeutic sounds of the traditional Wa minority (also known as Va or Kawa) music, its easy to see why reggae, with its rhythmic and sensual dub vibes, is a sound that resonates in Yunnan. Not to just mention musical influences, but the warm and sunny climate and a certain (wink wink, nudge nudge) plant that grows naturally down there also seamlessly go hand in hand with reggae and dub music.
Under the Wall caught up with one of the vanguards of China's reggae scenes, Lao Hei. Better known for his bands, Yunnan Reggae and The Pu'er Dub All Stars, we caught Lao Hei as he came through the South-east while on tour with his latest band, Kawa.
The below interview is translated from Chinese. 中文版在本文章下面
Under the Wall: How would you describe your music to someone who's never heard it before?
Lao Hei: I take the soul penetrating sounds of the Yunnan ethnic minorities’ traditional music and fuse it together with world music. When they (the two styles) collide they create an awe-inspiring spacey, dreamlike style of music.
Want to have a listen?
Under the Wall: You once said that when it comes to music, musicians and bands need to have their own attitude and standard. Just curious, what's your attitude and standard towards music?
Lao Hei: To work hard towards your ideals. Seeing as you've already started on this musical journey, you should use your music to express your thoughts to your listeners. It (making music) is not just for kicks. It's not to put food on the table. As they say in this business, 'you can't let your audience down'. You also can't let those other musicians who are silently supporting you.
Under the Wall: What it is reggae to you?
Lao Hei: It's a relaxing style of dance music. I really like it, that's all. There are a ton of different varieties and styles. In terms of equipment it's not very demanding (style of music). The tempo and rhythm of each musician is extremely important.
"MUSIC AND DANCE IS THEIR LIFE. I GREW UP WITH THEM IN THIS PRIMITIVE FORREST, APPRECIATING NATURE, APPRECIATING LIFE."
Under the Wall: Reggae is not a style of music typically associated with China. Can you talk a bit about how reggae was first introduced to China?
Lao Hei: Our generation didn't grow up with Reggae. Our only way of learning about it was through **cut-out (打口) cd’s and the internet to download Bob Marley. I think that only reggae could go well together with ethnic Chinese folk music. (Because of this) I think (reggae) could only have developed in the south part of China.
Under the Wall: When we're first introduced to reggae? How did it initially resonate with you?
Lao Hei: I first was introduced to reggae in 2000 by a group of foreigners while I was in Guilin (in the Guangxi province of China). It's after that that I discovered that reggae’s worldliness, rhythm and tempo blends well with a lot of traditional ethnic Chinese folk music. It has a lot of style.
Under the Wall: A lot of your songs, such as 'Tong Sa Mei', are heavily influenced by the Wa minority. In what different ways is your music influenced by Wa culture?
Lao Hei: Since I was small I was influenced by many different Chinese minorities’ spiritual rites and ceremonies. Their lives are simple. Alcohol is their favorite thing. Music and dance is their life. I grew up with them in this primitive Forrest, appreciating nature, appreciating life.
"REGGAE'S WORLDLINESS, RHYTHM AND TEMPO BLENDS WELL WITH A LOT OF TRADITIONAL ETHNIC CHINESE FOLK MUSIC."
Under the Wall: Reggae is a style of music that is strongly associated with religion (Rastafari) and habitual cannabis use, both of which are taboo subjects in China. Do you think that this creates a misunderstanding towards reggae in China? Do you think that this limits the development of the reggae culture?
Lao Hei: In theory the tempo of Reggae and other ethnic Chinese folk music blends well with each other. Pure reggae is also still quite underground, only pure reggae enthusiasts listen to it. I use traditional ethnic Chinese melodies to attract people to listen to reggae. At the same time I expose Reggae fans to ethnic Chinese traditional folk music.
Under the Wall: Ok, getting back to your music. What's in the pipeline for Kawa?
Lao Hei: Every month we'll release a new single. Next year, around April, May, June time we'll release a new album. November (2016) we'll have tour of GuiZhou. Other plans for 2017 are still in progress.
Under the Wall: Can you recommend a song to the Under the Wall readers?
Lao Hei: Jiang Liang Soundsystem's Yabasuo阿水
Under the Wall: If you could choose any band or artist (past or present) to record a song with, who would you choose and why?
Lao Hei:There's too many. I don't have time to think.
Big shout out to Lao Hei for talking the time to interview with us! Looking forward to the new album in 2017!!!