JAMMING IN JAH PAN
(from Tokyo Time Out)
by Blake More
"I love the development of our music. It grows. That's why every day people come forward with new songs.
Music goes on forever."¾ Bob Marley
More prophetic words from the man who's Rastafari-induced, one love philosophy has outlived everything from terminal brain cancer to the decade of greed and influenced everyone from the Clash to the government of Zimbabwe. And once again, Bob Marley's reggae music is swaying world culture. This time in young Japan, where the red, green and gold spotlight is blazing upon a generation hungry for "the words of the Rastaman say," as the skeptical wait backstage to see whether "this time it's gonna last."
Browse through Shibuya, Harajuku, Dogenzaka, Shimotikazawa, or any one of the other spawning grounds where the barely of age brandish their wears, and you'll discover a reggae eruption. Things like Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear wailing inside Mos Burger, reggae magazines like Riddim and RM sharing rack space with Tokyo Walker, and 20-year-olds with dreads that should have taken fifteen years to grow are a common phenomenon. Rasta colors, derigueur for the stylistically correct, are parading down streets as wristbands, T-shirts, canvas sneakers--or any apparition thereof--and seem to be rivaling the ubiquitous black at the cash register.
In addition, the summer reggae festival has hit high tide with not just one but two splashes riding the boom across Japan: Reggae Sunsplash, which first arrived in 1985, and Japansplash, which, as the largest outdoor concert in the country, is fueling the theory on Japan's ability to copy. And besides its berth as a summertime phenomenon, reggae has become a weekend force as well. With DJ bars like Club 69 and Pigeons, which is rumored to have been graced by Bob in the flesh back in '79, and live houses like Hot Corocket and Chocolate City, Tokyo alone is reputed both here and abroad for its "wicked" reggae scene. Besides coming out to hear local Jamaican bands, such as Mackaruffin and Birth Right Posse or outside imports, like Sugar Minott and Freddie McGreggor, Japanese youth are lining up to jam with homebred artists like Sister Sayoko, Rankin Taxi, PJ, Nahki, and Cheiko Beauty, all of whom are proving you don't have to be Jamaican or African to sing reggae in Japan.
And considering the number of Japanese companies currently feasting on the public tide, reggae's star is shinning from a marketing standpoint as well. Even Japanese companies who have historically stuck to traditional Japanese music, such as Teichiku, Alfa, and CBS Sony, are laying their cards next to domestic path pavers Tachyon and Overheat in the rat race for artists and Japanese releases.
Obviously reggae has gone gold, both physically and fiscally, and is acting as if it's planning to stay, but so what. Isn't reggae just a relative, albeit distant, of heavy metal, rockabilly and the host of other musically influenced styles any way? "Definitely not," says Daniel Babu, a natural health practioner and a "cultural worker" who produces roots and culture shows at clubs like Yellow and MC1000.
Get Up, Stand Up For Your Rights
Dating back to the 1930s, Rastafari rose from the rubble known as Jamaican neo-colonialism around the time when Marcus Garvey was spreading the message of black equality and black leader Ras Tafari, who immediately adopted the throne name of Haile Selassie, was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. An ireful manifesto, Rastafari was immediately labeled as millenarian and escapist by the white minority government, who bearing their own rip-off slogan, "Out of Many One People" rushed to stamp out those "crazy dreads" from the hills. Thus, from the start, Rasta was identified by its symbols of resistance--the flag, the lion, the drum, the tam, the chalice, the locks, the red, green, and gold colors, and the distinctive language--all of which have come to reflect a rejection of common values.
What eventually emerged is a kind of living patchwork on theology, as the early doctrine of Rastafari was heavily influenced by Hindu and Christian ideals, but later unfolded into a movement particular to its own beliefs. In the words of New York born Babu, a 17-year Rasta who came to Tokyo in 1990 to study Eastern spirituality: "Rastafari is a oneness. It is about ital [natural] living, about not fighting to enslave nature but to live in harmony with it. Rasta's approach is to avoid the artificialities and to find the real value, to do good and make a better universe."
So, what really adds spice to Japan's "ire" movement is reggae's ties to Rastafari and thus the almighty Jah. Most Rastas believe that Japanese are more receptive to Rasta's unadorned belief system and because, historically speaking, Japan itself has never been strictly tied to an ordered religious doctrine. Like Zen, Rasta is a way of life rather than a religion, and Japan's new converts are relating to the parallels between the two. Looking for a direction, they see the lifestyle of Rasta as both a spiritual injection and a release from the narrow striving of materialism.
Babu feels people are being influenced by the Eastern calendar, which he explains is now coming to its complete circle. "People all over are moving more towards the spiritual and reggae and Rasta are just part of a bigger whole. The music appeals to the young people and starts them thinking, and I believe gives them a deeper appreciation for their own culture."
Most concerned see two currents of youth--those to whom reggae is just a new freedom, an excuse for doing anything they want, and the serious, or those who are digging to uncover a way out of the frantic pace of today. Tokyo University student Hiroyasu Tanigawa sees it as a search for order in an artificial world, "Many Japanese city kids don't have much spirit because they have less chance to experience nature. They walk on concrete and forget that a drive to the countryside wasn't necessary in past times. Even if a person doesn't understand the exact spirituality of Rasta, they feel it in the rhythm." Seconds his girlfriend Sumi Sanda, "We're always told to be a good child, a good student, but still we don't know how to be ourselves. Reggae is helping us do that."
Tokyo based reggae artist Macka Ruffin and Yugi Kaneko, founder of I & I Productions, Japan's new kid on the scene, adopt a more fundamental slant. "The roots and culture of Jamaican people and Japanese people are similar. Reggae may have started in Jamaica, but now Japanese are realizing its their roots too," explains Macka, who's album Way Back Home was released by Columbia this September.
Actually, there are an assortment of parallels. The nyabingi drum rhythm compares to the sound of the Japan's traditional taiko drums. Rice, tofu, and seaweed were the ital staples of Japanese culture centuries before MacDonaldos's and KFC's ruled the sidewalks. Both are island countries, and both peoples were forced to abandon their natural ways of living and accept an alien culture. Japan even knows how to worship an emperor as god. Both start with Ja... Okay, so not everything is the same, but as Macka says, "The whole attraction is in the reality of the world movement's return to roots." And, of course, the Rastaman himself.
Jah Sun Is On The Rise Once Again
Like the generations before them, Yumi and Kohei Sakazaki also rode into Rastafari on Marley's redemption songs. Relates Yumi, "He made me think about suffering and racism for the first time. I'd never even considered equal rights. Japanese don't think they are Asian, but instead consider themselves white Japanese. It came as a shock to learn that I was brainwashed by my education. We in Japan are slaves too. We have economical slavery. By travelling to Jamaica and learning from the Rastas we discovered what was real--not the covered story in Japan where everybody is so rich they waste things. After this experience, reggae music became my bible." Now, both she and Kohei are "soldiers" of Dr. Bagga, the Jamaican herbal doctor who taught them the ways of Rasta and cleared the path for their natural living. "Our Jah walk is showing people how to be healthy in the modern world," says Kohei who works as a garbage man by day. "Unfortunately," injects Yumi, "they think this Babylonian system will stay forever."
And in a smaller city like Kamakura, even simple appearances can be disastrous. Yumi and Kohei say that their clothing style has set them apart from their community. "Our old friends, neighbors, even some family members feel sorry for us, some are ashamed to be with us. They say 'Oh Kohei and Yumi changed. They are running away from society." Yumi plans to hang up her batik and drag out her old Isaton skirts and blouses when she goes to town. "In Tokyo, no one pays much attention, but in Kamakura some people think I'm dirty and don't like it when I dress like a Rasta woman. I'm hoping that because I look more normal, my neighbors will accept other Rastas when they come to visit our house."
Similarly, twenty-six year old Tomakazu "Paul" Kaneko, found Bob Marley during a university vacation in Florida and, inspired by Marley's "groundation in reality," made the pilgrimage to Jamaica. "While there, I met many Rastas and reggae musicians. We spent everyday reasoning, and I learned all about central energy, which is Jah. I felt a deep, cultural connection." When he returned to Japan, he 'grew' dreads and became a vegetarian. "My mom went a little crazy," he laughs, "but now my younger brother has long dreads and she doesn't even care." While today Paul's no longer natty, he is still wed to the Rasta lifestyle. "Most of my friends are Rasta's, or at least heavily into reggae music, and my Jamaican friends don't care that I'm from Japan. If we have the heart things, they respect."
Nineteen year old Wataru Iwata had a more precocious awakening, "When I was 15-years-old, I was really bored in school. Then I learned from Bob Marley and saw that my school was part of the Babylon system--always the same thinking, the uniform, the haircut--set up to keep us down. I faced a similar repression and was looking for a way out. He touched my soul." He says he was lucky, because his parents, "old hippies from the Beatles era," are open minded. "They understand that this society is crazy and that there is much more than the material things around us. The values I grew up around were almost all Westernized. Everything came in after World War II, so much of what we once believed was lost in our rush to become white."
Yet Miyoko Ohyashiki, now a writer for Japan's Flash magazine, approached color from the opposite end of the spectrum. "At first, I just liked the rhythm because I felt comfortable, then my friends told me about its message. My feelings changed, and I worked to understand the spirit of Rasta peoples. But I wanted to be black. I had dread-like hair and was very tan, but I still couldn't change my face."
Babu, however, points out that the Rasta movement is not a color game. "Separation and division are not characteristics of Rasta--yet, we also realize that Rasta is part of a cultural identity. Japanese youth are finding something that's missing within their own society, just as those who came before them did."
We Are The Children Of The Rastaman
So just who are those people? Who are the first homegrown Rastas, the actual pioneers of the reggae scene in Japan? Says journalist Midori Yamamoto, "there were about 50 then, and for the most part the same 50 are still at it now. Without reggae, many of us would not be where we are today." And where is that?
Well, for starters, there's Jah K.S.K. Highly respected, both here and in Jamaica, for his contributions to reggae, he is one of the core members of the early syndicate. In the mid 70s, he opened Club 69 in Shinjuku, which is the longest standing reggae bar and is still one of the few clubs that plays strictly roots and culture. He is a performer, promoter and supporter of reggae, who even now, gets on stage once a year to commemorate Bob Marley's death.
Then there's Yamamoto herself, who in 1976 went to London to see Bob Marley live, since "he still hadn't come to Japan." She returned to Tokyo in '79 and started a music store in Kichijoji called Natty Dread with Yuko Takano, and Shambi Ishida. "Later, I remember we were starting a band about the time PJ started coming around the store. At first, he didn't like reggae. Then one day, he asked if he could practice with the band," she smiles, "The rest you may say is history." So, in 1984, with PJ, who was only 13 at the time, as lead vocalist, the trio closed Natty Dread and formed Cool Runnings, which became the first all Japanese reggae band in Tokyo as well as the cornerstone of PJ's reggae fame. While no longer performing herself, Yamamoto is still actively involved in reggae. "Besides writing about reggae, I also translate reggae lyrics into Japanese for import and am currently translating Bob's book, in his own words, for Japanese publication."
And tucked away in his little bamboo shanty cum reggae paraphernalia store on an obscure side street in Shibuya is Jah Hiro, the exuberant author of Rastaman Vibration, a novel about a Japanese youth who discovers reggae. "It's kind of biographical fiction, the drop out story of a Japanese roots man." Hiro discovered reggae about 13 years ago at the knee of Gap, the owner of a reggae bar bearing the same name. "He taught me the history, particularly about Bob Marley. The main reason I started Trench Town was to keep the memory of Bob alive. Now the store is like a little Jamaica." He continues, "I'm not Rastafari in the exact sense--my heart is part Buddha, but I'm a stranger to modern society, like Rasta. I am trying to change the social consciousness of Japanese people. We shouldn't live for money, but for a rich environment and spirit. What we need is a Japanese Bob Marley."
Finally, there's Haruki Okada. Rawboned and angular with what looks like a long black rope dangling from the back of his collar, Okada could probably pass for a Bon Jovi devotee were it not for his Bob Marley T-shirt. But no way, he was literally pulled into reggae during Bob Marley's 1979 Japan tour. "Over 4 days, only 6,000 people came to see him, so the security was very loose. At the end of the show, Bunny Wailer took my hand and brought me up on stage and invited me backstage. Somehow I got to meet Bob. When I took his hand, Bob said, 'This isn't the first time we've met' and, immediately, we became good friends."
So, believing it was his duty to share Marley's teachings, this early disciple, as well as his equally devoted, 54-year-old mother Minako, opened Sound Terminal, a category defying business that imports reggae albums, produces reggae events, DJ's, organizes a free concert in celebration of Marley's birthday once a year, offers free nyabingi (traditional African drum) instruction to anyone who asks, and fights against the "exploitive media" and big businesses who lead people astray. "Now, the cycle of life is so fast, it's like a shinkansen. Reggae is a slow train that stops at every station so you can see the beauty surrounding you."
You Can Fool Some People Sometimes
But, since everything begins on the surface anyway, is riding the fashion express really so bad? Even the tenderest of romances must start some place.
Paul agrees. "The more I listened, the deeper I went." He believes reggae's popularity will continue regardless, because there are so many lost "hippies" in Japan who need Rasta consciousness "We need a movement. Like back to Africa, this is ours." Iwata thinks so too. "I think Rasta will stay beyond the current popularity, but probably not on the mainstream. Rasta is teaching that we are all really one. Humans not the earth have made the boarders and named the countries. People are always saying they are drop outs, but to me the drop outs in this society are the real humans."
True enough. Emancipating one's self from mental slavery seems a credible alternative to bowing at the feet of a personality squashing system. Doesn't it? For who wouldn't spurn the technological intrusions, the political corruption, and the trading conglomerates to return to a gentler life if tomorrow's Visa bill could still be paid on time?
Then again, this is Japan.
A source who prefers to call himself "Jah Runnings," because "even I don't know my name--I just know everything comes from Jah," says, "To me, 99 percent of the Japanese are just pirates seeking enjoyment. Them youth don't even know reggae--the ones that love reggae even." But, after a noticeable pause, apparently sensing the impact of his strident opinion, he softens, "If I'm wrong, their hearts will show it in the end." Then, assuming he'd made amends, he tosses out another, "There's a place run by a a big long natty called Ital Food in Shimoda that sells meat and things--even ham. It's a joke, strictly business, just a Japanese guy doing a Japanese thing." Concurs Izaba Rogers, a 22 year dread, poet, singer, actor, agent, filmmaker, producer, and reggae almanac who left his native Jamaica in 1984, "The movement is hollow. "It's katachi--or form--someone who dreads their hair overnight just to become a 'Rasta'."
How are youth perfecting that faux-natty do anyway? Well, at least three ways in Tokyo alone--Light Staff and King-Bee in Shimokitazawa and Seen in Ebisu. Yet despite the current catwalk, Light Staff owner Shiina Kuniyasu has seen a drop in his reggae-related sales in the last year. Just quietly, this may be because his specialty is natting locks at 80,000 to 100,000 yen a head. "Now we do three or four per year, but during the bubble, we did two or three per day." But wouldn't your customers get more satisfaction investing a few thousand extra yen and buying a roundtrip ticket to Kingston? "It's so expensive because we have to perm the hair into an Afro-style, and then each strand must be dreaded individually. It's a very long process that takes 7 or 8 hours. Today's customers are the dedicated, usually reggae musicians, who come in for maintenance." Incidentally, these musicians must be doing more than busking in front of the OX store in Shimokitazawa since it takes at least three sessions a year to maintain illegitimate locks.
"They miss the whole point," exclaims Jah Runnings. "Youth don't need locks, cause its all about a natural life." "For us," muses Babu, "dreads aren't a style but a statement reflecting an inner life, just like the Buddhist monk who shaves his head to show his separation from worldly things."
But still, there are some hard core fans who aren't sporting a tam to hide the fact they don't have dreads. Babu, who's waist length dreads and open smile make him a clear target for closet aficionados, says he's often approached by businessmen while riding on the train. "These guys are very into the music and listen to obscure groups like Black Slate. I remember one guy who opened his brief case to show me that it was full of reggae tapes." Agrees Okada, "I have customers who never wear the fashion but are so serious that they'll buy only original recordings. These people are very spiritual inside and don't need the colors to prove it."
And this includes, people like Hiroko Naki, the mama-san of Fushigi Tei in Shimokitazawa. Shaking her dreadish bob and clasping her hands across her "One Love" T-shirt, she releases a mighty grin that offers a glimpse at the young girl who first fell for the reggae "heartbeat," and confides, "Even if it is only fashion for some people, they are at least touching the reggae love feeling. Now reggae has become famous and business is up. But mine is not a business life--all I need to be happy is the reggae feeling."
No Smoke Reveal Jah To I
Of course, there is the less legal aspect of that reggae feeling that most, at least while here in Japan, would prefer to keep hidden away like nude baby photos. Imported from India, marijuana, or ganja as it is called in Jamaica, has been part of the Jamaican culture since the early days and, as in India, has generally been used for many purposes--made into twine and clothing, brewed as a medicinal tonic, cooked in food, and applied externally to name a a mere few. Thus, to the Rastas, the herb wasn't a drug or "illegal substance" but a integral part of the natural lifestyle--something for spiritual and social communication.
However, time and judicial systems have corrupted this mystical understanding, and since many people come to understand Rasta through reggae, they take one look at Bob chewing on a big fat spleef and assume that Rasta and ganja are the one in one love. Yet there are some Rastas who aggressively contest this general misconception. The most widely known of the Jamaican Dub Poets, Mutaburka, has a poem titled "Dispel the Lie" in which he states loudly that not all Rastafarians use marijuana. Says Mutaburka, "The true essence of Rastafari is not only Reggae, ganja and a lot of flashlocks. Rastafari is much more than Reggae and much more than ganja smoking." Like Mutaburka, Babu fiercely defends the stance of Rasta, "The youth here that are smoking are not Rasta. Its an unfair judgement to think that herb is Rasta, when so few understand that Rasta's read the bible. The Hindus smoke more than the Rastas, but it's not an issue--why is that?"
Still, some Japanese continue to miss the subtleties of the argument. According to a 20-year-old who wished to be called Taimasuke, "I smoke ganja because it makes me feel holy and I can't say untruthful things. If Rasta don't smoke, it's okay. Ganja is medicine, not food, so only people who need ganja smoke." But in a country like Japan, even this seemingly innocent statement about ganja can mean police harassment and surveillance, although like both India and Jamaica, this country also used ganja for more than geta straps at one time. Most of the 'Rastas' believe that the serious reggae youth aren't into the herb, whereas the ones pimping the fashion are, and would be whether they were listening to reggae or something else. "Human beings have always wanted to change their minds--caffeine, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, even food--so really it depends on how you define high. What is the real reality? But if you go too much into one reality, whichever it is, you lose perspective of all others," says Iwata.
Cause Reggae Is Another Bag
Okay, so reggae's reality isn't exactly black and white, especially when the effects of dance hall music are tossed into the pot. So what about the butterfly sound that's filling places like Nishi Azabu's Club Jamaica with sweaty youth who don't understand things like bom clot and lick your boom boom now? It seems that the youth of today discovering music of a nature far removed from Bob Marley's dolefully beautiful "No Woman No Cry."
"Dance hall sings about sexual things which young Japanese love," says Paul Kaneko. But the others don't think the music penetrates even this deeply. "The dance hall beat is fast, and people are living fast, so kids are into it," observes Izaba, who now books for Hot Corocket and spreads the "real cultural message of reggae" through his own "reggae purpose" company Yardstick, Inc., I & I One Love Society. Paul's brother Yugi has the same idea: "It's what they like, but dance hall is like nothing. When they learn what the DJ is saying, they will come back, which is why I & I is strictly promoting spiritual artists like Bunny Wailer and Garnet Silk." Adds Macka, "Dance hall music is like a branch of the reggae tree: the branch will break off, but the root of the tree, which is the roots spiritual music, will remain strong."
Yet dance hall style reggae worries both the old timers and those in the serious category. Says Yamamoto,"all this business is taking the sound away from the essence of culture and commercializing it." Babu agrees, "Real Rasta influenced reggae isn't a promotional thing--which is one reason the record industry has trouble understanding it. For true Rastas, there is no truth in the saying 'it's just business' because the spiritual dimensions run through everything--there is no 'just'."
"But," contributes Jah Runnings, "reggae HAS become a business here because everyone is a chip in the giant computer. They are all programmed to work and build up Japan, Inc." Then why does he stay? "Business" he replies without a hint of irony.
Time Alone, Oh, Time Will Tell
So, in this land mapped by high school entrance exams, one can't help but speculate as to whether the "new Rasta" youth are drawn towards reggae's unrestrainable freedom or-are just fashion magnets passing time before buttoning themselves into salariman-blue or OL-drab. Is reggae's moment in the rising sun a big business commodity, spiritual tillage or a fleeting illusion? Most seem to think it is a mixture of each, and no one is throwing away the red and white flag yet. "Many are called and few are chosen, so maybe only half will understand the music and the words themselves, the others will simply turn to something else. I really hope there are those in the young generation who will catch the true fire of reggae," sighs Yamamoto.
Well Ms. Yamamoto, it looks as if at least one person has found the flame, even if it's not heating only the Rasta camp. For in the words of Wataru Iwata: "I'm a Rasta, but I'm also a Buddhist, a Christian, a Hindu. I'm all religions. Everybody climbs the same mountain, but the mountain can be climbed from any direction, the East or the West, but the top of the mountain is just one. So although I still like the way of Rasta, I'm always moving forward. I can't stick to the label 'Oh he's a Rasta.' To me, it must be where is the truth? After I shaved off my dreads, I realized now I can really find myself. I can finally make my own way."
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