Phil’s recent posts about Asian American pioneers of the punk and rock scene of the 1980s, inspired me to write up about another group of music pioneers to what is arguably one of the biggest music genres on the planet. Reggae music, the unique, infectious hybrid put together by the island’s masterful musicians in the 1960s, is now one of the most popular forms of music in the world; the iconic figure of Bob Marley, often described as “the first Third World superstar”, has been rightly recognized as an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter whose universal messages of self-determination have struck chords with people on all continents. Everyone knows Marley was Jamaican, yet few realize his first recording was made by a Jamaican record producer of Chinese origin, just one example of the crucial yet largely hidden role that Chinese Jamaicans have played in reggae’s creation and dissemination.
How did Chinese end up in Jamaica in the first place? By accident, actually — In the mid-1800s, about 500 Chinese laborers protested at the appalling conditions they were working in during the construction of the Panama Canal. Out of protest, they came to an agreement with the British government to ship them back to China. The sailing route back to China had them dock in Jamaica, where a small group decided to stay and seek their livelihood in the Carribean. They worked hard and like most Chinese immigrants, became rich, formed a mercantile class and by the mid-20th Century, became an influential force, socially and economically.
The first Chinese Jamaican music pioneer was Kingston hardware merchant, Thomas Wong, better known as Tom The Great Sebastien. He is generally credited with developing the first real dancehall sound system in the early 1950s. Born out of necessity, the sound system was more economical to have at dance clubs, rather than hire a full band. Jamaican sound systems were the world’s first dance clubs in the contemporary sense of the word, and Jamaican selectors were the first DJs to start “toasting” or talking over the musical tracks, a style that later led to ragga and dancehall. Many music historians trace the roots of hip-hop to Jamaican sound system DJs, via DJ Kool Herc who went to New York 1967 and started rapping over records.
Soon other forward thinking entrepeneurs, all of them of Chinese descent, got into the recording business. Among the most important to begin producing then was Vincent “Randy” Chin, a record shop owner whose carpenter father had left Chinese mainland in the 1920s to settle in Jamaica. Assisted by his wife Patricia, a woman of mixed Chinese and Indian origin, Chin enjoyed spectacular success during the early 1960s with artists such as Lord Creator, who is one of the pioneers of ska music. More later on the Chins….
Another ska pioneer was musician Byron Lee. With his band, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, they played a crucial role in popularizing Jamaican music to the world, especially ska, calypso and soca. Here’s Lee and his band performing a song called “Samie Dead O”: http://myspacetv.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=4769574 Byron Lee is more than worthy of recognition, but since we’re focusing on reggae and rocksteady specifically, I’ll write more about the Dragonaires in a future post.
By the 1960s, several other Chinese Jamaicans followed Vincent and Patricia Chin’s lead. The most notable was Leslie Kong. He and his three brothers operated an ice cream parlor and a record shop called Beverley’s. Essentially, Kong discovered a young up-and-comer named Bob Marley, releasing two of his first singles, “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Judge Not” in 1962. Although neither of these songs ever became hits, Marley went on to become reggae’s most celebrated musician and the most famous Jamaican of the 20th century.
However, Kong’s legacy to Reggae would be his long relationship with Jimmy Cliff. In 1961, Cliff was hoping to get sponsorship to record a song he had written called “Dearest Beverly.” The young singer stood outside Beverley’s Ice Cream parlor singing the song. Kong was enchanted, and agreed to fund the recording. Beverley’s record label was born, and Cliff’s recording career was launched. Kong also produced ska and rocksteady pioneer Desmond Dekker’s “(Poor Me) Israelite” the first record made in Jamaica to hit the top ten in Britain and the United States. The song topped the British Charts in April 1969 and went to number nine on the American charts in July 1969, eventually selling over two million copies. This was Jamaica’s first real international hit.
Throughout the 1960s, Kong was the most successful record producer in Jamaica, producing one hit after another. In 1971, Kong reunited with Bob Marley, now of Bob Marley & the Wailers. The session was more than tumultuous. A few months after the recording, Kong tragically died of a heart attack at the young age of 37. Rastafarian legend suggests that Bunny Wailer, upset at what he considered a sub-standard recording of his album, put a curse on Kong. The story goes that Kong had a meeting with his accountant, who explained to him how much money he would make with this record, and then went home and just died.
Hey, Chinese are cutthroat business people! Of course, the Chinese legacy to Jamaican music did not end with Kong. Throughout the 1970s, outfits run by Vincent and Patricia Chin’s Randy’s Records and Herbert Chin-Loy’s Aquarius Records continued the course of popularizing Reggae and other genres. But politically turbulent elections in 1976 and 1980 that propelled nationalistic violence became the catalyst for a mass exodus of Jamaican businessmen, including many wealthy Chinese Jamaicans. The Chins moved to Queens, where they formed VP Records, which is still successfully in operation to this day, repping current sensaton Sean Kingston. Chin-Loy, on the other hand, moved his operation to Miami. He was also instrumental as being the first to build the 24-track recording studio and producing the first dub album.
For a tiny island consisting of 3 million citizens, Jamaica’s output and influence on global culture is truly amazing. The island nation’s motto,”Out of Many, One People”, reflects the diverse cultural heritage (African, Chinese, Indian, Portugese, Middle Eastern) of its inhabitants. The Chinese Jamaicans, led by pioneers like Leslie Kong, who ushered the growth and popularity of reggae, ska, dancehall etc., truly transformed world music as we know it today.
Therefore, I leave you with a scene from THE HARDER THEY COME, with Jimmy Cliff singing the title track of the same name: