Keeping things seasonal here at Sampleface, I want to pay homage to the seminal sound of the summer carnival; Reggae, and the people who carried this glorious music to our shores like warm Caribbean sea breezes.
Reggae came to the UK with the “Windrush Generation” in the late 1940’s which saw large scale West Indian migration prompted by labour shortages in Britain following WW2. However the Britain back then was not always a welcoming place for global migrants – xenophobia, racism and inequality was rife, blatant, and sadly accepted as the norm. Pubs and nightclubs were not places which welcomed the West Indian arrivals, excluding them on a cultural front too. They were left with little option but to create their own entertainment, and so private homes and basements became clandestine social spaces known as “shebeens” (a word borrowed from another group of excluded migrants in the UK, the Irish). Here the first sound systems outside of Jamaica began to emerge.
What is a sound system?
A sound system is a mobile entertainment set consisting of equipment (custom-built amplifiers, speaker boxes, turn tables etc), people (DJ, selector, boxman, sound engineer, owner) and above all the music. In that sense, no two sound systems will ever be the same, and sound systems the world over continue to evolve in line with technological advancements.
Whilst the sound system is associated with several musical styles such as mento, jazz and calypso – it has become ubiquitous with reggae- which so easily captivates crowds through its hypnotic and uniquely Caribbean anthems.
When was the first sound system established?
It is widely reported that the first sound system to be established in the UK was by a Jamaican named Duke Vin, who had had previously worked as a selector for Tom the Great Sebastion set in Kingston. And decades later the sound systems crept out of the private parties and shebeens and into mainstream clubs and festivals.
In the 60’s, Count Suckle’s Cue Club and Flamingo offered headline acts in overground and open settings- a big deal when you consider one of the precursors to the notorious Notting Hill race riots saw a white mob turning on a private party in a West Indian house where Wilbert Campbell – no other than Count Suckle himself, was running his legendary sound system. This fact did not fail to move me only two weeks ago when on a Friday afternoon in Victoria park I found myself, along with hundreds of other people from all walks of life, dancing and singing outside of the Ram Jam tent at LoveBox – testament to how reggae (and its variants) – the music of excluded migrants, has moved to firmly occupy the heart of London.
As recording of audio become widespread with the advent of cassettes (remember them!) it was possible not just for the reggae-enthusiasts in the UK to hear the studio recordings, as well as the live sound system sets in Jamaica, but now this global musical conversation did not need to be unidirectional. The reggae landscape in Jamaica began to hear new styles – such as “fast chat” adopted by Papa San and “Twang” performed by Toyan and Tiger . It is widely believed that these styles were foreign originators with “Twang” being credited to Canadian-based DJ Screecha Nice, and “Fast-chat” widely attributed to Peter King on the London based Saxon sounds (which had tapes in circulation on the Jamaican reggae circuit).
Reggae sound systems in the present day
The sounds of the migrants who had carried their music out of the island were now echoing back and influencing musical development of this genre. No doubt this is a phenomenon which will carry on as sound becomes ever more fluid through digitalisation. However reggae, as it develops also manages to retain its unique sound, and I think this is invariably linked to the sound system culture. It is not just a composition to be heard, changed and re-packaged. The sound system culture simply does not work like that- it is a music which evolved for the people- be they on the streets of Kingston, or the basements in Tottenham- it relies on moving a crowd in unison and on the people being able to reference this music to something deeper within them. Simply put reggae demands to felt, not just heard.
So this summer, wherever you are jamming to reggae- be it to the live sound systems at the Notting Hill Carnival, or on your iPod on the bus, take a moment to be thankful to those early migrants and their descendants who managed to evolve the delivery and sounds of reggae, without compromising its unique identity.