The one in which I go to a reggae nightclub… in Tokyo

My friend and I get a surprising taste of Tokyo’s nightlife.

Not five minutes after we enter the handkerchief-sized nightclub, one of the Japanese dudes who has been surreptitiously looking us up and down since our arrival sidles up to us nervously.  We are the only two black girls in a room full of Japanese, all men except for the petite DJ — and obviously curiosity has gotten the better of him. The words that escape from his lips are halting but easily discernible, even as old school reggae shakes the room. “Where you from?”

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I smile broadly, conscious of the lie I’m about to tell. “Jamaica,” I say evenly. To be fair, it’s half true: my parents were born on the tropical island and didn’t immigrate to Canada until their late teens.  I grew up eating jerk chicken and stewed peas, I can bust out an authentic Jamaican accent when convenient, and naturally swing my hips when the faintest strain of dancehall music hits the open air. I may not technically be  from yaad, but it courses through my veins. I know the deal.

His eyes glow in recognition and he begins to almost pant with excitement.  The words come out of his mouth faster now, the uneven gallop of a horse with a bum leg. “I go to Jamaica last year,” he puffs.  “I stay there three months.  In Half Way Tree.”  Now it’s my turn to be impressed. I exchange a look with my friend, Miss C, also of  Caribbean stock.  I turn back to my interlocutor and cock my head. Half Way Tree, a neighbourhood in Kingston, is a stone’s throw from where my mom grew up.  I am fully drawn in.

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It’s late January and we’re in Garam, a reggae club in Tokyo, the backdrop of our four day Japanese adventure.  We came to Tokyo seeking a full-bodied city experience, one rife with excitement, craziness, and possibility.  Barely 24 hours into our sojourn, we are getting what we asked for, and eagerly anticipating what comes next. We spend our first afternoon trolling the corners of Shibuya, busy shopping area, and our home base of Shinjuku-ku, it too a large commercial centre (and de facto red light district). Our loosely planned itinerary incorporates both high culture and low, the traditional with the cutting edge and quirky: amongst other things, we are slated to attend a heady Japanese tea ceremony, as well as make a visit to the Akihibara district, epic epicentre of anime and manga fandom.  For our first night, my friend suggests we do something completely random and check out a reggae club.  She had heard from another friend that the dancehall scene was big here.

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And so, we find ourselves in the smoky bowels of Garam, winding our waists with reckless abandon to the booming music — as we try to pretend we don’t notice the local contingent discretely surveying our every move. The club and its patrons represent cultural appropriation at its finest. There is the red, gold, and green Garam sign at the entrance, bottles of Wray and Nephew’s overproof rum adorning the bar, and revellers who move and dress like they are out of a Sean Paul video. The barman wears a large belt buckle embossed with a Jamaican flag, rude bwoy style. The atmosphere pulses with a carefully-crafted, studied authenticity.

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“What your name?” the man who approached us upon our arrival seems almost desperate to continue the thread of conversation. We tell him and ask for his.  He answers and I’m not sure I’ve heard correctly until he shows us a flyer with his name printed on it.  Our new friend, also a DJ it would appear, is named Vybz Yartel.  We giggle; the irony of his name is not lost on us.  For Vybz Kartel, spelled with a “k”, is one of Jamaica’s premier dancehall reggae artists (and currently in the headlines as he was shockingly convicted of murder last week).  Yartel pulls his Kangol over his eyes and invites us to dance with him and his friend. “Vibe so nice,” he says through a grin as wide as a Cheshire Cat’s. Our group of four engages in a slow two-step to a Jimmy Cliff-esque ditty. Vibe so nice indeed.

A quick search online reveals that the reggae genre first was introduced to Japan in the early 1970s, and that in the years since the scene has exploded, with dancehall music in particular becoming a serious subculture and way of life. For many, the love affair runs deep: these disciples eat, sleep, and breathe reggae, with some, like our friend Vybz Yartel, even venturing as far as Jamaica for total immersion.  The inculcation of cultural mores and trade secrets seems to be working: Japanese reggae dancer Junko Kudo controversially became the first non-Jamaican to win the International Dancehall Queen competition in 2002.

But my friend and I don’t think of this as we laugh and take pictures with our new acquaintances in the poky nightclub. The female DJ steps down from the booth and joins our circle, curious as to our provenance.  Her successor, a tall man, steps up to the turntables and grabs the mic.  Selecta-style, he talks over the record — what flows out of his mouth is a mix of Jamaican patois and Japanese. “Caribbean girls and Japan link up!” he cries, gesturing toward us.  I am dumbfounded and pleasantly surprised.  Did he really just do that? I smile at how wild this all is, realise how cool this exchange has been.

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This is a cultural superhighway and I am ridiculously happy to be along for the ride.

Have you ever experienced a piece of “home” while abroad or witnessed another country’s spin on your home culture? How did it make you feel?

 

29 Comments

  • Chinye says:

    How awesome! Music has a way of transcending cultures and uniting people on a common front. I’m totally not shocked Reggae is big in Asia as there are quite a few Asians within the Caribbean and Diaspora. I would LOVE to hear the Patois/Japanese dialect.

  • Dee says:

    This is so awesome. I haven’t actually been to Tokyo, but I was there on a layover to Singapore, and I see this Japanese rasta ( I use the term loosely) in the airport. My mouth is hanging open the entire time. He had the ice, gold and green shirt…for a minute there, I thought that he might be Chinese Jamaican, but I think he was Japanese because he was talking with a friend. That whole two minute experience made me feel so good. I showed him to my friend who is originally from Jamaica and she started laughing about how we were on the other side of the planet and still saw things that were so familiar. The world is an interesting place.

  • Unfortunately, our reggae clubs are not so popular. To the extent, that two we used to frequent have closed down. Not that surprisingly really as Carnival over here is much more about the costumes than the music. We’ve always wanted to visit Tokyo. You’ve just given another reason to do so.
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  • Ron says:

    Wish i had read this a month ago. I was in Japan a few weeks ago looking for funky things to do. I had a blast but really wanted more of a nightlife connection. Thanks much for sharing.

  • Shalu Sharma says:

    Didn’t realise that was reagae clubs in Tokyo too. Looks fun and interesting.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..My new India travel guide book now on AmazonMy Profile

  • Damon says:

    I was at a Reggae Session every night when I was in Tokyo. The DJ’s in Japan can take on most of the djs world wide. They study the music for real.
    Damon recently posted..Adventure and Fun in NicaraguaMy Profile

  • Katrina says:

    Really enjoyed this “snapshot” of Tokyo! Thanks for sharing!
    Katrina recently posted..Top Five Before 35 – InternationalMy Profile

  • Andi says:

    Soooo much fun! When I was in Tokyo I met a bunch of Japanese rockstars and partied with them WAY too late into the night haha!!
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  • Victoria says:

    This is so funny and yet so cool. Reggae in Japan? I had no idea! I can relate to the “Oh my god, you’re actually from…” scenerio. I like to waver between being British and being German! In a Delhi beauty salon, I had a queue of Indian women and girls pushing and shoving to see me. They made me teach them nursery rhymes and tell fairytale stories. In Vietnam for some reason I was known as “the German girl” and that was among a bunch of Australians! In Berlin, I’m “the posh one” and in Cape Town, I was presumed to be the daughter of “some” African president so I was always charged 3 times higher than everyone else. I thought that was annoying but also quite amusing!
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  • Love this post, Oneika. If these guys have gone as far as Jamaica then they’ve traveled beyond cultural appropriation to be true aficionados. Kudos to those who create and play the music that brings the world together.
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  • Dee says:

    Def heard about the reggae underground in Japan and looking fwd to one day experiencing it. Back in ’07 I had a soul-stirring encounter one late midsummer’s night in Toulouse. I was stumbling along w/ a couple of Mexican and Colombian acquaintances who were also studying abroad and right in the middle of Place du Capitole a brightly clad band of musicians accosted us in perfect Spanglish and Frenglish. They were soliciting backup singers to No Woman, No Cry. Sufficient quantities of drinks of a sociable nature facilitated this interaction. To their surprise a “real life” Jamaican began belting out one of Bob’s classics after I realized that they could really strum the guitar strings. My singing? Not so important

  • Shannie says:

    Love this post! I’m Jamaican and I’ve also had a strong interest in Asian culture (specifically Japan and S. Korea). I knew Japan had a reggae scene and it’s great to see that it’s alive and thriving. I would love to check it out myself because you seem like you had a great time. Oneika, since the day I first laid eyes on you, I always suspected you had some Caribbean in you…….but now that I know the extent of your background, it’s even better than I thought!

    Love your blog 🙂

    Always remain inspiring and amazing

  • This is such a great story! I bet you made their night!!

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  • Alyssa James says:

    I TOTALLY remember when Junko won the Dancehall Queen title – everyone at my school was talking about and street vendors were selling bootleg versions of the video on DVD… those were the days.

    “Caribbean girls and Japan link up!” – I died.

    It’s not as far of a stretch as in Japan, but in Martinique whenever my students found out I was Jamaican, they would say “Yeeeess, Vybz Kartel!”. That would be the only English thing they would say the entire year…
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  • Sarah says:

    Would love to hear the Dj’s Jamaican-Japanese slang! 😀
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  • Sounds like so much fun. When Iived in London I came across an Austrian/German restaurant and it was so much fun going there, having German Schnaps with the owner, German beer and of course food. Whenever I felt homesick I’d go there to cheer myself up and it worked wonders every time.
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  • Denis agar! says:

    Hey Oneika! Our train was sold out so we will be an hour late to meet you! We gmailed you, just commenting for good measure, not 100% sure it went through. See you at noon!

  • Chanelle says:

    My first trip out of Jakarta was to the Gili Islands. On Gili Trawangan, there’s a reggae bar called Sama-Sama. My mate and I spent our evenings there listening to the decentish reggae band playing classics.

  • Boogotop says:

    Nice article,
    I plan to do a trip there it can be a good fun. Where to stay to be in the middle of these good vibes??

  • emmet o'riordan says:

    Jamaican culture is special. It just makes millions of us feel like we have a connection to it, even though we maybe don’t have a genetic connection. It moves people.

  • John says:

    I am seriously looking to go Tokyo to experience the dancehall night life… Any one has some Leeds to which city and where to go? Even better if someone is going… Seven14-sevenfour7-64one8

  • Patricia Clay says:

    Great write up on something so near and dear to my heart, reggae music. This reminds me of a German guy I met on one of my many trips to Jamaica. He knew every single word to every dancehall song that played and he could dance too. Needless to say I partied with him the entire night. 🙂

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