The sound system was the way in which reggae promoters and producers of the 1960s brought their music directly to a Jamaican audience not yet plugged into any national infrastructure. By creating a powerful sound system, fired up by its own generator, the new wave of producers and DJs managed to reach a mass audience at first-hand and, at the same time, blast their rivals out of the way. In using more than one deck, in presenting recorded music as a ‘live’ performance, and in DJ-ing over the rhythm until a new music emerged, the sound system pre-dated the way in which later generations of dance and club DJs would use both the subtleties of the mixing desk and the power of sheer volume. Within reggae – where this all began – the sound system was an essential part of the experience. The manner of transmitting the music to its audience was crucial to how the music itself developed, the medium being the message, to use a cliché.
Now the sound system is back courtesy of Trojan Records in the UK. A continuing series of dates from May (2005) onwards, including the Isle of Wight festival, has brought the new system to venues around the country, supporting big name acts including Barrington Levy and Sly and Robbie.
The sound system was scheduled at the Big Chill Main Stage on 6th August 2005, with Mad Professor billed alongside Horace Andy. This is an interesting venue, in pointing up the connection between the outdoor live sound system of the 1960s and the DJ style of the 1990s. This again raises the question of where recorded music ends and a live gig begins, something that is, happily, never quite resolved in dub and reggae.
Alongside these dates, Trojan Records released a Trojan Sound System CD, selected by Daddy Ad and one and only local lad Earl Gateshead. The album is a fine introduction to the feel of the sound system, opening with the ‘selectas’ introducing their wares over a ‘version’ of John Holt’s familiar ‘Ali Baba’. This takes us straight into Holt’s vocal track proper, followed by mainstream sounds from the likes of Ken Boothe. Big Youth’s ‘Mammy Hot Daddy Cool’ is classic sound system material, while the digital style of Admiral Bailey adds some light and shade. Introductions from MC General Slater (aka Ras Triumphant), who has worked with Tippa Irie and performed with several systems including King Tubbies Sound, help to keep the whole thing moving along at a suitably cracking pace. The album closes as Gentleman’s ‘Intoxication’ is followed by Ras Triumphant’s ‘Ras in her Life’, using the same backing track.
Have a listen to this, loudly, and meanwhile keep an eye open for the arrival of the sound system live in your neighbourhood.