Retracing the Roots of British Sound System Culture
We spoke to reggae historian John Masouri ahead of a new photo exhibition looking back at ska, dub, calypso and dancehall sound systems in the UK.
"One of my earliest memories is of the bass coming through the walls when I was a young girl in Huddersfield," laughs Mandeep Samra, curator of the "Sound System Culture: London" exhibition, which opens on the 5th of January at The Tabernacle, Notting Hill. "The next door neighbour used to have these blues parties. I guess that probably had some kind of subliminal effect."
Sound system culture in the UK has played a vital part in global reggae history. From the moment that young Caribbean immigrant "Duke" Vincent Forbes set up his rudimentary system in 1954 London and started to blast ska and calypso selections at chest-shaking volumes, British systems have remained at the forefront of the movement, influencing pretty much every subset of UK dance music since.
Exploring the social history of the culture in cities like Huddersfield, Bristol, Birmingham – and, now, London – the touring "Sound System Culture" exhibition offers an opportunity to explore a scene that remains just as vital now as it's ever been.
"The tour grew organically from the original Huddersfield exhibition," says Mandeep. "Although it's not been as well-documented as cities like London or Bristol, for many years Huddersfield had a thriving scene, out of proportion to the actual size of the town. The exhibition documented the lives and experiences of those who were involved, in particular people who laid the foundations for the scene at venues such as the Arawak Club and Venn Street. From there we explored Bristol and Birmingham, and now London."
From private "blues" parties – all-night sessions in crumbling West London terraces with a massive system and illegal bar – in the 1950s, to powerful 60s sounds like Count Shelley, through heavyweight 70s roots systems such as Jah Shaka and Fatman and 80s titans Saxon, the systems often provided a social focus for West Indian communities throughout London and made an indelible imprint on bass culture in England.
"These systems initially came out of a need for a community focus," explains Mandeep. "First and second generation Caribbean immigrants were often excluded from pubs and clubs. These dances were often held in community centres and suchlike. For the London exhibition we had links to various systems and we also worked very closely with reggae writer/historian John Masouri [author of Steppin' Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh and Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers], who really pulled the narrative together. London was a tricky one because there have been such a huge number of sounds that have come out of the city. It would have been impossible to document everything, but we're really happy with what we can present."
Ahead of the exhibition opening I caught up with John Masouri to talk London sound system culture and a life in reggae.
VICE: What are your earliest memories of reggae?
John Masouri: In 1968 – I was 15 – I went to my first blues party. This was in a very run-down area of Nottingham. There were already a fair amount of Caribbean people there; I guess I was the first generation to go to school with Jamaican kids. I had a girlfriend, and her uncle used to run this blues, so I used to go there. It was very intimidating, very exciting – another world. I was fascinated. I moved to London in 1973 or 74, when the first big systems were beginning to appear at [Notting Hill] Carnival – Fatman, Coxsone, etc. It was wonderful being in London during that time; you didn't have to go to blues parties any more, the sounds would be playing in halls and proper clubs and community centres, and I was old enough to get in. But one thing I did notice was that things were more racially charged in London. It was certainly more unwelcoming than it had been in the Midlands. I think partly that is just being in London, though: London was much more competitive between the various systems, and they were the first to get into the consciousness-raising stuff that was going on at the time.
The police harassment was coming on strong at that time as well. You'd often be in places and the police would raid them and search everybody and close off the system, close off the club... but you kind of got used to that – it became part of the experience. Wherever young people gather to have a good time there's always someone that wants to spoil it, y'know?
I'm interested in the culture of volume. Anybody who has experienced a system like Jah Shaka at full pelt knows there's arguably no better way to hear roots reggae or dub. Do you think of the dance as the primary means of experiencing the music?
I think that it is certainly a primary way of experiencing roots reggae. But it goes back much further – even the early sound guys, like [Vincent] "Duke Vin" [Forbes] in the early 1950s, he was making the building shake, making plaster come down from the ceiling at the blues parties he was playing; it has always been a big part of the music. Those early sound guys were always very competitive in every area, whether that was sourcing the best and most exclusive records; getting the best MCs on the mic; having the best clarity of sound; being the loudest without distorting. They showed prowess in designing the sound and getting everything built to the proper specifications.
The volume was certainly part of it, but I think it perhaps become over-prominent towards the end of the 70s. The early blues parties used to be places that people would meet; not just dance and enjoy themselves and have a good time, but also share news from whatever part of the Caribbean they came from. They weren't necessarily leaning massively toward the volume because people would want to socialise as well. But by the time the mid-70s came around you had sounds like Jah Shabba and Fatman who were absolutely killing you with volume. That was a real experience – you feel it in a bodily sense.
The chest plate rattle.
It's almost as if the sound inhabits your whole body. You become an extension of the very speakers, in a sense. And I must admit – because I can that tell you love it as well, Harry – there is nothing like that feeling of being taken over. It's like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers [laughs].
Can you tell me a bit about what happened with sound system culture in England during the 80s?
The 1980s were the best decade ever for reggae in this country; it was this huge explosion of talent, not just in London but all over the country. There was this explosion of roots bands all over the place. When sound tapes – cassettes from Jamaica – became very popular you suddenly had a situation where English-born singers – singers who had gone to English schools – took elements of the Jamaican sound. You had real storytellers emerge. Dub-plates became less important; the performance of the DJs and the singers took over. That was such a talented generation with the MCs and the singers on systems like Saxon.
In 1984 Papa Levi had a number one hit in Jamaica with "Me God Me King". That had never been done before – in fact, it has never been done since – but it was just amazing. A young guy from South London, from Lewisham, who learnt his craft in local youth clubs, and suddenly he's got a number one hit in Jamaica – the home of reggae sound systems, the home of reggae culture. To actually witness Jamaican DJs and MCs being forced onto the back foot and then taking on styles that had originated in the UK was a real point of pride if you were around at that point.
Why do you think England cultivated such a strong movement?
Firstly, we had a larger concentration of West Indian immigrants. Secondly, they brought that culture with them. It wasn't an insular community, and although of course there was racism – everyday racism and institutionalised racism – and I would never deny that, in my personal experience [English kids and West Indian kids had so much in common]. There were so many elements that we could share as friends; it was an easy fit and there were also a lot of interracial relationships happening. And then working class communities in England have always had this great love for American soul music and American rock 'n' roll. There has always been this appreciation of music – it's always been one of our great strengths as a nation.
Wherever Caribbean people settled, from the 50s onwards, a music scene would develop. It was perhaps easier in the 70s because there were lots more facilities. Unlike today, you had a surplus of council housing; a lot of parties took place in community centres; there were lots of youth clubs – even church halls... there were many places where music could flourish and take route. There were lots of bands starting up, so it was able to spread. I'm not saying it was always easy, but the facilities were there in a way that they are perhaps not today.
Yeah, London has changed a huge amount since then; it seems increasingly tough for venues in the current climate. How has this affected the sound system scene?
I'll give you an example: it's now hugely expensive for a system to set up at Carnival. The complaints from residents in recent years mean that each system has to provide a level of security off their own backs, which is expensive. Take Sir Coxsone, for example. Nobody pays them to perform at Notting Hill, but they have to hire a van to take the system down; they have to pay for a tech crew – which could be six or seven people – they have to pay for security; they have to be responsible for rubbish clearance, all this stuff. It costs a huge amount of money.
There was a period in the 80s when we had the GLC under Ken Livingstone, and he was very much pro-Caribbean community, pro-Caribbean arts. The GLC would host a lot of shows in the parks and the town halls. It was a very progressive time – a very interesting time in that respect. But when Thatcher got in we had that same kind of repressive right-wing thinking we have now. And that is never a good fit for music.
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Tell me about putting the London exhibition together – was it difficult to track people down who had been involved with the older systems?
Initially we had to cast our net around London, see who actually had photographs, that was the main thing. We didn't want to just use images from recognised photographers; we wanted to source the photographs that had been taken around the systems themselves, but hadn't been shared publicly. Those shots give you a different type of insight, and we're lucky enough to have a great exhibition. But what we soon discovered is that a lot of the older sound guys didn't take photographs back in the day, or that they're not computer literate, or they might not be around any more – scenarios like that.
There were some earlier systems that I really wanted to be represented, but there were absolutely no photographs. Sometimes people would say to me, "Why didn't you take any photographs at dances yourself back then?" As a white man? In a blues party? People thought I was a policeman already, let alone if I had a bloody camera around my neck [laughs]. In the early-70s there was no way you were going to be running around sticking a camera in people's faces. And the other thing was that, in those days in London, not many people had a decent camera of their own. Photography was something that you didn't really do, in the modern sense.
But I think it's amazing that people like Mandeep – who are from a younger generation – are taking a huge interest in this culture and are prepared to take the risks and put on exhibitions like this. I see it as a very positive thing. I'd like to see more books, more films, more exhibitions to really impress upon people how special this culture was and how impressive it continues to be. The influence of sound system culture worldwide is huge now. We're seeing systems in Latin America, Africa, the Far East – all over. We could never have imagined that these things would be happening, even 20 years ago.
"Sound System Culture: London" opens on the 5th of January at The Tabernacle, Notting Hill.
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