“Sound system culture perfectly encapsulates the condition of culture in 21st century Britain.” Quoted from Professor Paul Ward’s forward to Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield’s Sound Systems. A book edited and designed by Al Newman and part of the ongoing Sound System Culture project. “It shows that British history is an international history – a legacy of empire,” continues Ward.
This history on the movement of Jamaican culture to the UK begins in 1948. When the UK’s Empire Windrush, formally a Nazi cruise ship named Monte Rosa, harboured in Kingston, Jamaica.
The sound system culture of the UK is a very deep and important part of its music history
Following an ad in a Jamaican newspaper, the cruiser offered cheap transport for any Jamaicans who wanted to work in the UK. Acting as a means to fill Britain’s depleted labour force after the second world war. The ship brought 492 passengers to Tillbury, Essex, arriving on 22 June, 1948. Its journey across the Atlantic was followed by many like it over the next couple of decades – bringing West Indian immigrants to various towns and cities across the UK. This marked the beginning of the Windrush generation.
During this time, an important seed was sown. While the early wave of Jamaican immigrants were met with a colder and often hostile environment, they found comfort in recreating their native culture. Thus, custom-built sound systems were introduced to Britain, moving from people’s living rooms into clubs across the country.
Known for his book Clarks in Jamaica, Al ‘Fingers’ Newman became involved in the Sound System Culture project in 2013. Approached by Huddersfield historian Mandeep Samra, Newman was asked to edit and design a book she was developing on the Huddersfield sound system scene. Written by Yorkshire soundman, Paul Huxtable.
Following a positive response to the Huddersfield project, Newman and Samra decided to expand their research into other parts of the UK. The Sound System Culture project has now arrived in Bristol, at a new exhibition at Colston Hall, documenting the history of Bristol's reggae sound systems. The exhibition is one of a three-part series that continues in Birmingham, in August, and London, in February 2016. It is accompanied by the release of a children’s book about sound systems, The Sonar System by Ras Mykha.
We caught up with Al Newman to speak about Sound System Culture.
Can you tell me about your background?
I do a mixture of publishing, writing, design, curating and music. I've written a few books but I wouldn’t call myself an author. I just love researching and documenting things, especially anything to do with music, which is my passion. Any book or project that I am involved in I try to bring music in if I can.
Are you limited to one genre?
A lot of the things I do are about reggae. But I listen to all genres, country, soul, jazz, rare groove, R&B, hip hop. I just feel there still is a lot to document within reggae. For example the sound system culture of the UK is a very deep and important part of UK music history, which has barely been documented. Something that important, that has been such a huge part of so many people's lives, needs to be recorded and celebrated.
Jamaicans brought over new music but they also brought over a new way of listening to this music
I first got into books after writing and researching an encyclopaedia on camouflage [DPM: Disruptive Pattern Material] for the clothing company Maharishi. The owner, Hardy Blechman, needed someone to finish the book off for him so I was brought in to do that – it took three years. It became a massive, very detailed project and I learnt a lot about publishing from that experience.
How would you define sound system culture?
It’s the culture around sound systems and beyond. From getting a sound system together, building speaker boxes, modifying amplifiers, to stringing up in venues, playing tunes, toasting on the mic.
It's usually very much a group thing. So a sound system will consist of various members, often with specific roles such as selector, mic man, engineer, operator, box boy. Certain sound systems will specialise in one type of music, such as roots, lovers, revival, dancehall, whereas party sounds will play a mixture of different genres. But it’s largely born out of reggae and is an important part of Jamaican culture.
Would you say that the Windrush generation was the start of sound system culture in the UK?
Yeah that was the start of it. That's when Jamaican music was in its infancy. Jamaicans brought over this new music but they also brought over a new way of listening to this music. Which was people getting together and listening to tunes through a sound system in the outdoors.
Obviously not so much outdoors in the UK but that whole culture in Jamaica had only recently taken off and people who settled in the UK brought that experience with them. That was the seed that blossomed into this incredible and very deep culture. And it developed more extensively in the UK than in Jamaica.
Was it developing faster in the UK?
I don't know about faster, but if you look at the number of sound systems that have come out of the UK, there are more than in Jamaica. I think that Caribbean people, when they first came over here, were pretty alienated in terms of going out.
Any community wants to have a good time; to enjoy themselves and forget about the hardships
They weren't really welcome in the pubs and clubs in the centre of town. So they put on their own entertainment in their own neighbourhoods, and sound system culture flourished in the UK because of that.
It brought the Caribbean community together?
Yeah, they missed the West Indies and wanted to get together. They weren’t welcome in many places. Racism was much worse back then. So the community started to put on their own parties within their own homes, which became known as blues dances or shebeens.
Would you say UK sound system culture was a social reaction?
It was really more of a deep love of the music and wanting to hear that music. Any community wants to have a good time, and to enjoy themselves, forget about the hardships. That might drive them to be even more eager to let go and party.
So early on, people would go round to other people’s houses and they might bring a few records. These houses often had a radiogram, which was basically a piece of furniture like a sideboard, with an inbuilt record player and radio, and often a drinks cabinet.
People would come round, bring the latest tunes that they had bought that week, cue them up on the radiogram and have a party. And from that, certain people started building up bigger and more powerful sound systems. But it came from those blues parties. Sound system culture is the culture around that. It became very tribal as well. People would follow certain sounds, usually a local sound from their area.
In the book on Huddersfield, Paul Huxtable [Huddersfield-based sound system engineer] wrote about the importance of competition between the sound systems.
Competition between sound systems could be fierce and would sometimes break out in violence. Every sound had its own following. Some had a massive following, where people would go to every one of their dances. People followed a sound because of the quality of sound from the system, but also it was about the music chosen by the selectors, and then the mic men later on. Certain sounds became very well known for their mic men eventually, such as Saxon for example.
What are the earliest records of sound systems in Bristol?
The sound in Bristol that really kicked things off and elevated the scene, although not the first sound, was Tarzan the High Priest, which was founded by Hector Thaws, the grandfather of Tricky (featured on the cover of Jocks&Nerds Issue 7).
Generally I would say that the scene was quite contained in Bristol
He came over from Jamaica in the early 1960s, first to Wolverhampton and then to Bristol. He built a sound that became the biggest and most popular sound in the city. After that, sound system culture was firmly established in Bristol. But before that were other sounds like Honey Bee and Count Neville.
Your project Sound System Culture is on its national tour of Bristol, Birmingham and London. Do those three cities have the richest history of sound systems in the UK?
I would say so. But there were sound systems all over. Manchester, Gloucester, Swindon, Nottingham – every town and city that Caribbean people settled, the culture developed. That's why its such a huge history. And that’s why it needs to be documented. It's a deep heritage.
As part of the exhibition at Colston Hall, there will be the Heritage Hi-Fi on display. Can you explain what that is?
Heritage Hi-Fi is a sound system that was built by Paul Axis, originally for the Huddersfield project. It's a beautifully built retro-style sound system powered with vintage Matamp amplifiers that were locally built in Huddersfield.
Now that the tour has expanded, the sound is going to feature at each of the new exhibitions. And people attending the exhibitions will be able to interact with it, putting on records and listening to music through the speakers. For each city, we have also cut a dubplate, an exclusive one-off pressed record, featuring audio snippets from people involved in the local scene, edited from the oral histories recorded in each city.
It's more than a two-dimensional exhibition isn't it?
Yeah, there will also be a radiogram on display, which was an important part of the early blues party scene. Many Caribbean families had a radiogram. In the Bristol exhibition, we have various records associated with sound systems from the city, as well as stuff about the Bamboo Club, which is seminal as being one of the first clubs in the UK that catered for the West Indian community.
There are also photographs and old flyers and other memorabilia. Each exhibition also features a list of every reggae sound system from that city. We are displaying that in a way that is editable in case someone comes to the exhibition and says, my sound isn't on there. So it's continually evolving to try to document the subject as accurately and thoroughly as possible. For Bristol, we have around 60 or 70 sounds. London will be a bit more difficult.
Did you create the exhibition by yourself or were you working with someone else?
The project is down to Mandeep Samra and her company, Let's Go Yorkshire. It's Mandy's thing, her concept. After working together on the Huddersfield book, and the positive response to that, we made a decision to expand into other parts of the UK. For Bristol, I've done most of the research as I live in London whereas she's based in Huddersfield, so I am slightly closer. But really it's the both of us.
Can comparisons or differences be made between Bristol and other cities?
One of the things about Bristol is that it's relatively small, at least the West Indian areas are quite compact. So the scene was quite contained. Bristol had a really vibrant blues scene and a lot of those blues dances were in St Pauls, which is an area in Bristol where many West Indian people settled. So you could literally walk from blues to blues – they were all contained within a mile radius and there would be these parties going on everywhere.
It’s about a galaxy far away where, instead of a sun, the planets rotate around a gigantic speaker
Whereas with somewhere like London, I guess it's a bit more spread out. In Bristol, it happened within St Pauls, Easton and Montpelier – mainly. One thing about Bristol is that the sound systems didn't travel as much as other systems in the UK. Only a few of them ended up travelling across the UK. Most of them stayed within Bristol.
There were some that would play outside Bristol like Enterprise, Jah Lokko and Tarzan. But generally, I would say that the scene was quite contained in Bristol, although many people would travel into the city from places like Birmingham, Reading, Bath, London – initially for the Bamboo Club, and later on for the city's blues dances and other venues. Certain sounds such as Shaka and Coxsone would play out in Bristol a lot.
Finally, can you tell me about the children’s book that accompanies the exhibition?
To make the subject accessible to the younger generation we have produced a children's book called The Sonar System, which was written and illustrated by French reggae artist Ras Mykah. It is being published on my imprint One Love Books.
I don't know of another children's book that focuses on sound systems. So maybe it's a first, who knows. Also, within children's literature, there aren't many books that feature ethnic minorities. That was something we wanted to support and encourage.
It's something we wanted to do, so we could add another dimension to the project really. The book’s about a galaxy far away where, instead of a sun, the planets rotate around a gigantic speaker and the people who live there spend their time building sound systems in homage to the giant speaker. It's a sweet story.