In almost ten years of existence, China’s first reggae group Long Shen Dao have toured throughout the country and beyond – including taking to the stage at Glastonbury – releasing two well-received albums in the process. Yet as they arrive in Shanghai this month as part of another extensive nationwide tour to support their new LP Freedom, they continue to be the country’s only real live reggae band. Yes, there are dub producers, a handful of sound systems, and artists who fuse elements of reggae into their music – but no one is doing it quite like Long Shen Dao.
The Beijing-based group, formed in 2007, are now touring their second LP which follows their 2011 debut, Tai Chi Reggae, which propelled them around the world on international tours. Freedom continues the group’s hallmark fusion of reggae and traditional Chinese instruments, such as the guzheng. In the five years between albums, however, no other successful Chinese reggae bands have emerged – the band continue to operate in isolation.
So how did the members of Long Shen Dao find their inspiration? ‘Bob Marley can be considered our first teacher,’ says Guo, short black dreadlocks sprouting back from his head, combat trousers stuffed into his leather boots. ‘It was his spirit of love and peace that attracted us.’ Having played in straight-up rock bands in the early 2000s, the five members developed an obsession with reggae after listening to dakou (打口 – black market albums marked for disposal by the authorities) reggae cassettes and CDs.
Guo claims that his band, completed by guitarist Gao Xu, rapper-guitarist Niu Mu, keyboard player Fei Fei and drummer Zhang Dawei, were inspired rather than disheartened by a total lack of Chinese reggae role models. ‘The fact that there was no experience we could learn from in China was what attracted us most,’ he says. ‘The unpredictable thing is the most challenging.’
Tai Chi Reggae was the calling card that allowed the band to tour worldwide, including their first European jaunt last year and gigs in Canada and New Zealand. The sight of five Chinese men predominantly with long dreadlocked hair was a point of novelty for foreign audiences, but the band relished the chance to prove that they had substance to back up the style. ‘In the beginning, we were known for our hair,’ says Fei Fei. ‘But later, audiences realised that they liked us because of our music. We’re not a fashion show, after all.’
The new album features dance music elements from Dutch DJ crew Partysquad and UK dub veterans Vibronics
, yet the band still place huge importance on reflecting Chinese culture in their music. To this end, Freedom
features a number of songs, including reworkings of tracks from their back catalogue, inspired by Chinese tradition.
‘Some lyrics are from classical Chinese writings,’ explains Guo. ‘Like one called “Whisper of the Stillness Night” – it’s a reflection of modern society and remembrance of tradition. When I was writing that I realised there was no other musical fit other than the guzheng and flute.’
After nearly a decade in the game, Long Shen Dao attract a dedicated audience to their live shows. As you’d expect, there are plenty of good vibes at their gigs, but there can be powerful messages too. The band has been known to drop a hazy, rapturously received cover of Marley’s classic song with The Wailers ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ into sets.
With its repeated refrain ‘Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!’ the decision to play the song is a brave move here. It also highlights the radically different political climates in which Marley operated and the one Long Shen Dao inhabit. The late reggae overlord was perhaps the world’s most influential protest singer, while the band carrying his torch in China do so under a cloud of scrutiny and censorship.
The band members are, understandably, not keen to spout political rhetoric on record and have never presented themselves as a protest act. ‘I never thought I could be like Marley,’ says Guo. ‘It’s impossible in China.’ He says that the album title Freedom is open to interpretation.
And the band are similarly reticent about whether they want to inspire other acts to follow in their footsteps. ‘Artists should throw the stone into the river, but the ripple it causes is not decided by us,’ says Fei. ‘We just throw the stone and leave the rest to the audience.’
Long Shen Dao
play MAO Livehouse on Sunday 18 December at 8.30pm. See full details below.