You can hear the bass from down the street, just follow it to the party. Immediately after opening the door, you have to slide between the corners of two sound systems to get to the dance floor. Once in the center of the small space, towers of speakers loom around the crowd on three sides. The subs can be felt like a living presence in the air as a Shinehead record plays, “I’m an illegal alien, I’m a Jamaican in New York.” But this isn’t New York or Jamaica. This is Bangkok. And this is Gonja HiFi, a local reggae sound system consisting of six DJs and two stacks of mobile speakers.
The party marks something of a turning point for the crew with the introduction of their second mobile sound system. This night they also brought along some friends, namely the stately black Random Sound whose speaker stacks take up the right side of the venue. On the left is the original red Gonja system and in the back is their new brown system with its commanding white horns on top. Finding the space in Bangkok to bring out the towers can be a challenge, but the Brownstone venue has welcomed them, offering the rare chance to be thoroughly enveloped by quality sound.
Gonja consists of four Thai members and two foreigners. It was founded by locals Judean Kong and Bim Joe. Joe built the towers and Kong, also known as King Kong Killa, is the vocalist (or deejay in Jamaican patois). They had been casually organizing shows for a few years but never with a legit sound system or as an official crew until about three years ago. “We wanted to get proper quality sound so the audience would understand what we could do,” says Kong. Although they had talked about it, nobody knew Joe was actually working on the system in secret and when they first debuted it, so it was a surprise to everyone when he rolled it out. “They asked me to DJ a party and when I showed up the system was just there,” laughs Sticky Keys, a selecta from Malaysia and the US who’s part of the crew. “I’ve never seen it after we play either! They take it back and repaint it and tune it and everything.” The new brown system was a surprise to everyone as well.
Kong, who’s the public face of the crew, got his start with reggae at the bar his parents owned in Bangkok near their home in Lat Kraban. He started a band and played there in his early 20s two decades ago. “I was listening to rock before I became interested in reggae, so my first band originally played ska and rocksteady,” he says, referring to styles of music from Jamaica in the 60s that paved the way for reggae. But his bandmates were too young and difficult to keep in line, so he moved on. He started another band with Joe named Jonathan & Calvin along with local drummer G-Bong, and they still play as a band at a lot of their events.
In general, reggae in Thailand is more band-oriented, so pushing sound system culture can be a struggle. Gonja plays a range of styles that revolve around reggae meant to be played by DJs rather than performed live. From roots and dub using contemporary electronic music production methods and inspirations, to jungle and dubstep—it’s all fair game. Building their own sound system was a way to showcase all these sounds in the way they’re meant to be heard. “Thai people don’t really understand what we’re doing. When we would play steppers and stuff they wouldn’t get it. We had to fight for about three years until they understood, just consistently playing and pushing the sound. It can still be difficult even now.” One example he offers is how reggae crowds here don’t want to hear dancehall but the hip hop crowds embrace it.
Things are definitely starting to change though, and in the past three or four years more people have been building reggae sound systems. There are now at least five sound systems in the city. Karma Rhyme and Sriraja Rockers are a couple other well-known sounds in the country. But in the larger scheme of things, it’s still a rarity, hence the name Gonja, which refers to an ancient breed of black cat from Thailand. “We’re the rare cat now,” Kong smiles.