It is often wondered of reggae how such a big, big sound came from such a little island. It’s also true that while the roots of other musical genres can be debated, reggae is, without doubt, a Jamaican thing. It is to Jamaica what the Great Wall is to China or football hooliganism to England: a treasured national institution and a worldwide symbol of a cultural heritage. Yet reggae influence extends to nearly every musical genre and every corner of the world. You can pick up reggae’s distinctive rhythms in any number of chart hits, while hip hop kids have long ackowledged the lyrical debt. And now Ziggy Marley comes to Beijing on March 26 at the Starlive (win tickets to the show by going to www.cityweekend.com.cn).
Despite being the son of one of history’s most iconic figures, Ziggy Marley has more than proven himself in the musical stakes. But Bob Marley still remains reggae’s most influential artist, and one of the most inspirational musicians of the twentieth century. “Bob’s genius was a national and global phenomenon, witnessed in our own time,” says Jamaican Ambassador Wayne McCook, who, like many people who grew up listening to reggae music, simply refers to him as “Bob,” suggesting an intimacy few musicians manage to generate with their fans. “Even now he is still the voice for Jamaica.”
Indeed, Beijing isn’t the reggae wasteland some would believe. Together Bar, just south of Guomao, is one of Beijing’s best Jamaican hangouts. The owner is a local who’s never been to Jamaica, yet this hasn’t impacted the quality of the music. Houhai has a few reggae-themed hangouts, among them Upsetters Bar, a lakeside bar whose chill atmosphere makes for a relaxing summer afternoon. Of course the odd reggae hit does get played in the city’s more generic clubs, but many people aren’t willing to suffer through hours of musical vomit just to hear two minutes of Shaggy. The premier place to hear reggae in Beijing remains the Upstepper parties. Organized by Dan Stephenson and Damon Perry, Upstepper Sound is Beijing’s first Jamaican-style soundsystem (DJs and MCs), and the only soundsystem from China to have performed in Jamaica. Upstepper nights are the first Saturday of every month at Zub, and monthly at Yugong Yishan.
Stephenson is enthusiastic about reggae’s global appeal: “Reggae is about creativity in the face of adversity, as Jamaicans have made amazing music from limited resources, something we can learn from here in China. A social, political and spiritual awareness is present in reggae. It can have a spiritual quality or can be about just dancing and enjoying yourself. Diversity of sound and accessibility make it unique.”
Ziggy’s visit is a landmark, rarely do non-DJ underground artists come through the Cap. He’s also the first major reggae artist Beijing has ever seen. Let’s hope his big, big sounds inspire greater interest in both the music and the island it came from. Which I’m hoping translates into more Chinese people with dreadlocks.