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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, despite what this music might suggest, we are staying in China for our next story. This is the song "Stir it Up" from the Bob Marley "Legend" album. And after 23 years, it was released - when it was released in the West, "Legend" is now on sale in Mainland China. Is a frantic search for the Chinese version of Bob Marley under way?

And Lauren Keane has that story from Beijing.

LAUREN KEANE: Reggae in China go way back. It was Chinese immigrants to Jamaica who opened some of the first recording studios in Kingston. But can China produce a reggae superstar? There are several contenders.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WANG LEI (Lead Singer, Pump): (Singing in Chinese)

KEANE: That's Wang Lei and his band, Pump. They're China's best reggae act these days.

Mr. LEI: (Through translator) Bob Marley's reggae isn't like any other reggae. China wants to produce someone just like him.

KEANE: Wang Lei got hooked on reggae when he first heard Bob Marley at a bar in southwestern China. That's a bit like taking up Mongolian throat singing after hearing it in a bar in Minneapolis.

Mr. LEI: (Through translator) It doesn't matter where the music comes from, because we all come from the same roots. There's so much change in China today, especially in the music scene. But when you come back to it, it's the same as anywhere. It's about how people feel - structure, rhythm, color.

KEANE: Reggae is at least three-quarters vibe, so he's got a point there.

Mr. LEI: (Singing in Chinese)

KEANE: At a dim table in back, a guitarist named Do Chao(ph) slouched over a smoke, taking in a scene. Forget Bog Marley's crusade over struggle and oppression. That's all in the past, says Do Chao. In China, reggae's about feeling good.

Mr. DO CHAO (Guitarist): (Through translator) I think the world imposed a political image onto Bob. He didn't really want people to rise up. He was all about love.

KEANE: That's exactly what Ugandan Charlie Kimba(ph) is worried about. He's in playing reggae and African music in China for 17 years. He thinks reggae's deeper meaning, as a music borne out of struggle, is lost on the Chinese, who see reggae as just another funky rhythm and beat.

Mr. CHARLIE KIMBA (Ugandan Musician in China): How will a society look at it? That's what is important. And anyway, and at the moment, what is there so much to change in China? Because people are rich, getting rich, so I don't know what's going to inspire them, like, to write.

KEANE: Kimba says if there's a Bob Marley figure in China, it's got to be Cui Jian. He's the father of Chinese rock and roll. He rose to fame in the 1980s, singing about the plight of China's everyday people. The government banned him from playing large concerts here until recently. But he dismisses the suggestion that he could be Bob Marley's Chinese equal.

Mr. CUI JIAN (Chinese Rock Musician): (Through translator) Don't make that comparison. I'm embarrassed to even think about it that way. Maybe you could say we're his heirs, that we've inherited a part of his legacy. His influence was an element of our success.

(Soundbite of music)

KEANE: Even with "Legend," another important reggae album that's for sale now in China, Cui Jian says that Chinese audiences will embrace reggae only if they can hear it performed live, and if Chinese artists make it their own.

Mr. JIAN: (Through translator) Most of the Chinese people, if you give them a reggae CD, they'll feel like it has nothing to do with them. They may think it sounds nice, but it won't really strike them in the heart. You have to listen to reggae live. That's where its power is.

KEANE: Whoever he is, the Chinese Bob Marley hasn't yet made it to prime time. But that doesn't mean Do Chao, Wang Lei and other Chinese hopefuls aren't given it their best shot.

(Soundbite of music)

KEANE: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Keane in Beijing.

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