Posted Mar 27 2010
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While Taiwan's history and culture have never been based on isolation, with immigrants, colonizers, fortune seekers, and the indigenous population all melding together since recorded history, in recent years those of the African disapora, including many from the Caribbean, have begun establishing their place in a major way. Having said that, Taiwan's not quite a hot spot for diversity, yet many are surprised by how much large cities such as Taipei have to offer.
As a fan of Caribbean music I was happily surprised a few years ago when I started seeing flyers promoting reggae in Taipei by a West Indian led, but locally-based sound system. I was able to connect with Oliver "Lion" Harley, a founding member of the O-Brothaz collective (which has since evolved into Black Reign) and we knocked out a quick interview. During a recent visit to Taiwan we reconnected and did a follow up. In addition to doing music, Oliver also helped found www.waakao.com, a site devoted to promoting the social scene in Taiwan. On top of that, he briefly opened up a Jamaican restaurant. Beyond discussing these trail-blazing ventures Oliver was quite open to discussing life as one of three Jamaicans on an island of more than 23 million people!
How long have you bee in Taiwan? Was it hard to set up a business?
I have been here for about 8 years. It was really hard to set up shop here because there is alot of grey in the procedures here and the laws, even more so concerning foreigners. We are also one of, if not the first, record label to be registered by all foreigners in Taiwan, so it was like they didn't know what to do!
Can you talk a little bit about the group and how it's evolved?
When I start to think back, yes, nuff changes. We started out 7 years ago just playing shows with our sound, then O-Brothaz Sound System. The name came from a store we had selling clothes because it was me and another friend with the same name from Ghana. When we started it was Taili from France/Maritinique, Oliver from Ghana, and me. Then at one of the shows we met General Young Blood, another Jamaican who used to have a sound in Toronto, so he joined and Oliver Ghana dropped out. The three of us built the name O-Brothaz Sound System. Then after about 3 years we add Fyah B from Belize who we trained up to play with us so we could play more shows to help boost the vibes in Taiwan. A year later General decide to do some other work for the time and soon after he leave, we opened a small bar/restaurant called Jahmuna's. One of the first customers was a Japanese man who could not speak English or Chinese but he came every night to listen reggae and drink a few beers until we find out he was a soundman in Tokyo and was going to be in Taiwan for awhile. We had good vibes from him and brought him into the crew which is now at 4 active members and named Black Reign International Sound.
During that time we've been organizing bigger events and festivals under Islandjam, working with Taiwanese and other artists in and out of Taiwan and doing productions under O-Brothaz Productions.
How has the music scene in Taipei changed?
When we started playing in Taiwan there was not a large variety; some hip-hop mostly techno and some top 40 places. A lot of places were just playing the same thing over and over. Then there was an explosion of small promoters, different scenes, and a lot more smaller venues to play. Right before the economic drama, all the small venues start to close. A lot of people packed up and only the few were left. The strong the proud the free and pushed out by by the big name clubs who monopolized the game or at least are trying. Recently it seems like a few more promoters are springing up again and some life coming back in the ting.
So I take it you don't really work with the big clubs?
I'm glad we didn't do it. We've been promoting our own shows and it's paying off. For the first three years we were doing own 75, 100, 300, 500. At The Wall one time 100 people couldn't get in. A promoter once told me it wouldn't work in Taiwan. That same guy was at show at Wall and we never heard from him again. We don't have to play Akon and 50 Cent. From the start we said we were going to do it right. People kept telling me to do Luxy or a big club, but I don't care about being famous. As long as it touches people in dem heart, I'm happy. I never wanted someone to discard me when they're done. I do my own thing, made by my own hand. It's starting to pay off. Everything we've done, by our own hand.
Taiwan's been like in reggae culture shock. It's like they need it, to hear the music and come to show. Once a big white guy, looked like he was from the Dakotas or some place, came up to me. He said he used to have dreads. I was like, "yeah, yeah, another guy, with dreads." But he was persistent. He kept talking and he knew about Rasta things. He said it would make his day if I played some Sizzla Kolonji. I was like, "you know about Sizzla?" So I tested him out. I played a song and he ran back singing. I did a 30 minute set of Sizzla and he went wild for every song. Africans mashed the floor up, grabbing Taiwanese girls. Everyone was dancing. It was crazy 'till the sun was coming up. Taiwanese people looke like thy just came back from Mars.
Anything in the works to have big stars or sound systems play in Taiwan?
Right now Unity Sound is in the works for April, a famous Philippine reggae band, Jeck Pilpil and Peace Pipe who play with Ziggy Marley. And in fall maybe a big artist from Jamaica but that is still in the works.
Where else in Asia have you all played?
We've been on tour in Japan twice and played in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Kunitachi and Kanagawa. In Tokyo we played at the longest standing reggae bar called Open with their soundmen, Open Sound System is like our Japanese partner now, really good vibes. In Kunitachi they had the cleanest sound I've ever been around. There was a wall of speakers with excellent sound. It was like 4 or 6 AM and I see a guy in a business suit, passed out, just like home, in front of 28 inch speakers. The sound was so clean it just go through him.
We're looking forward to playing Philippines soon and maybe in China.
What's been the response in Jamaica for what you all are doing?
The response back in Yard, well people are interested in the market and what we are doing because it is an "emerging" reggae scene, untouched territory. The Japanese see it like that too. They have a good time and good vibes here 'cause they say it is like Japan was 10 or so years ago when their scene was getting ready to kick off. The vibes from the Caribbean is good and dem seem happy that we trying to push a ting for the music this side. Which is in the end what we want to do, something good for the reggae and Caribbean music fraternity.
Was the Carnival a few months ago your biggest show? How'd you select the dancers and what not?
The Carnival was one of the bigger shows but not the biggest. We did a show in that same venue before and sell off the place 600+ inside and 100 didn't get in. That was just to see us play, nothing else! Wicked night. The Carnival dancers...it is a secret how we select the dancers, but ladies wishing to dance for the next Carnival can apply from now...
What was your role in Jahmuna's restaurant? Why do you think it didn't succeed?
My role was owner and cook, everything and nothing. I think just the wrong time and wrong place and not enough cash to put in. But you never know, it might get revived.
How did the idea for Waakao start? What's been the response? Is there an ultimate goal that you have in mind?
It started with a friend of mine who I have known since I came to Taiwan, Marcus Aurelius, who is a wicked and versatile dj here in Taiwan. He has been at it for longer than us, so big up to Daddy Marcus. We saw there was a hole in the market for people to get info about shows and other events and news in Taiwan so we decided to try a ting. We brought in another dj friend DJ Hooker and Waakao was born kicking and screaming. The response has been good from both expats and locals. The ultimate goal has always to make it a site for the people by the people. To get people actively involved with the site, that is the goal.