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Spirit of Jah

The former Public Image bassist has come a long way since his John Lydon days and now he's bringing Chinese dub to Liverpool. Lew Baxter explains all...

Published on July 2nd 2008.


Spirit of Jah

FOR most of his working life he’s been at the leading edge of experimental dub and the somewhat cultish world music scene, and John Wardle professes that he’s rarely compromised dearly held and somewhat trenchant anarchic beliefs to kow-tow to an establishment that he despises with a passion verging on hatred.

Indeed, chatting even casually to John, perhaps better known as Jah Wobble – who was given the rather bizarre moniker by the erratic wild man of punk Sid Vicious – it’s easy to be equally inflamed by the fire and the furies of rebellion that have fuelled his work.

He’s been described affectionately as the bass guitar-toting equivalent of a Wild West gunslinger and paradoxically a spiritual visionary.

We don’t venture into this colourful territory as John – that’s what his pals and his fabulously talented musician wife Zi Lan call him privately – is a tad pre-occupied with twinges in his arm.

“I was told its tennis elbow but I’ve never played the game in my life,” he complains in an accent that is still peppered with East London Stepney twangs. “And the drummer in our band has got that carpel tunnel syndrome, so he’s in a bit of pain as well,” adds John, slightly worried because he’s just about to tour with another visionary concept called Chinese Dub.

It is, he reveals excitedly while dabbing Deep Heat on his elbow, a musical and visual spectacular that incorporates his own trademark dub skills with traditional Chinese melodies, instruments and performance artists.

The 22 member ensemble features singers from Tibet and Yunnan provinces, dancers from Hangzhou and fascinating Opera Mask Changers from Sichuan, the area of China so recently devastated by an earthquake.

They are supported by an Anglo-Chinese dub band that features Wang Jingqi from Yunnan and Gu Ying Ji from Tibet on vocals, flautist Clive Bell, guitarist Chris Cookson, drummer Mark Sanders, percussionist Neville Murray and Jah Wobble and his Chinese guzheng playing spouse Zi Lan Liao, who is also a virtuoso on the Western harp.

“The gig started out as a one day event commissioned by the Liverpool Culture Company and we were delighted to do something for the city’s Capital of Culture year, particularly as Zi Lan is involved with the Chinese Pagoda community centre,” explained John.

Part of the Liverpool show includes working with the much-loved Chinese Youth Orchestra, which was actually founded by Zi Lan’s father Li Kiu Hsiung at the Pagoda Community Centre in Liverpool.

“I wanted to do some dub stuff with the orchestra and we decided to look for a couple of singers.

“Suddenly before I realised what was happening the Arts Council were on board and very keen for us to expand the show and take it on tour,” said John who now lives in the south Manchester suburb of Bramall with Zi Lan, who famously recorded music for the Oscar winning Last Emperor film and has collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Nigel Kennedy.

“We’ve been talking about doing a Chinese focused show for years and so last October we went to check out the music scene and of course it has helped that Zi Lan is also Chinese,” said John whose distinctive low-end bass has been a hallmark of a career that was kick-started thirty years ago with a top ten hit with his first band – Public Image Limited – that he formed with punk rocker John Lydon.

Apart from later founding Human Condition he also set up Invaders of the Heart in 1983 before vanishing from the music scene for five years to work for London Underground in a bid to battle his booze problem.

He returned with a bang with a revitalised band, picked up a Mercury Music Prize nomination, chart success and further critical acclaim with the album Rising Above Bedlam in 1991.

Over the years Wobble has worked with a variety of musicians including Brian Eno, Sinead O’Connor, Primal Scream, Bjork and Massive Attack and his output has spanned numerous musical genres such as avant-garde jazz-rock, traditional folk music, multi-cultural fusion, dance and even the writings of William Blake. Just over ten years ago he set up the independent label 30 Hertz Records to release a series of experimental and, he admits, non-commercial sounding recordings.

“Chinese music is very sophisticated although people in the West are not yet accustomed to it. In fact, there is considerable affinity between Chinese and African and Celtic music traditions which is all to do with rhythms and melodies,” explained John.

It is, he reveals excitedly while dabbing Deep Heat on his elbow, a musical and visual spectacular that incorporates his own trademark dub skills with traditional Chinese melodies, instruments and performance artists

He reveals that the music in the show – which will no doubt stretch the imagination as well as tingle the ears - is accompanied by displays of ancient Chinese performing arts: the Tang Dynasty dance and the Sichuan Opera’s mask changing routines which is a form of expressionist theatre that stretches back hundreds of years.

The Chinese Dub show has its world premiere in Liverpool and after the short UK tour Wardle is keen to bring back the Chinese performers for possible other outings at various festivals.

“And we would certainly like to take the show to China,” he said, adding that he has recorded an EP to mark the launch of Chinese Dub which includes contributions from the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra.

The EP can be downloaded as an MP3 stream via 30hertsrecords.com and features seven tracks. A full album is due for release later in 2008.

  • Jah Wobble and Chinese Dub – and the Chinese Youth Orchestra - at the Carling Academy, Liverpool: Saturday 5th July. Box Office 0151 707 3200.
  • Then to the Bush Hall in London on Sunday 6th July and other UK dates. The only other North West date is at The Met in Bury on Saturday 12th July.

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