Nǐ hǎo to Chinese Reggae! - Kong father-son duo explores heritage for ‘Zoo to Roots’
From Jamaica to the Great Wall of China, it has been a long yet historic walk for audio engineer and producer Shaquille ‘Skunga’ Kong and his father, roots reggae entertainer I Kong, who, in tracing their roots were able to find a connection and create new ones.
“Since the first trip to China in 2018, going there has revealed to me parts of the (Jamaican) culture, adopted from [the island],” Skunga Kong told The Sunday Gleaner, noting that it made him feel at home.
He added, “Tracing our heritage connected us with Heavy Hong Kong Sound, which led to us touring across several provinces – about eight cities in China – almost all of which have a sound system, reggae bar, or murals with Jamaican reggae artistes. We also performed on Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s Music and Arts Festival, and the sound- system culture there is fanatical.”
One of his most successful productions is an album with Cantonese singer Mouse FX, which he says was different only because of the language barrier. Locally, Skinga Kong has worked with and produced for a variety of entertainers, including Grammy-nominated band Raging Fyah, renowned producer-musician duo Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare and is instrumental in the musical exploits of his father, the most recent coming off their Asian expedition in September of last year.
Skunga Kong said, “Typically, we’re exploring reggae in different languages, beginning with Chinese even as we still have issues with the acceptance of musicians outside of a Jamaica doing reggae ... . That’s minor to me because the genre is so big.”
The producer and audio engineer shared that with music, his focus has never been on the barriers, only on breaking them.
“Our household is not so much Chinese, based on the fact that my father is Rastafarian and, ironically, my mother is a Christian lady that sing gospel music loud every Sunday, but it worked. It was more music than anything, and the two of them never have nuh problem. Me grow like a roots man in St Elizabeth, where several entertainers like Jah Mason, Terry Linen, Fantan Mojah, and Kumar Bent originate,” he said. “We see ourselves breaking the barriers with our productions. It’s still one drop, dubstep, and roots rock reggae. The most recent trip, we did a few shows but then spent one month in the studio with the JahWahZoo reggae band in Chengdu City.”
Their adventures were documented by French videographer Alix Roussel, who is based in Hong Kong, in which you will see I Kong recording reggae music in Chinese for the collaborative album with the eight-piece band titled Zoo To Roots.
“The ‘Zoo’ coming from JahWahZoo and the ‘roots’ refers to us making an authentic reggae album in the most traditional way we could. It’s the first that the band would have worked and created with Jamaicans straight from the source of reggae.
PLANS CUT SHORT
There were plans to do more this year, so we invited other local producers and musicians to add to the project and future ones, but the work had to be put on pause especially since they had wanted to come to Jamaica to record a documentary on the entire production process,but aside from flight restrictions, there are actually no available flights from China until late-January,” Skunga shared.
“From my understanding, there has never been a recording of roots music done with a Chinese band,” I Kong chimed in, adding that when it came to learning the language of his birth, “I didn’t learn much of it, apart from ‘ni hao’, which means ‘hello, how are you’ and the one line I sang in a song … . I’d have to go back and get serious into learning the language.”
There is no denying the contribution of the Chinese-Jamaican music industry professionals to the development of the reggae genre - says the father-son duo – many of whom have reaped the rewards and international acclaim. From the likes of VP Records power couple Patricia and Victor Chin, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the Hoo Kim brothers of Channel One Studios, and also Beverley Records’ producer and label owner Leslie Kong, who is I Kong’s uncle. Their varied business ventures – from recording studios and record shops to sound systems – were instrumental in the creation and exposure of reggae rhythms that eventually reached the shores of the country of their ancestors.
I Kong, who is one of the founding members of the rocksteady group The Jamaicans, known for their hit single Things You Say You Love and the 1967 Festival Song Ba Ba Boom, said that while these names mentioned mediated the movement of the local genre across the globe to some extent, the actual Chinese reggae market is unfamiliar terrain for Jamaican recording artistes and producers.
“It was really a good experience; unexpected as such because I never dreamt I’d visit my father’s homeland and to be involved in something as momentous as what we have done,” the veteran singer shared.
I Kong recorded his first solo song under the name Ricky Storm in the early 1960s but received a breakthrough with the hit single The Way It Is accompanied by the Inner Circle musicians before releasing his first album in 1979. After 30 years behind the scenes, he returned in 2015 with the album A Little Walk and has ever since been collaborating with Skunga Kong, with whom he has become an ambassador for Chinese reggae.
“I think people should be open to listening to the genre in a different language merely for the fact that there you have 1.4 billion people who speak various Chinese dialects reaching out to all nations of the Earth through reggae music and support the genre. It would be a good means for us learning one of them whether Mandarin or Cantonese,” he said.