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Jah Wobble’s Chinese Dub Comes to Town

Jah Wobble
Jah Wobble

It was at Sheffield’s Boardwalk after a performance with The English Roots Band, that Jah Wobble first mentioned his Chinese Dub project. Eighteen months on, with financial assistance from the Arts Council, The Liverpool Culture Company Ltd, several trips to the Yunnan Province and a terrifying earthquake later, we now have the opportunity to experience the “new Anglo – Chinese aural and visual spectacular”.

How excited was I ? but as I walked across the city centre, it was like a ghost town and I wondered if there would be enough punters on a Monday evening in July as Wobble came back to the Boardwalk with his Chinese Dub project.

On entering the Snig Hill venue, I needn’t have worried, people were there in sufficient numbers to make for a good gig. The stage was bathed in blue and green lights and drawing us in were hypnotic loops of dub effects mixed with the resonating soundscapes of gongs and temple bells. As I waited to experience, once more, the low end, sometimes edgy often thrilling basslines, I drifted back 30 years to the new London combo of Rotten and Wobble and those opening few bars of Public Image’s self titled track, which get me every time.What would this project sound like ? I waited with the rest of the Wobble faithful and Chinese Dub curious.

The continuing strong interest in Wobble’s contribution to London’s punk era often serves to deflect from the fact that Wobble has held a fascination and indeed, immersed himself in music from around the world. In 1993 Wobble was invited to play a WOMAD concert in San Francisco, a year later, following the release of Take Me To God with the Invaders of the Heart ( inc. Justin Adams, Najma Akhtar, Abdul Ali Slimani, Natacha Atlas ) he was invited to perform at WOMAD again, this time at Reading’s Rivermead venue.

Wobble is no stranger to the music of China either. In 1998 one of the earlier releases on his independent record label, 30 Hertz records, introduced us to Zi Lan Liao playing the ku-cheng against a backdrop of improvisations, soundscapes and tight pacey bass playing.

The two are married and Wobble tells me in an interview, that Zi Lan is a great influence on his music although on stage he can’t resist a joke, “that’s my wife tuning up – I’d like to say hurry up but I might pay the price later!”. He goes on to tell me that the musical crossover works two ways, there’s no traditional role for the bass in Chinese musical arrangements but his father in-law has become inspired enough to develop and make a new Chinese Style bass instrument. Their two sons are also taking up their musical heritage, playing in the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra, part of the opening night of the UK tour in Liverpool.

The Sheffield gig, third of the UK dates had some familiar personnel on board; woodwind player and flautist Clive Bell( The Five Tone Dragon, Celtic Poets, Molam Dub ) Conga Player, Neville Murray ( Invaders of the Heart )percussion, Mark Saunders on Drums, Chris Cookson (Invaders of the Heart) on electric guitar and Zi Lan Liao on Guzheng. They started the set with a couple of numbers not far removed from the afore mentioned Five Tone Dragon, with three well choreographed dancers taking centre stage. After which came the first of the Chinese singers. Tibetan, Gu Ying, dressed in traditional costume, who according to Wobble’s introduction, “has narf (not half) got a voice on her”. True, in Tibet they train their voices to cross valleys, which, when stood at the front of the audience at the Boardwalk, made for a bit of an earpiercing experience.

The first number was a Mongolian song, courtesy of her maternal line, followed by an arrangement of the traditional “Happy Tibetan Girl”. This was accompanied by Clive Bell, on melodica, reminding me of both the Chinese instrument, the shawm and the playing of Augustus Pablo. With the addition of a few touches of the gong by Neville Murray, this Chinese Dub project was beginning to click.

The dancers came back in acrobatic costumes twirling red velvet squares of fabric, stretched out in a vertical position, going round like propeller blades, was it static or magic keeping them on the ends of their fingers ?

Our next guest singer to join the band on stage, was Wang Jingqi, from the Mao ethnic minority of China from the Yunaan Province. Wobble has spent a long time in the Yunaan Provice, looking for artists to join his project, “you’ve got a lot of ethnic minorities there…its like a continent of music in itself, there’s all styles of country singing music, all very pentatonic and modal, right up my street”. Wang Jinqi took to the stage in a beautiful scarlet costume adorned with multiple layered jewelry reminiscent of Ethiopian tribal decorations and a multi tiered work of art for a headdress, covered in gold brocade and tinsely type adornment that would make the best painted halo in Russian iconography, look pale in comparison. For her second number, she was accompanied by Zi Lan Liao as the rest of the band took a break from the stage but it would not be long before the band were all back on stage to accompany what was perhaps the most magical part of the evening, the mask changers from Sichuan. Wang Jinqi would also be back later to perform an ancient dance from the Tang Dynasty period.

Wobble was right when he said, “You’re going to enjoy this”, I experienced the wonderment of a child going to a pantomime for the first time. Blink and you miss it. One minute they sport a menacing mask then with a quick flick of the head or was it the hand or did they pull a string somewhere, their mask had changed, like a slide show, to reveal a new colours and new emotions. There was the addition of pyrotechnics and fire eating to add to the drama and later on on it got very clever with the masks changing in their design, receding half way up the face, Lone Ranger style before disappearing altogether to reveal the wearer’s true identity. They were the talk of the evening, ” How do they do it ?”. A clip was even played at slow speed twice on the local television news programme, North West today, inviting viewers to try and work out the magic.

Amongst the entire Chinese population, there are only 200 mask changers and apparently you need a licence to practice this art form. First documented 300 years ago its secrets are never revealed. ” How do you follow that” says Wobble, ” You don’t” and just as we thought this was the end of the show on came Claire Rose ( English Roots Band), the sound engineer tweaked the reverb and the first few lines of Dawn Penn’s No No No came over the mike, the bass became louder and edgier and the band were off in another direction, joined once more by Gu Ying. Two women, who couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language holding it down on the stage with this well known reggae tune…..fantastic…..Wobble even went walkabout with his wireless bass, at one point propping himself up against a table in the audience and before continuing to play from the middle of the room by the sound desk.

The audience were loving it, Wobble got back on stage, all the Chinese performers come back for a bow, ” Lets mix up the Chinese thing“, said Wobble as he moved across stage indicating to his wife to play something like “waving Everest in e minor” as she put her hand to her forehead. Maybe she knew what was coming… “You want a late night?” asks Wobble as jackets come off and the vintage Wobble improvisations start… at one point he was going around the stage like a conductor directing his orchestra towards an almighty crescendo. There were extra helpings of arabesque style guitar from Chris Cookson, Colin Bell got through three different types of woodwind instrument. Neville Murray was cranking up the pace on the congas and members of the audience were taking to the area in front of the stage for a dance, confident that this was the old school Wobble now being unleashed, ……. just as I was wondering what was going on…..

Wobble said in closing, “You’ve been a great audience, you just got something that no-one else on the tour will get.” He explained afterwards, during our interview in the dressing room that the improvisation was inspired by the Tang Dynasty dance Wobble had witnessed on stage earlier.

Whatever it was, fans of Wobble were not disappointed, that’s for sure, although I got the feeling there was a little bit of a mixed reception for some of the more traditional Chinese elements but that was easily dealt with, “if you don’t like it you can shut your gob”, said a member of the audience to his dissenting mate.

You can catch Jah Wobble’s Chinese Dub at this year’s WOMAD in Charlton Park.

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A Balanced Wobble

Jah Wobble
Adventurous audio explorer Jah Wobble keeps creating fresh sonic landscapes, with a little help from his friends. He discusses his latest projects with Seth Jordan…

For an originally wild East End lad, first propelled at listeners as the somewhat menacing, bass-wielding counterpoint to John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in the post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. (P.I.L), these days producer/bassist Jah Wobble, at 44, projects a much more reflective and settled demeanour.

Born John Wardle in 1958, his Jah Wobble moniker was famously bestowed on him by a drunken Sid Vicious, who slurringly introduced him as such. Given Wardle’s love of dub reggae the name seemed appropriate and stuck. Leaving P.I.L. in 1980, Wobble began to experiment, working on the classic ’83 album Snakecharmer, alongside such art rockers Holger Czukay and Jaki Leibezeit from the German group Can, and U2 guitarist The Edge.

Opting out of the music industry for a time, Wobble disappeared completely for several years, working anonymously as a driver on the London Underground, before returning to the scene with a new band, The Invaders Of The Heart. Their ‘91 album Rising Above Bedlam spawned the surprise hit ‘Visions Of You’, which featured vocalist Sinead O’Connor. Wobble also created World music fusions, working with Najma, Natacha Atlas and Baaba Maal on ‘94’s Take Me To God.

Fronted by his own trademark rumbling basslines and studio production skills, Wobble’s collaborations have since included work with such diverse artists as Brian Eno, Bjork, Pharoah Sanders, Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Afro-Celt Sound System, and recent remixes for Tori Amos and Holly Valance.

Founding his own independent label 30 Hertz in ’97, Wobble has continued to release a prolific output of creative projects. His most recent work includes Molam Dub (2000) with Laotian group Molam Lao; RadioAxiom: A Dub Transmission (2001) with like-minded bassist/producer Bill Laswell; Shout At The Devil (2002) with ex-Transglobal duo Temple Of Sound; Solaris: Live In Concert (2002) with Laswell, Harold Budd, Graham Haynes and Jaki Leibezeit; and Fly (2003). He will shortly be releasing Five Beat with his current group Deep Space, as well as a soundtrack for the French film Fureur (Fury).

Jah Wobble lives with his wife Zi Lan, a traditional Chinese musician, in the northern English town of Stockport.

Jah, in your teenage years you enjoyed listening to late night radio oscillations, tuning into an array of far-off music and noise. Is that where you first learned the art of mixing diverse sounds?

I guess so. I was drawn to the sound of short-wave oscillations and I still love those low-end sounds. I continue to generate them myself in the studio with mutating systems that my engineer has invented to gain control over those frequencies. The radio ones are great ‘cause they feel like they’re coming from the sun. Very cosmic and infinite. As stations fade in and out it’s a natural collage, and you never know where it’s going to drift to. I used it to fall asleep to.

Is that also where you first heard more exotic forms of music, such as Arabic singing?

That’s right. I think I first heard Radio Cairo. It was the Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum, although I didn’t know her at the time. I can still remember all this phased clapping as the signal bounced around through the stratosphere, just like in the studio when you mirror a signal, which I absolutely adore. It’s like the music’s coming from heaven.

These days you always seem to have so many projects going at once, from esoteric jazz experiments to pop remixes for the likes of Holly Valance. A pretty wide musical palette isn’t it?

Yeah I’m always working, it’s always flowing, and keeping it diverse keeps it interesting. At the moment I’m buzzing on a mix I did the other night that I can’t get out of my head, with the trumpeter Harry Beckett. It’s a very slow New Orleans kind of thing.

Harry was involved with your latest album ‘Fly’, where he occasionally sounds very much like Miles Davis with that muted far-away sound. Miles’ music is still very important to you isn’t it?

Yeah he’s been quite an influence. I was 18 or 19 when I first heard Miles’ during his electric period, all those multi-layered textures. He was like an architect. I actually tried to bring some of that attitude to P.I.L., building up the sound. Miles was fantastic.

The ‘Fly’ album sounds quite different to many of your past projects. How did it come about?

I was just trying to have some fun. I was actually working on the soundtrack for the French film Fureur, and I was having a few barneys with the director. They kept changing their minds as to what they wanted. They were very much into me doing the music as we went, which actually can be quite exciting, rather than afterwards. But they kept changing even how the film would go. So after I’d written a number of things, they wanted it different. Since I’d already had the big studio booked, I just said, “Okay you go make your mind up about what you want, and meanwhile I’ll just have some fun here for myself. So some of the tracks on Fly came from that, and when I got home I added to it and properly mixed it. Even though it started off in a rather ad hoc fashion, it’s actually quite a disciplined album, with a strong uniformity of sound, a specific approach. It’s pretty electronic really with a lot of juicy synths in there, with phasing and mutations. It’s quite a hip kind of sound I think. Apparently it’s appealing to some of the club people in London, the ones with ironic haircuts and glasses.

In setting up your own 30 Hertz label in ’97, were you just fed up with the corporate attitude to music as a product that could easily be identified into marketable genres?

I realised a long time ago that that approach was insane and illogical and wasteful. I came to that depressing conclusion more than 17 years ago. When I came back into the scene in the late 80’s I just saw the big companies as venture capitalists, people that you hustled money from to make records. It was a dubious business and I could see that it wasn’t the way to go if you wanted to make really interesting music. In order to have some power and momentum I felt I needed to eventually form my own company. A lot of people said “You’re making a big mistake, you won’t have enough money to keep it happening”, but I just kept at it and so far it’s going okay. We’ve actually been in profit for the last few years, and my music is still readily available for people who want it. Some people tell me that I put out too much music and it just makes me laugh. I always think of the analogy between musicians and painters. Would we ever think of saying, “Oh I quite like Monet’s Water Lilies, but I think he did too much stuff”? The development is just as important as the results. Should he have set fire to the rest of them and just kept the best ones?

In the end it’s about an artist’s total body of work?

Yes, but I’m not doing what I do for posterity, I’m doing it ‘cause it’s fun, and I’ll let other people either make sense of it when I’m dead or ignore it. The important thing is to get it out there now. This stupid, outmoded system where you think tactically, you plan your career like a fox, carefully planning each album, trying to get the image just right, trying to get a Levi’s ad for maximum marketing exposure. I’d rather face life and music head-on like a lion, brave and taking some chances, not like a careful tactical fox.

Speaking of brave music, the recent live Solaris album is a pretty full-on set isn’t it?

That was a dream proposition. I was approached by a promoter here who said, “Put together your dream band”, and I just said right, that would be Bill Laswell and Harold Budd and Jaki, and then we got Graham Haynes in too. And it actually happened, we toured, recorded it, and it was intense.

Your collaborations with Laswell over the years have always been very inventive. Your approaches to both bass-playing and production seem totally compatible.

Well of all the people I’ve gotten to work with, the easiest and most inspiring has been Bill. He just really gets it, and with just a few words. He’s the Quiet American in a heroic mode. We’ve got pretty similar musical tastes, there’s the bass link, and we share a similar sense of humour too. He’s a joy to work with and you come away inspired for your next project. The same’s true with Holger Czukay and Jaki, they’re very deep. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but with these sorts of people you’re in genius areas. They’re teachers, and I don’t use that term lightly. They reinforce good habits and good practice in making music.

As a Dub fan and connoisseur, what do you see as the next trend there, now that we’ve heard it used most recently within drum n’ bass and jungle contexts?

It always shifting. I heard some interesting things recently, almost hinting at Nigerian juju rhythmic patterns. Lots of people know how to use those heavy dub tones now, and the continuing development of software technology makes it horribly convenient to make music using computers. That’s been good news for people with taste and skill, but worse for those who haven’t. It makes for a lot of interchangeable music.

But the dub thing will continue to mutate. Sometimes it will lean towards a more naturalistic jazz thing, with people actually playing their instruments, but with a good solid sonic treatment. But because of the availability of technology we’ll also probably hear more digital dub too, which in some hands can be rather one-dimensional, or it can be a wonderful freedom if it’s based on real skill and imagination.

For more information: www.30hertzrecords.com

[This article originally appeared in “Rhythms” magazine (Australia)]

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