Jun Morikawa was wearing a suit when he landed at OR Tambo International Airport in 2013. He climbed into a taxi and told the driver to take him somewhere that plays reggae. A short drive later, he stepped out on to Rockey Street in Yeoville and looked up at the red, yellow and green frontage of dance club House of Tandoor.
Eric Mpobole laughed when Morikawa walked into the iconic reggae establishment and said he was there to deejay. An unofficial godfather of Joburg’s reggae and Tandoor’s owner since the late 1990s, Mpobole thought he had seen it all. But a suited-up logistics man, fresh off the plane from Japan and dressed more for the boardroom than for dancehall, was new even for him.
One week later, when the Tokyo-born selector played a trial set, Mpobole remembers that “from the first tune, we were linked”. Yeoville has never been the same.
Morikawa, 40, has since developed a cult following as one of Tandoor’s resident deejays, although he is now recognised more by his distinctive bucket hat and bomber jacket than a business suit.
Friday night lights
He describes the sets he plays every Friday as “a little bit eclectic”. The word “encyclopaedic” is arguably closer to the mark, as Morikawa drifts fluently from hip-hop to R&B, Afrobeat and even country. He started a recent set with a sample of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, a track that might otherwise sound out of place in Yeoville. But under Morikawa’s guidance, and in a neighbourhood constantly on an economic knife’s edge, the classic tale of how to survive when your luck is down reaches the divine.
Until Morikawa took to the decks, squeezing a headphone between his shoulder and ear, the middle-of-the-month Tandoor crowd had been focused around two pool games at the back of an empty dance floor. By the end of the Rogers sample, the floor was seething with twisting bodies.
Almost imperceptibly, Morikawa plays up to six tracks in the space of a minute. It’s a big part of why the Tandoor owner doesn’t hesitate when he calls him “among the best in the world”.
Many in Morikawa’s ecstatic crowd regularly stop dancing to film him, bang along on his table in tribute or even reach out to touch him. They are among the deejay’s loyal following that Mpobole has taken to teasing by telling them Morikawa won’t be playing on a given Friday. “If there’s no Jun, there’s no reggae,” he laughs.
A life in music
Morikawa is less riotous in person. In conversation, it’s as if everything he hears takes him to a brief, happy memory before he responds.
Many of those memories are musical. “Jazz was around me,” he says of his childhood. His grandfather was a jazz drummer. It wasn’t long before Morikawa stepped on to the well-worn path from jazz to hip-hop, hungrily consuming the work of artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Naughty by Nature. While he says reggae was the next natural step for him, Morikawa’s feverish pursuit and subtle appreciation of Jamaica’s most famous export suggests there is more to it.
“I’m so impressed about reggae music, because they are singing about reality, you know?” he says. “Sometimes people’s struggles, poverty or many daily problems were sung by reggae musicians. So that’s why I feel so impressed.”
Morikawa’s love affair with reggae began in earnest, however, on a series of trips he took to Jamaica in search of rare reggae vinyl, while he was a university student. “The music was everywhere around in Kingston,” he says. “People were putting speakers on the street and dancing all night. I’d never seen this kind of culture and movement.”
Morikawa is one ripple on the surface of a rich relationship between reggae and the country of his birth, which has become one of the world’s biggest reggae markets.
The growth of reggae in Japan has been driven by the innovations of sound systems (a group of reggae deejays) such as Mighty Crown, the Yokohama system that announced Japanese reggae to the world when they beat out legendary Jamaican systems Kilimanjaro and Bass Odyssey to the 1999 World Sound Clash crown – a kind of world reggae championships.
‘He plays for everyone’
Reggae’s popularity in Japan is something Morikawa is still trying to figure out. He thinks it might have something to do with the efficiency that attended the country’s wildly successful urbanisation. “Japanese people may feel a sympathy to the lyrics of reggae music. You know Tokyo is a well-established system, but everyday people have stress about their life in the concrete jungle. So that’s why, maybe, they’re listening to reggae music.”
Back in Yeoville, Morikawa has shifted gears. Without missing a beat, a set that began in a Texan allegory has transitioned into Shona dancehall. And the crowd can’t get enough.
One of the fans who queues for a selfie with Morikawa after the set, Nkuli Gatsha, is effusive. “That guy understands what’s music. He doesn’t play for Chinese. He doesn’t play for blacks. He plays for everyone. That guy is a blessing.”
Morikawa resents the regular confusion of his nationality. “I feel sometimes frustrated,” he says. “People call me ‘Chinaman’. I’m tired of that excuse. But I don’t feel much difficulty. It’s fine. I like to concentrate on my job: play nicely.” For the most part, however, it’s the collapse of nationality and race that happens in Tandoor that keeps Morikawa coming back.
“This place, Yeoville, is like the melting pot of Africa. So many Nigerians, Cameroonians, Zimbabweans, South Africans, mixed together and making culture and history. I feel this is the very beauty of the street.”
The neighbourhood’s desegregated character has a long history that Mpobole was better placed than most to watch unfold. “It’s where I’ve seen a unification of Africa,” he says. “Africans coming into one place, you know?”
Having transformed a one-time tandoori restaurant into the city’s pre-eminent reggae establishment soon after the transition to democracy in 1994, Mpobole says that Yeoville’s continental character was indispensable to establishing the identity that has sustained the House of Tandoor through the neighbourhood’s decline. “We were lucky, because we had all these African brothers coming inside the country.”
A native of Orlando East, Mpobole remembers the explosion of reggae in Joburg going hand-in-hand with the township uprisings that eventually resulted in South Africa’s 1985 state of emergency. Reggae and the chafe of daily life have not been far removed since. “This music is singing about us, about our lives, our daily happenings,” he says.
Morikawa agrees. Whereas in Japan, reggae may be about escape, in Yeoville, it is about reckoning. “Life in South Africa is sometimes very tough,” he says. “Even last week there was some nonsense from the police happening here. So that’s why they feel more sympathy [for] reggae music than people in Tokyo. Because Tokyo is well-established. They just feel stress. But poverty, discrimination or economic depression is less than here.”
Morikawa hopes that the struggles of Yeoville, a place he says makes him “feel very close to Jamaica”, are lightened, if only for a moment, during his sets. “Sometimes I feel guilty that I can’t do anything for people’s problems here. But reggae music is one of the answers for people. Sometimes reggae music cheers people up.”
If the faces on the Tandoor dance floor on a Friday – eyes closed in rapture and smiles spread in relief – are anything to go by, Morikawa is doing his bit.