In a city where cannabis is scarce and sunlight scarcer, it may seem strange that reggae music should flourish – but if Beijing has nothing else, it’s got talented musicians with a hunger for innovation. We can likely thank the latter for the birth of the Chinese mainland’s first-ever reggae band, Longshendao.
Though Chinese immigrants played a well-documented role in the birth of reggae more than 50 years ago, the genre didn’t catch on in the Chinese mainland until 2006, when a handful of seasoned Beijing rockers-turned-dreadheads launched Longshendao (龙神道), a name as cultural as it is hippified that means “the Tao of the dragon god.”
Though 2006 may seem like a late start for Chinese reggae, singer and bassist Guo Jian (XTX and Cold Blooded Animal) says the band actually started fiddling around with reggae in 1997. “We were all daily friends, and we all liked this kind of music, so we just naturally got together,” he says. Those friends form a veritable who’s who of 90s and early 00s Chinese rock: like Guo Jian, zither player Zhang Wei played with XTX and Cold Blooded Animal, as well as Buyi; keyboardist Fei Fei played with Zhang Chu, and drummer Gao Fei played with Secondhand Rose. Despite the band members’ high profiles, for nine years the music remained a private hobby. “At that time, there weren’t many people in China who liked reggae music,” Guo explains.
Though reggae has been slow to catch on (with the only other major contribution coming from XTX’s 2008 pseudo-reggae album “Just One Desire”), Longshendao were quick to earn respect from the music community. Though the scarcity of similar sounding bands has meant that they’re often relegated to broad showcases or Bob Marley Appreciation Nights, the band was recognized in 2011, when their debut record “Tai Chi Reggae” (《拥抱》) was awarded “Best Album” at the Midi Awards, an annual music awards ceremony hosted by the Midi School of Music.
The album, which is available for listen on the band’s Douban, features 12 classic reggae tunes featuring crooning vocals, mellow beach harmonies and 70s style funk and synth. The band interlaces this conventional aesthetic with their own cultural background, singing almost entirely in Chinese and even incorporating the traditional Chinese guzheng in their instrumentals. They deny, however, that they’re trying to create “reggae with Chinese characteristics”: “Rather our band feels that the guzheng is in no way different from the guitar,” they write on their Douban page. “The emphasis is not on where an instrument comes from, but that it belongs to a globally shared culture.”
Their lyrics, meanwhile, “contain references to the understanding of love and spiritual freedom and include aspects of Taoism.” These guys are, in other words, China’s biggest hippies. But they also happen to be a great, pioneering band, who remain a breath of fresh air among the doom, gloom and nationalism of so many of Beijing’s other bands.
You can catch Longshendao playing a rare acoustic set at Beijing’s Temple bar this Saturday, May 26. Check out the band performing the song “Tai Chi Reggae” off their album of the same name to get in the mood!
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