By Jocelle Koh
Critically acclaimed Taiwanese Reggae artist Matzka has declared on various occasions that his affinity with Reggae was entirely by chance. A Paiwanese Indigenous artist who hails from the Southern region of Taitung, he burst onto the scene in 2009 winning a songwriting competition with his tune “Mado Vado”, and hasn’t looked back since.
A Golden Melody Award win and multiple nominations later, the playfully gruff singer shows no sign of slowing down, releasing two albums this year; the first titled The Playbacks 事情是這樣的 and the second cinevuan.
Debuting with a sound that was wildly different to anything else that existed in the Mandarin pop scene, the singer was lauded by critics and wider audiences alike for his hearty vocals, laidback swagger and Rastafarian spirit. Yet it may come as a surprise that this Reggae rockstar did not even know that the style he was creating in was in fact called Reggae at the beginning of his career. Matzka shared:
“The first time I wrote, I used my mother tongue and wrote a song called “Mado Vado”. Only after I wrote it everyone told me that it was more towards the reggae genre, and that was the first time I learned about reggae music. My first time listening to reggae music actually wasn’t Bob Marley, it was a Jewish artist called Matisyahu…after that no matter in my works or my singing style, (reggae) was the most natural way for me. And that’s where I began. I feel it was destiny…”
Incorporating themes of anything from his heritage to his love life and even to his gaming addiction (which he wrote an entire album about), Matzka’s rough-round-the-edges, straight-talking humour and warmth fits perfectly with the groovy, chill vibes of the reggae genre. But what is it that drew the Paiwanese musician so naturally to the genre in the first place? And why this affinity with a place and culture so geographically distant from ones’ own? This question begs a deeper exploration of Reggae music’s position and history in the Greater China region, and how it relates to a rapidly diversifying scene.
The History of Reggae Music
In his poem ‘Not Even’, Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong wrote:
“It’s been proven difficult to dance to machine-gun fire.
Still, my people made a rhythm this way. A way.”
While Vuong was referring to the Vietnam war, the same sentiment applies to the baptism of fire that Reggae music was birthed from. While nowadays we know Reggae as a laidback, bohemian sound, the genre has a vibrant history tied to cultures in flux and turbulent sociopolitical climates.
Often incorporating themes of spirituality, lightness, nature, love or critiques of social systems, reggae music has its roots in the Rastafarian religion, and was a key vessel for shaping Jamaica’s national identity in the ‘70s as they transitioned from a postcolonial mindset to an appreciation for their African roots. However, reggae over time continues to be most easily recognized through its emphasis on the backbeat rather than downbeat and unique rhythmic patterns inspired by the mento, ska, rocksteady, calypso, American Soul music and R&B genres.
In fact, the roots of Reggae are inextricably linked with the Jamaican Chinese population who contributed significantly to its creative development and international success during its Golden Age (‘60s-‘80s). Due to a significant influx of Chinese immigrants especially from the 1920s to 40s, producers like Byron Lee and Leslie Kong as well as other behind-the-scenes industry professionals such as Neville Lee, Vincent and Patricia Chin became instrumental in propelling some of Reggae’s biggest names to international stardom (Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals, Bob Marley).
While the Jamaican Chinese population indeed played a key role in the proliferation of Reggae in the 1960s to ‘80s, what about Greater China’s adoption of Reggae from then til now?
Reggae Music in Greater China
The first strains of reggae in Chinese music originate from its underground rock scene, purportedly in 1982, through Taiwanese rock/folk/reggae legend Lo Ta-Yu 羅大佑’s song ‘之乎者也 Pedantry’, which appeared in his revered debut album of the same name. Beijing’s godfather of rock Cui Jian 崔健 followed suit, releasing “從頭再來” in his iconic 1989 debut album after meeting a Madagascan guitarist. In 1994, Dou Wei, Zhang Chu and He Yong, collectively known as “Three Heroes of Magic Rock魔岩三杰” all released albums incorporating a reggae-inspired track. Other notable rock stars such as posterboy of Chinese rock X.T.X Tianxiao Xie 謝天笑 released an EP titled “Guzheng Reggae” in 2009, fusing Chinese traditional elements with reggae backbeats and instrumentations.
Award-winning producer and trombonist Terence Hsieh, who produced Matzka’s album The Playbacks broke down how reggae’s influence has been subtle, but instrumental in the development of some of the region’s biggest acts.
“It definitely is a niche area still. But…there are artists in China who have used elements of reggae music in their own. Like if you listen to Cui Jian’s (舞過38線), there’s a strongly identifiable groove that you can tell he has reggae elements in there… Throughout the years in the industry, I have always watched his music progress and the one common element aside from his voice and his writing style is his need for grooviness and reggae, definitely.”
While Chinese rock seems to have been a hotbed for the proliferation of reggae during the ‘80s and 90s and buoyed the genre’s appeal, many of these experimentations continue to appeal only to hardcore fans or reggae afficionados, rather than becoming ‘household name’ tracks for these artists.
Honing in on reggae-focused acts, there are just a handful that began cropping up in the late 2000s and 2010s such as Taiwan’s Skaraoke (2007) and Matzka (2009), Yunnan’s Kawa band (2015) and Beijing’s Long Shen Dao 龍神道 (2007).
Popularly known as China’s first real reggae band, Long Shen Dao has opened for The Wailers, and headlined some of the biggest festival stages worldwide (Abi Reggae, Glastonbury Festival, Strawberry Music Festival). While their digital presence continues to be relatively small; in the tens of thousands of followers on Netease and Weibo, they have nevertheless managed to carve a niche for themselves within the wider live music scene, reflecting an increasingly vibrant independent scene that is making space for all kinds of genres and niches.
As for reggae in China today, in cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen, the genre has found itself a spot as a tastemaker niche genre; wedged into segments featuring everything from Brazilian baille funk to afrobeats at nights such as Popasuda, which presents a mix of ‘global bass music’ to largely expat or at least international-facing audiences. Given that the genre mainly focuses itself around live settings, the pandemic seems to have continued to stunt the possibility of reggae’s growth in the Mainland.
However General Huge 雨果, a French Reggae artist who’s part of CMY (ChinaMan Yard), Beijing’s only Reggae label remains optimistic about the development of the local scene.
“Most people stay on the big names like Matzka, Long Shen Dao or Kawa, but there are also bands/artistes here that understand the true core/culture of reggae music and they’ve been the ones developing and spreading it in China for many years now. I arrived in China in 2009 and most article about reggae in China (referring to it as a niche genre) would be right back then, but now over 10 years later reggae is everywhere in China. Certainly less on TV or bigger festivals but nonetheless we have a real reggae revolution, that started about 10 years ago, and now even idols or superstars are using it in songs, popularising the genre. For example Namewee with actor Anthony Wong 黃秋生 or idols such as Cindy.”
Furthermore, he cites strong ties that have rapidly developed between China and Jamaica’s reggae scenes in the short span of a decade, due to the grassroots efforts of CMY as well as other members of the local reggae community.
“Our label is working with some of the top producers in Jamaica and reggae legends such as Roots Radics. And bands like Jah Wah Zoo (in Chengdu) have done a full album with legendary Jamaican reggae artist I Kong who came here for 3 full months. We and the massive Heavy HK have invited dozens of Jamaicans top reggae acts such as Anthony B, Tippa Irie, Skarra Mucci, Perfect Giddimani and many more. There is today a real relation between China and Jamaica in reggae…”
Over in Taiwan, despite having a live scene that’s come out relatively unscathed from the pandemic, reggae bands continue to be few and far between, with Matzka and Skaraoke being amongst a handful of true blue ‘reggae’ acts. However, Formosa’s diverse and eclectic music scene has produced many acts who continue to regularly incorporate reggae into their music, including rapper Leo王 who notably incorporated a fusion of reggae and hip hop into his award-winning 2018 album “Wu Bing Singing, Yo Chin Soothing”, and singer-songwriter Karencici who often infuses dancehall and reggaeton elements throughout her sultry, tongue-in-cheek concoctions.
Music journalist Alex Lee shared his experiences of reggae in Taiwan in the 2010s:
“From my time in Taiwan (from 2011 to 2016), reggae was a small but vibrant part of the music scene…Reggae is not commonly heard on mainstream radio in Taiwan but retains an appeal due to the island feel that Taiwan has, especially on the east coast of Taiwan where the pace of life is definitely slower”
When quizzed about the expansion of the genre in Greater China, Matzka admitted that reggae-centric artists are still few and far between; referring also to non-reggae artists who he feels have made significant contributions to Chinese reggae.
Other than me, there was a band called Hang In The Air, not sure if they’re still around…oh and Leo Wang is starting to play some reggae, not entire albums but just a few here and there. Really not that many. If we’re talking Mainland China, there’s Long Shen Dao from Beijing. Lion of the Far East 遠東之獅 from Shanghai… Yunnan has quite a few reggae bands also…”
Given the absence of reggae influence in the wider Chinese music scene, despite Matzka describing his connection to the genre as ‘destiny’, his environment and upbringing as a Paiwanese artist certainly had a part to play in the shaping of his musical vocation.
“I feel the environment an artist grows up in will definitely impact their works…the works that I create don’t feel like works other people have asked me to create, but I just feel there’s mountains and seas, and it’s very hot, yes, where I’m from it feels like there’s seven or eight suns. Most of my works are more celebratory, more rhythmic, more groovy, people feel its island-inspired or latin-influenced, I think it’s definitely to do with my surroundings.”
And Matzka’s experience is one that’s mirrored in Yunnan, a province where reggae is relatively thriving as compared to the rest of China. For Yunnan reggae band Kawa who identify as part of the Wa people minority, the many similarities between their experience as an Indigenous population with the struggles of Jamaica during colonisation and the birth of Reggae have caused them to be so dearly entwined with the genre.
In an interview conducted with Goldthread in 2019, they expanded on their spiritual connection with the genre and Rastafarian ideals: “If you like Reggae, you probably have good integrity. You start to understand what’s good, what’s evil. You really will understand. Reggae is not just music. It’s a way of life.”
In a 2016 thesis titled “Yunnan Reggae: Music and Politics”, author Meng Ren concluded that significant parallels existed between the Rastas of Jamaica and the Wa people, particularly in terms of their folklore and unique geo-political situation. For example, Yunnan’s mountainous landscapes and subtropic climate liken it to Jamaica, while the Wa minority’s spiritual reverence for nature music mirrors reggae’s alignment with Rastafarian tenets.
Indeed, research by Steven Feld has shown that Indigenous cultures tend towards an affinity with Reggae music because of its resistant themes and ethnopop/ethnic musical structure which may in part be able to explain why Matzka was naturally and subconsciously drawn to reggae in the first place.
Since the release of ‘Mado Vado’ over a decade ago, Matzka’s momentous release of his cinevuan album marks the first full body of work he’s releasing in his mother tongue. He warmly shared the significance of this homecoming for him:
“This mother tongue album cinevuan feels very significant. It was birthed after my album Back to the Roots…I’ve thought about this album for almost ten years. What I wanted to express is, going home isn’t as romantic and chill as others think. When I went home I discovered many problems, a lot to do with the cultural tensions of traditional and modern society. It includes the push and pull in my relationship with family and friends…It also includes some observations I made about the tribes’ current state, some awkward points when it comes to their traditional culture. I want to use this album to share with everyone that a lot of things that happen around us concern both me and you. So … don’t be scared to go home, and don’t be scared of change…”
A homecoming in many senses, the album thoughtfully pieces together many issues close to Matzka’s heart, articulated in the language closest to him while also signifying a return for the artist to the reggae genre.
“This album (cinevuan) also has a lot of reggae, most of it is reggae. So don’t assume that I’m done with the genre. I shared a lot of new things this time, there’s dancehall, afrobeat, and reggaetone. I’m still very reggae!”
Yet it seems that Matzka’s been struck by a burst of unrivalled creativity, spurring the creation of both cinevuan, and live, neo-soul album The Playbacks. In relation to his neo-soul stopover, he shared:
“This album really came by surprise, I wasn’t thinking of doing a Mandarin album…then my company called to discuss, and said, ‘Matzka maybe you should do a Mandarin one first’, so I embraced the album with an attitude of play, and created this album. And when I made the first song, I thought ‘hey, it’s really different’ and then kept going until the entire album just followed in the same vein, bringing you a Matzka you’ve never heard of before.”
Producer Hsieh, who Matzka credits for this “fun yet honest” album and new direction, added that his philosophy for this new direction was not to do a 180 and remove everything reggae from Matzka’s sound and personality; but rather amplify the uniquely ‘Matzka’ points and incorporate it into a more live/gospel/hip-hop/neo-soul sound.
“Matzka is very uniquely Matzka, In the way that he sings, his grooviness, in his humour…these things aren’t necessarily tied to reggae, but they are tied to Matzka. And one of the things I was trying to do was to push him to think outside of the box when it comes to the delivery of his performance…So trying to push him not necessarily to abandon the reggae thing altogether, but to take the elements of what he does…and to tweak it a little bit. “
Breaking open Matzka’s upbringing, influences and future direction against the wider backdrop of reggae music in the greater china region, the continued complexities of the scene despite its niche nature and how it interacts with the wider music scene reflects a rapidly diversifying music scene, and hopefully the growth of sustainable niches in Chinese music. . On this, Hsieh shared his positive outlook, saying:
“I’m really hopeful that (in) the next two or three years we’ll really see a global music phenomenon come out of China’s indie music scene that really has an impact on the world…everybody is R&D-ing right now (laughs).”
While Chinese Reggae evidently has a long way to go, with creative powerhouses like Matzka at the helm with their hearts in the right place; I too am optimistic for the endurance and growth of the genre, and hopefully alongside many other wonderful sonic rabbit holes.
Matzka’s albums ‘The Playbacks’ and ‘cinevuan’ are now available on all streaming platforms for your listening pleasure. Special thanks to Matzka & team, Terence Hsieh, Alex Lee, General Huge雨果, TWOC’s Sam and Siyi for contributing to the direction of this article. This piece was adapted from an article originally published in The World of Chinese.