Reggae might be the last thing you’d expect to find in fast-paced modern Korea, but actually the two complement each other surprisingly well.
Reggae music is just one of many folk genres of music from Jamaica, alongside ska, dub, calypso, mento, rocksteady, and dancehall. Despite its popular connotation as carnival music or something heard on Caribbean cruise ships, reggae comes from a much darker background of oppression and poverty. Despite the often happy sounding rhythms of reggae music, spiritual suffering and social problems are two of the distinct themes of the genre.
The minjung theologian Seo Nam-dong might describe reggae as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Of course, he was discussing the Korean concept of Han, a uniquely Korean concept of a collective feeling of oppression and isolation. Well, maybe not as unique as once thought.
So, how has reggae reached Korea? It was a long, convoluted path across many different genres, facing constant reinterpretation and localisation by Koreans along the way. For that matter, how widespread is it, and how far can it go?
“I believe there are many people who have heard of some terms used in reggae music,” says Kim Banjang, the drummer of Korean reggae band Windy City (as well as at least three other reggae projects). “They will also know the name Bob Marley. But I believe that this music of great dignity will spread out to young people and they will be ready to meet reggae.”
Perhaps the first place where reggae influences may have shown up in Korea was the punk music scene. Punk and reggae have historically enjoyed a close relationship, ever since Bob Marley wrote “Punky Reggae Party.” Likewise, there has been an enthusiastic interest in reggae since the birth of punk music in Korea. This was never better realised than with Suck Stuff’s punk cover of “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley.
As the global tastes of Korea’s musicians began to refine, certain bands began experimenting with blending punk with ska and reggae, such as Lazybone and Beach Valley. In the mid-2000s, the Ghetto Bombs had a strong ska influence, but it was mainly coming from other punk bands with a similar ska influence such as the Clash and Rancid.
Then in 2005, Korea’s first authentic ska band, Kingston Rudieska, debuted. Kingston Rudieska, as the name makes abundantly clear, takes its influences directly from the capital city of Jamaica — and reggae itself — Kingston. Originally their sound was almost identical to the Skatalites, one of the original ska bands from the ’60s. They even covered the Skatalites numerous times before developing their own unique style. Here is “Skafiction,” one of their earlier songs which follows the Skatalites formula closely.
As a largely instrumental band, they’ve collaborated with many singers, including Bobby Kim, Ryu Tae of Noitypoon, and Chris Murray. Perhaps the one that resonated best, though, was pansori singer Jang Goon. She joined them on stage many times to lend her vocal range, and their ska rendition of “Arirang,” dubbed “Skarirang,” became a highlight of their shows.
It also proved the formula, and would encourage further fusion. While recreating the roots of Jamaican reggae and ska, Korean musicians could also get closer to their own roots.
At the same time as Kingston Rudieska introduced audiences to ska music, another band formed to develop reggae. Windy City was a new project by vocalist/drummer Kim Banjang, previously of funk band Asoto Union. For many Koreans, this was their introduction to reggae music.
Kim took things to a new level when he formed dub-reggae band I&I Djangdan. The band had no string instruments, instead relying on melody from keyboards and melodicas. They were supported by DJ Seafran from France, who brought their dub sound into the 21st century. And the lead vocalist of the band was Jang Goon, fully combining traditional reggae and Korean folk music full-time.
“Reggae, or culture based on tradition or deep roots, normally has been ignored or forgotten in Korea,” says Kim. “Koreans are not very proud of their own culture. They are rather attracted by American or European culture. These aspects are described as ignorance or vanity in reggae culture. Reggae and other cultures proud of their own roots celebrate their uniqueness, and reggae can be a new kind of stimulus for Korean culture.”
I&I Djangdan features another take on “Arirang,” this time taking a different version of the song (the one with Skatalites was from Jindo). It was redubbed “Irie Rang” after the Jamaican patois “irie,” meaning “all right.” This version was more thoroughly rehearsed, and eventually recorded for CD, and succeeded in fusing two very different folk cultures together seamlessly.
The demand for reggae was great, too much for one band to handle. However, there weren’t that many musicians around who were both willing and able to play reggae. Thus, most of the resulting reggae bands had some combination of the guys from Windy City. I can think of four reggae bands I’ve seen that have Kim Banjang as drummer, vocalist, or both.
“The reason I play in four bands is because I can,” says Kim. “It’s a conscious choice and something compels me to do it. It is not just because there is a shortage of reggae musicians. I and I are required to understand various aspects of reggae culture and cultivate it in Korea.”
One such project was Bibim Dub Trio, whose name hints at the mixing of cultures together in the bowl that is reggae. It was more of a combination of DJing along with some vocals and instruments thrown in the mix. It also lends its name to their production group Bibim Productions.
As they got deeper into reggae, many of the members began exploring Rastafarianism, the religion commonly associated with Jamaican reggae. They began growing dreadlocks and dressing in simpler, colourful clothes. The group Bibim Kingmans and Mama Steppa was created out of this movement, introducing another Jamaican folk genre known as nyah binghi. Nyah binghi has a more spiritual sound, placing the emphasis on chanting and drums rather than base and rhythm. Unfortunately no recordings were ever made.
“All of the four bands and sounds they make were created on the basis of reggae,” explains Kim Banjang. “They each have all different features, and give influence to mix together.”
Meanwhile, Jang Goon took a different direction, away from the roots toward more technical dub. After the breakup of I&I Djangdan, she formed the electronic duo Ninano Nanda.
“These days, reggae seems to be biased toward Rastafarianism or other kinds, reflecting a certain religious theory,” says Kim, “but new reggae which will be created would have their own traditions and characteristics. The potential of reggae is limitless. We have empty land, and we can sprinkle seeds and grow them there. Korean Reggae is growing in Korean land.”
Around 2008, the new band Soul Steady Rockers came onto the small-sized scene, bringing with them a new take on reggae. Their emphasis is more on instruments and rhythm, which is probably due to their soul and funk background. With lots of throwbacks to popular reggae musicians like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, they’ve developed their own sound and distanced themselves stylistically from Windy City.
Largely considered the world’s most global genre of music, reggae is growing in Korea, but like all genres outside the mainstream it is moving slowly. The few bands that are playing reggae and ska are attracting reasonable enough audiences, but there aren’t enough bands to support a self-sustainable musical movement.
There are many bars and restaurants you can visit around Hongdae and Itaewon that embrace reggae music. These are often good places to mingle with Koreans and foreigners who love reggae music.
- Roots Time
A small basement bar near Hongdae Station, Roots Time is owned by a Japanese guy and his Korean wife. They prefer older reggae from the ’60s and ’70s, and stock a large vinyl collection.
- Reggae Chicken
Reggae Chicken is in two locations, one in Sangsu-dong and the other in Yeonnam-dong. Mostly a chicken hof, they also have some high-quality German beers on tap.
- This is Chicken
A new competitor to Reggae Chicken, This is Chicken was opened recently by Kim Jiwoong, lead singer of the defunct punk band Oi Broker. The theme of this place focuses more on skinhead reggae and two-tone ska, and some of the menu items are named after characters from the UK skinhead film This is England.
Jamaicawang and Cubawang are both a little more centered on world music, but reggae plays a large part of that in both locations. Cubawang is near Hongdae Station, not far from Roots Time, and Jamaicawang is in Sangsu-dong, not far from Reggae Chicken. It has an excellent cream beer on tap.
- Club Zion
Formerly known as Reggae Pub, Club Zion recently moved locations to the bottom of a hill whose name I probably shouldn’t mention on here. It’s almost definitely the current longest-running reggae club in all of Korea. The music focuses on more modern subgenres of reggae like dancehall.
“I believe it is the role of art and music to remind people of things that are forgotten now but once enriched our lives,” says Kim. “Reggae is the most powerful force in music and culture. The force is spreading through channels other than MTV or the media. It is not like a system between consumer and supplier but it is growing by spontaneous consumption throughout the whole world. reggae is very powerful and the power is required in this generation.”