Sound system (Jamaican)
|Music of Jamaica|
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In the context of Jamaican popular culture, a sound system is a group of disc jockeys, engineers and MCs playing ska, rocksteady or reggae music. The sound system is an important part of Jamaican culture and history.
The sound system concept first became popular in the 1950s, in the ghettos of Kingston. DJs would load up a truck with a generator, turntables, and huge speakers and set up street parties. In the beginning, the DJs played American rhythm and blues music, but as time progressed and more local music was created, the sound migrated to a local flavor. The sound systems were big business, and represented one of the few sure ways to make money in the unstable economy of the area. The promoter or DJ made his profit by charging admission and selling food and alcohol; often thousands of people were in attendance. By the mid 1950s, sound systems were more popular at parties than live musicians, and by the second half of the decade, custom-built systems began to appear from the workshops of specialists such as Hedley Jones, who constructed wardrobe-sized speaker cabinets known as "House[s] of Joy". It was also around this time that Jamaica's first superstar DJ and MC, Count Machuki, rose to prominence. As time progressed, sound systems became louder—capable of playing bass frequencies at 30,000 watts or more, with similar wattage attainable at the mid-range and high frequencies—and far more complex than their predecessors. Competition between these sound systems was fierce, and eventually two DJs emerged as the stars of the scene: Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, and Duke Reid. Besides the DJ, who rapped over the music, there was also a selector, who selected the music/rhythm tracks.
The popularity of a sound system was mainly contingent on one thing: having new music. In order to circumvent the release cycle of the American record labels, the two sound system superstars turned to record production. Initially, they produced only singles for their own sound systems, known as "Exclusives" or Dubplates - a limited run of one copy per song. What began as an attempt to replicate the American R&B sound using local musicians evolved into a uniquely Jamaican musical genre: ska. This shift was due partly to the fact that as American-style R&B was embraced by a largely white, teenage audience and evolved into rock and roll, sound system owners created - and played - a steady stream of the singles the people preferred: fast-shuffle boogies and ballads. In response to this shift in supply, Jamaican producers introduced to their work some of the original elements of the Jamaican sound: rhythm guitars strumming the offbeat and snare-drum emphasis on the third beat, for example. As this new musical form became more popular, both Dodd and Reid began to move more seriously into music production. Coxsone Dodd's production studio became the famous Studio One, while Duke Reid founded Treasure Isle.
As sound systems continued to gain in popularity through the 1960s and 1970s, they became politicized in many instances. Many sound systems, and their owners, were labeled as supporters of a particular political party (such as the PNP or the JLP), but most of the sound systems tried to maintain political neutrality. Nevertheless, as a cultural and economic phenomenon, the sound system was affected by the vast socio-political changes taking place in Jamaica at this time.
An important part of sound system culture is the sound clash, an organized battle between two systems. The Guinness Sounds of Greatness is one of many such clashes. In 2009, the Guinness clash was organized into three parts: a 'juggling' round, where each system gets 15 minutes to get the crowd doing; a 'tune fe tune' exchange of "commercial releases"; and a 'dub-fe-dub', when the systems alternate "specials done specifically for the sound system playing the recording".
The culture of the Sound System was brought to the UK with the mass immigration of Jamaicans in the 1960s and 70's. Notable UK Sound Systems include Jah Shaka, Channel One, Aba Shanti-I, Jah Observer, Iration Steppas, Fatman International and Saxon Studio International. One of the first sound systems in the United States was Downbeat the Ruler, founded in Bronx, New York in the late 1970s.
This was not simply just music played on the radio for a few people to hear, but a culture that involved many people was developed out of being consumed by sound through large sound systems. Sound system culture presented what Julian Henriques refers to as sonic dominance. He is strategic in his usage of the word dominance because it is visceral and this term embodies the “power and the pleasure of the sonic” (452). The sound is an “enveloping, immersive, and intense experience” (451).
As the sound took over the space and the bodies, Caribbean peoples traveled back to the warm environments of the homes they left behind. In this sense of belonging there was a cathartic experience created through the intimacy felt with the sound system. It allowed people to unconsciously free themselves (Percy Irie and Guydance). For further information about the spiritual elements of sound system culture research Rastafarianism and watch Soul Rebel: Dub, Reggae and Sound System Culture, a documentary available on YouTube.
Notable sound systems
- Stone Love Movement
- Tom the Great Sebastian
- Arrows the Ambassador
- Bredda Hype
- Tubby's Hometown Hi-Fi
- Jah Shaka
- BobTone Sound Papine/Kintyre
- Emperor Faith
- Bass Odyssey
- Black Chiney
- Creation Rock Tower
UK Sound Systems
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sound systems (Jamaican).|
- BBC - Music - Essential Guide to Reggae
- Barrow 1997
- BBC - 1Xtra - Jamaica
- Stolzsoff 2000
- Cooke, Mel (19 October 2009). "Jamaica Gleaner News - Black Widow, Bredda Hype win in 'Guinness Sounds of Greatness' - King Mello, Black Scorpio first sounds eliminated". Jamaica Gleaner. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
- Veal, Michael E. (2007). Dub: soundscapes and shattered songs in Jamaican reggae. Wesleyan UP. p. 86. ISBN 978-0-8195-6572-3.
- Barrow, Steve; Paul Dalton (1997). Reggae: The Rough Guide. London: The Rough Guides. ISBN 1-84353-329-4.
- Stolzoff, Norman (2000). Wake the town and tell the people: dancehall culture in Jamaica. Durham and London: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2514-4.
- Henriques, J. F. (2003). “Sonic Dominance and the Reggae Sound System Session.” In M. Bull and Les Back, eds. The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, pp. 451-480. ISBN 1859736130 [Book Section]: Goldsmiths Research Online.
-  - "Soundsystem Splashdown" feature from the London-based New Musical Express circa 1981.
-  The Sound System: Contributions to Jamaican Music - John Constantinides