when technological innovation meets economic deprivation

By Ubirani Ferreira

The Revolution Hit the Streets!

So, what exactly is someone referring to when they say ‘Sound System Music?’ Doesn’t my grandma have one in her car? In fact, yes she does, but the origins of sound system music derives much further back in time to Jamaica, where it emerges from both an economic crisis and a technological break through. Within the context of Jamaican pop culture, a sound system is the meeting of many Disc Jockeys and engineers, linking up huge speakers and generators and setting up parties in densely populated areas of Jamaica, first and foremost in Kingston. In the 1940s and 50s most of the music being played was popular Rhythm and Blues from the U.S., but eventually other local Jamaican music took form and grabbed center stage at sound system events.

The development of Jamaican music was fast, and was ultimately a reaction to the world of Jazz. American jazz music swept the country by storm, through radio broadcast and records. It shaped a good part of Jamaican musical culture. Bands learned American songs to entertain tourists and make money, an important thing to do in an economy that essentially crashed. So sound system music is a combination of economic deprivation and musical innovation. People were piling inside the city, and the music became both an economic engine and a cultural force. From that point on we get the first meet ups, usually on “lawns” around Kingston, where people would gather around loudspeakers with DJs spinning the newest music. This was the original “Sound System”, and the first leaders of this unholy alliance of art and money quickly took over.

Here's the man!

Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd was a huge influence on the entire culture/development of music in Jamaica, and his story also played major role in the history of Sound System music. He was born January of 1932, in Kingston Jamaica. His parents who owned a liquor store and his nickname was ‘Coxsone’ after the famous English Cricket star. His first encounter with DJ culture was as a child spinning Jazz records in his parent’s liquor store. When he finished school, he went to the Deep American South to work in the sugar cane fields. This is the pivotal point in which Coxsone first runs into Rhythm and Blues. He immediately fell in love and started collecting records to take back to Jamaica. He came home right at the time the sound system trend in Jamaica was picking up, and he hit it in full stride. With a huge collection of never heard American records, he quickly became the favorite Dj on the island, and the one who had the most product.

Both Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd, with ‘Sir Coxsone Downbeat’, and Duke Reid with the ‘Trojan’ became the heads of the Jamaican sound world, and would clash in fierce DJ battles that lasted over a decade. Each Disc Jockey would try to wow the crowd with the rarest, deepest, latest danceable grooves, and the battles would end up lasting all night. The sound systems in the early stages had no other option but to play American made music, mostly Rhythm and Blues, since there weren’t any Record manufacturers yet on the island to press Jamaican bands. This is when the Djs began scratching off the labels of what they were playing, so others couldn't see (something that other Djs copied for years to come).

A Wall of Sound means a Party!

What happened shortly after the popularity of sound systems blew up and people began to know these Djs well was the initial recordings and organizing of local Jamaican artists. So as the music shifted in the US towards rock and roll, the island sound was still in Rock steady style R&B. The records that were being recorded by sound engineers to play at live sets were now in demand and began to sell around Jamaica. Dodd tested his luck and started his own label Worldisc. That label eventually transformed to Studio One recording, which has lasted through the years as one of the dominant reggae/world labels to this day.

And this is how we come to Reggae. From early R & B came the initial reggae sound, and from that point on there has become a multitude of reggae sub genres, such as Dancehall or Dub. But what is really interesting doesn't only rely in the music, but in the philosophy of its creation. When looking at this movement of Sound System gatherings, we have the context to accept this as a way of playing music for a ton of people at once. But when you strip it down, what you see is a ten foot high wall of speakers with some guy spinning pressed vinyl. The huge sound that emerges is not only danceable, but becomes a kind of abstract music.

Here come the new ideas!

These art expression/idea meetings manifest new platforms over time and eventually become a normality, which is amazing, and it is quite a mathematic equation that brings these to light. Every new way (platform) of creating, such as a canvas, or Photoshop, has a lot of ingredients that led up to it becoming a platform for which a whole art form can flourish. In the odd case of Sound Systems becoming a platform, the equation was the size of the island, the density of its population in the city, the social unrest in response to the war, the lack of material, and pure drive for creative expression that made that platform become solidified.

©Ubirani Ferreira and the CCA Arts Review

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