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How Bristol's Music Scene is Built on a Legacy of Sound System Culture

A new photography exhibition from Al 'Fingers' Newman is shedding light on the 60s and 70s communities that re-shaped UK culture.

by Angus Harrison
10 June 2015, 9:00am

Noisey is falling arse-backwards into the state of UK music in a special series of articles about scenes outside the capital: from club closures to brain drains to free parties to local legends. Follow all the content on our Fuck London hub here.

Britain in the 60s was in a state of flux. The long casting shadow of the Second World War had heavily impacted the cultural cache, and with the arrival of migrants, largely from the Caribbean, new communities and sounds began to emerge. With this, came the sound system, a rumbling concept from the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, that would play a crucial role in allowing these new communities to congregate and enrich UK music culture. Over time, these bass-laden monoliths would become an indelible feature on the landscape of modern British music.

In my home town, Bristol, the impact of sound systems couldn’t be more apparent. The ‘Bristol sound’, the emergence of trip hop, the arrival of jungle then dubstep, MCs like Tricky; they are all part of a chain of influence that winds right back to the genesis of those very first sound systems. It was a culture that inspired the streets of the city as well as the music scene. Bristol is proudly diverse, but not in a Lib Dem manifesto sort of way - it’s a place where international scenes are vital and ever growing. Stokes Croft, St Pauls, Stapleton; these are all areas that have been shaped by migrant communities but, rather than being ghettoised, have risen to play crucial roles in defining the Bristol identity as a whole.

Each year, St Paul's Carnival still rolls through the city, a wash of Caribbean skirts, steelpan rhythms, and general fun times, carrying with it a torch for the sound system legacy. Yet, for a force that has played such a large role in carving out a contemporary musical heritage for the city, sound systems are quite often overlooked when considering its musical character, suffering somewhat in the shadow of hugely successful acts like Massive Attack or Portishead.

This is something that a photography exhibition currently touring the UK is trying to rectify. ‘Sound System Culture’ has been curated by author Al ‘Fingers’ Newman and historian Mandeep Samra, and it features archived photography, dubplates, and a custom built hi-fi, all of which provide an insight into the movement that bound resettling people together in their newfound home in the South West.

The exhibition kicked off in Bristol's Colston Hall on Monday (June 8th) and will be running until July 17th, so I got in touch with Al Newman to reflect on his memories and discoveries regarding the city's sound system story. He's generously let us litter the Q&A with some photos from the exhibition itself.

A flyer from 1977 (courtesy of the Donovan Jackson collection)

Noisey: Yo, Al! So, what were the elements at play that have helped foster such a healthy sound system culture in Bristol?
Al Newman: In Bristol, many Caribbean migrants settled in areas such as St Pauls and Easton, so rather than being spread out across the city, the scene that developed was more or less focused on these relatively small areas. These settlers brought mento, calypso, ska and later rocksteady, reggae, roots, dub and dancehall to the UK, as well as a new way of listening to this music – through the sound system.

Did the environment of Bristol as a city play a role?
Of course! The city was lucky to have a large number of venues that catered to sound systems, such as the Bamboo Club, the Mayfair Suite, Docklands Settlement, The Mill Youth Centre, Ventures Youth Club, the Trinity Centre, Romeo & Juliet's, the Inkerman and many others, which allowed the scene to flourish.

Dub, reggae, trip hop and their family of sounds are a big part of Bristol’s music scene today – do you think their roots in early sound systems are widely acknowledged?
I think that Bristol's reggae sound system scene definitely played a large part in what later became known as the "Bristol sound", but I don't think that these roots are fully appreciated. This is one of the aims of the exhibition – to shine a light on some of the sound systems and the people that may not have had much recognition in the past.

Alpha & Omega sound system at St Paul's Carnival, July 1991 (Photo by Mark Simmons)

Enterprise Imperial Hi-Fi and Froggy’s Excalibur are the most high profile of the early sound systems, were there many other smaller groups or names that popped up during this time?
Enterprise were one of Bristol's biggest and most popular sound systems during the late 1970s and '80s, alongside other sounds such as Sir Bastian and Jah Lokko. Before that there were sounds such as Honey Bee, Count Ajax, Count Neville, Stillwater, Trojan and Commander, but it was really a sound called Tarzan the High Priest that ignited the Bristol scene, run by Tarzan AKA Hector Thaws, who is Tricky’s grandfather!

Wow, so the connections run deep?
Yeah. It was surprising talking to Tricky about his grandfather, who was one of Bristol's most important soundmen in the 60s and 70s. I thought Tricky would have memories of his grandfather and his sound, but by the time he was old enough to go out in Bristol, Tarzan had more or less stopped playing out, and Tricky grew up unaware of his grandfather's legendary status. He just remembered him as a great cook!

Karl Sebastian Smith with his Bamboo Club membership card, dated December 1966 (photo by Al 'Fingers' Newman)

That's mad. So, how did this exhibition of yours, 'Sound System Culture', come about?
It was developed by a historian called Mandeep Samra, who is part of an organisation called Let's Go Yorkshire. I first met Mandeep in 2013 when she approached me to work on a project she had developed about the sound systems of Huddersfield, where she lives [you can read about the Huddersfield scene on Noisey]. We worked well together and because of the positive response to the Huddersfield project, we decided to expand the work into other areas of the UK, starting with Bristol and continuing in Birmingham and London.

The exhibition must have dug up some crazy stories from the height of sound system’s popularity.
It was interesting talking to Karl Smith AKA Sebastian (pictured above), who was a selector for Tarzan, and later became one of Bristol's biggest soundmen of the 80s. In 1979, Smith was invited to bring his sound system to Gambia, becoming the first UK sound system to play in Africa, and for the trip he borrowed speaker boxes from his friends in the business: Jah Shaka, Lloydie Coxsone, Metro Downbeat and Quaker City. However, rough seas during the journey meant that most of the speakers fell overboard, and now rest at the bottom of the ocean.

And I hear you are even putting the story of the sound system into a children’s book?
Yes, the tour includes The Sonar System, which was written and illustrated by French reggae artist Ras Mykha. We saw the book as a fun element of the project, something that will hopefully appeal to both children and adults. We also thought it was different and important because, as far as we know, there has never been a kid's book about sound systems, and because ethnic minorities are generally underrepresented in children's literature.

Thanks for speaking with us!

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