Jamaica's national motto is 'Out of Many, One People', reflecting the diverse cultural heritage of its inhabitants. Although the vast majority are African descent, there are also significant communities of Chinese, Indian, Middle-Eastern and Portuguese origin.
China and Jamaica go way back - like most Jamaicans the first Chinese arrived to the island as indentured laborers for British sugar plantations in the 1850s and 1860s. Of course, many Chinese continued to immigrate over subsequent years and did exactly what they do elsewhere in the world: they opened small businesses, got rich and sent their kids to good schools.
What's not so familiar about this story is the fact that Kingston’s Chinese population was involved from the earliest days with the down and dirty ghetto music that became reggae. One of the key figures in making reggae music Jamaica’s national sound was Byron Lee. Lee sang rock and roll and rhythm and blues in the 1950s and played a leading role as bandleader and promoter in transforming ska from a west Kingston sound into a national, and later internationally renowned musical form, which morphed into reggae as well as gaining a strong following in the UK with - strangely enough - punks and skinheads.
One of the most prolific and successful reggae producers was Leslie Kong. He got interested in the music business after selling records and started producing records from a recording studio above his ice-cream parlour. Kong was the first producer to spot Bob Marley’s potential. In 1962 Kong released Marley’s first two recorded songs, 'One More Cup of Coffee' and 'Judge Not', although neither of these songs became hits.
Jamaica’s Chinese community is still very much involved in music. Reggae record liner notes are still full of names like Chan, Chung, Lee, Hookim and Chin - Clive Chin; ring any bells? Well, Chin is a Chinese-Jamaican record producer whose work includes recordings by The Wailers, Dennis Brown, Lee Perry and Black Uhuru, among others, and is hailed as a pioneer in the establishment of dub as a standalone musical form. He's also struck-up an alliance with the Uprooted Sunshine crew which has seen him pay a couple of visits to China in recent times, and he is due to come back later this year.
“I feel honoured to know that I played a role. I recorded Peter Tosh, I recorded Bob, I’ve recorded Burning Spear. I’ve been around a lot…", says Chin. “I feel more honoured to be labelled as an old school producer compared to these new guys because some of them, they’re a bit homophobic, and I can’t get into that homophobic shit. We spread more love, we spread more culture, you understand me?", word!
Uprooted Sunshine have been doing their thing since way back in 2005, when they started out at C's - the legendary dive bar that spawned some of the most successful and longstanding club nights to have come out of Shanghai, such as Uprooted Sunshine and Antidote. A couple of years later when The Shelter opened its doors, they made the move to their new home. They're a seven-strong crew, comprising a range of talents - MCs/producers/selectahs Blaise Deville, Esia, Arminda, Didjelirium, Chacha, Dji and Drunk Monk, who took time out to speak to us:
What inspired you to start Uprooted Sunshine?
"When I first came to Shanghai in 2005 there wasn't any proper reggae nights, we took into on ourselves to start one. My father is a big reggae collector so I have always grown up around reggae - I wasn't gonna live in Shanghai without it".
Was it a success right from the start?
"Surprisingly, yeah pretty much. We had around 300 people at our first ever event and things have been pretty solid since. At the time, Shanghai had very little in terms of alternative music and so I think it was all about timing really".
Who're some of the best selectahs you've had come to play?
"Clive's partner at the time found ChaCha on myspace and got in touch with us through her. Clive had always wanted to come to China and so, I'm guessing, asked Sandy to try and find out about the scene over here. I was really shocked and very nicely surprised when we got the message! It all came from that really…".
What is it about reggae, dub etc. that seems to connect with people from all parts of the world?
"Reggae is a universal sound. It takes a lot of rhythmic influence from the human heart beat and from nature, and this gives it a very organic sound. Even people who say they don't like reggae will enjoy a good reggae night. It's the vibe of the music, the warm bass and the natural rhythms that attract people".
Uprooted Sunshine have taken their message of peace, love and Dub all over China - you'd be surprised how deep those Roots have spread! From Kaya Bar in Yangshou, Hemp House in Chengdu, Cao Tang in Zhujiajiao and closer to home, Reggae Bar in Hangzhou, there are many bars and clubs all over China dedicated to promoting Reggae/Roots/Dub, quite apart from the likes of The Shelter and Yugong Yishan. Uprooted Sunshine played all these venues and more on a tour they did with Clive Chin last year, and found that there is a veracious appetite for it out there.
Here in Shanghai over the past few years, as elsewhere in China, the number of selectahs and bands with a reggae influence to their sound has been growing steadily. This city is home to artists such as Far East Lion Underground (遠東之獅) and Tsunamo Selecta, Shanghai Yard Soundsystem and Lions of Puxi, among others, as well as cross-over/fusion acts like Break for Borneo. If you widen your radar a little you'll find artists from Beijing and beyond - the likes of Long Shen Dao, Jah Rootman, Scarving, Chen Yaotang and Kaya (big-up Yunnan kru!). Check em out!