China Business

Roots, Rock, Reggae, Dis Is China Music

Bob Marley in China

Heard a story on NPR the other day that combines two of my favorite subjects, Reggae and China. Sorry, but I just cannot pass up the opportunity to post on Bob Marley, of whom I am such a fan that at one point in my life I had the goal of collecting all recordings of the song, Get Up, Stand Up. Of all the people who did that song — other than Bob Marley — the best was by a group called the Butts Band, led by John Densmore and Robby Krieger, both of whom had been with the Doors.

Marley’s songs were slyly (and sometimes not so slyly) revolutionary. The NPR piece focused on how Bob Marley’s famed album, Legend is now on sale in China, nearly a quarter-century after it was released in the West. The piece focused on the question of whether reggae will “retain its political underpinnings in China, or is it all about the rhythm?” This Slate article claims marijuana smoking college students in America have already weakened Marley’s political impact, but I digress.

Some say that if there’s a Bob Marley figure in China, it has to be Cui Jian, who is known as the “Father of Chinese Rock and Roll.” Cui Jian rose to fame in the 1980s, singing about the plight of China’s everyday people. The government banned him from playing large concerts until recently. He dismisses the suggestion that he could be Bob Marley’s Chinese equal.

“Don’t make that comparison, I’m embarrassed to even think about it that way,” Cui says. “Maybe you could say we are his heirs, that we’ve inherited a part of his legacy. His influence was an element of our success.”

Reggae and China go way back. It was Chinese immigrants to Jamaica who opened some of the first recording studios in Kingston. But can China produce a reggae superstar?

Comments are open. What do you think of China’s music scene now mon?

26 responses to “Roots, Rock, Reggae, Dis Is China Music”

  1. [Dan, I know this is not an entertainment blog, but I think this is relevant.]
    For reggae fans living in Beijing, there is a reggae bar on the other side of the 3rd ring road from Jianwai SOHO.
    Together Bar

  2. Dan,
    Stumbled upon your posting while researching the legal profession in China for one of my graduate classes. Interesting post; in particular the Chinese opening the recording studio in Kingston. I’m Jamaican so this was a fun read.
    Bob would just want love and justice to spread through China. If he, reggae music, or a Chinese follower can advance the cause, then Legend, and The Legend, lives on.
    As have you have done with this posting. Nuff respect my yute. Guidance and unity to de maxx!!

  3. Legend has been available in pirated form in Beijing for years, presumably along with other Marley albums. So perhaps the revolution has already begun…

  4. Reggae and related genres of Afro-Carribean influenced music go back very far indeed. Among the earliest and most influential of the non-Chinese musicians active on the scene were a pair of Madagascan cousins named Eddie Luc Lulassuoa, right-hand man to Cui Jian, and Robinson, frontman for Nogabe. In the late 80s, most of the bands were suffused with it: bands like Cobra, May Day, and of course Cui Jian’s “back-up band” Ado. It would be hard to overstate the influence. Check out the Ska elements in Cui Jian’s second album. Many Chinese musicians struggled to feel the back beat rhythms at the heart of reggae, and not all of them got it. I remember how frustrating it was for Tang Dynasty’s bassist, Zhang Ju, who died in 1995, to nail Police/Rush inspired reggaeish rhythms in some of the early TD compositions.

  5. Benjamin —
    Of course its relevant. It’s relevant to the post. This is not an entertainment blog and I am currently working on a post regarding China’s new private property law and on its soon to be enacted franchise law. Do those sound interesting to you?

  6. Ben —
    The reality is that most Americans have no clue about the meaning of much of what Marley sang about so it is probably asking way too much to expect the Chinese to.

  7. Kaiser —
    Thanks for checking in. Very interesting re the influence on China.
    I saw The Police (with Sting) for free in the Grinnell College (student body of around 1200) Gymnasium many, many, years ago. I believe the college paid around $3000 to get them there. The Police were the BACKUP band for a British band called Audiovox.
    The Police came on at around 11:00 pm and by around midnight word had filtered throughout the campus about them and the crowd had grown considerably and The Police played until around 1:30 am or so. Great night.
    Roxanne ….

  8. A few years ago I was visiting Chengdu and was somewhat amazed to discover a cool Reggae bar! The vibe was perfect for kickin’ back and enjoying the tunes. With a mellow mood and cheap drinks it was sort of the opposite of a Hong Kong nightlife experience!

  9. Nat —
    Thanks for checking in. Chengdu? Chengdu? I once came upon a reggae bar in the most unlikely of cities maybe 20 years ago and I was going to talk about it, but for the life of me, I cannot remember the city. Istanbul? Hamburg? Pusan? I remember the bar though like it was yesterday and I even remember what I drank there. Red Stripe, of course.

  10. Ziggy Marley
    Monday, March 26, 2007
    8:00 PM
    The Star Live House
    3F of Tango, 79 Heping Xijie (near the Lama Temple subway station), Dongcheng District, Beijing
    Reggae Superstar Ziggy Marley To Perform In Beijing
    Reggae’s favorite son and four-time Grammy award winner, Ziggy Marley will perform on March 26th at Beijing’s Star Live. Ziggy will perform material from his new 2007 Grammy-winning album Love Is My Religion in addition to songs from his previous solo album Dragonfly, hits from his family band The Melody Makers, and of course some classics by his legendary father, Bob Marley. Typically performing in larger venues around the world, tickets for Ziggy’s show in this intimate space are expected to sell-out quickly.
    Tickets are priced 480, 380, 280 RMB and can be purchased by calling (010) 6425 5166 or visit

  11. I get the impression that reggae continues to be the single most prevalent influence on Chinese “rock music” today. Almost all the bands I’ve seen around Beijing will play one or two ska/reggae covers, or will show the influence in their original material here and there.
    I asked a Chinese girl (drummer with a student band out of Beida, I think) I met at a Buyi gig out at Kolegas a year or so ago about this, and she said – completely deadpan – “Chinese people love reggae because it is a music of rebellion”. I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced. If only it were so….

  12. Boyce —
    Damn. I know that tune. I’m certain of it, but I just can’t place it. It starts out quasi-Beatles like and then it’s qausi Sex Pistols or something. I just know I’ve heard it before. Can anyone place it?

  13. Froog —
    Thanks for checking in. I do not know enough of Chinese rock music to really comment on this, but I do find the “rebellion” part very interesting.
    PS — Great Blog!

  14. CLB,
    According to one of my sources (a co-worker, to be honest), the song is by Xu Wei and is called Mei Yi Tian Dou Shi Zhan Xin Di (Every Day is a New Day). Now get out there and hug some people!
    Cheers, Boyce

  15. If the current trends continue, China will never have a Bob Marley. The reason is because they ARE looking for the next Bob Marley, or Michael Jackson, or Justin Timberlake, or whoever it is. Good music developes out of a culture, a movement, a feeling, not a vacuum. Reggae developed from Ska in the backdrop of working class conditions in Jamaica. American rock music comes from blues and jazz which come from the ballads sung by slaves in the fields. What does contemporary Chinese music come from? I think we all know the answer to that question. China has a rich musical history, but until they begin to look within musically, there will be no Chinese Bob Marley.

  16. Ben —
    I agree with your assessment of where great music comes from.
    Let’s talk about Korean art for a moment. I have been going to Korea 4-8 times a year for around 15 years. At the beginning, I would always go to Insadong and buy classic Korean arts and crafts. I finally got bored of seeing the same damn things time after time after time and stopped going as often. Other than the classics, the Insadong shops had just derivative, badly done, overpriced, Western style shlock art. a couple years ago, I returned to Insadong due to having read about Korean’s rise as an arts country. I was floored. There was tons of great stuff, nearly all of which I would describe as Korean classics meet the modern world. The art is Korean and modern and good. That is what needs to happen to Chinese music, and it will.
    Just as an aside, my older brother was a professional jazz musician for a few years (and he still plays around the clubs in Houston, though he is now a stockbroker). He toured Northern Europe with Turkey’s best/most famous drummer, Okay Temuz, playing Turkish influenced jazz. Very Turkish, yet jazz.

  17. Yeah man reggae is strong cannot be weak. i am looking forward to play some reggae music in china some day, comin live from Jam rock .hope to rock u one day with the kings music!!!

  18. Word to Nat with the Chengdu shout out, if anywhere, that’s where the scene is in China. Until recently I was living and working in Chengdu, and kickin’ back to live reggae with a beer in one hand a pliff in the other almost nightly. There is a small conglomerate of reggae-ish bars in the ‘Du ranging from the small, dirty and wonderfully vibed Jah bar (家吧)which projects reggae concerts on its red gold and green wall all day and jams with local musicians into the wee hours every night, to Lan town which delivers a more dubby sound, to hemp house which often strays from its reggae origins (but remains a serious contender).. the list goes on, some bars don’t only do reggae mind you but serve up some tasty other genres too, there’s even a dutch style coffee shop there! None of the live ‘acts’ (most are just friends jamming, Chinese and foreign) are after fame or radio hits or nothin’, just making the night memorable and releasing some sunny vibes into that sweet overcast Chengdu air. Shenzhen blows, I miss the ‘Du!!

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