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Jamaica's sound system culture dying or evolving? - Industry insiders say things aren't what they used to be

Published:Sunday | November 6, 2016 | 12:00 AMShereita Grizzle
Speng, a Bass Odyssey selector, makes a clown face to the crowd during a sound clash with Richie Feelings, during the All-Star Clash at Club Famous back in 2014. Bass Odyssey won the clash.
Geefus at the Stone Love controls.
A-One of King Addies sound system.

Sound systems have played an integral role in the development of the Jamaican culture since the 1950s. However, in recent times, there has been an outcry among industry insiders who say the sound system culture that the world has become accustomed to is dying a slow death in the country of its origin. In light of the former, several industry insiders are urging the younger generation of sound system operators to revisit the history books and learn more about the very thing they have chosen as a career path.

Queen Ifrica told The Sunday Gleaner that after recently watching a sound clash while in New York, she was convinced that the sound system scene was more vibrant outside of Jamaica. With that being said, the entertainer made it clear that she does not support the view that the sound system culture in Jamaica is dying.

"There are still many youths across the island who own and operate sound systems and are very much interested in building a career from it," she said. "I do believe, however, that owning and operating a sound system alone cannot cut it. Youths nowadays have to look at how things used to operate back in the day and try to carry that on as best as possible. We do have to evolve and grow, but at the same time, we have to make sure that the authenticity is maintained," Ifrica said.

She also believes that the younger generation of selectors need to expand their catalogue of music in order to actively compete with other sound systems across the world.




"I was just at a sound clash in New York where they said it was a competition to expose the younger sound system operators, but it was one of the veteran sounds that won," she recalled. "They won because they played music from all eras of the culture. They played the Dennis Browns, the Gregory Isaacs, and so on, and that was what the people enjoyed, so the younger generation needs to understand that in order to establish themselves among the best and keep the legacy going, they have to be knowledgeable about the music, and that means understanding that music didn't start yesterday because the songs from the '60s, '70s cannot die."

Dwayne Walford, booking agent for veteran sound system Bass Odyssey, agrees with Ifrica to some extent. Walford believes that while it is important for selectors and sound system operators today to understand the history, they have to also chart their own course.

"With the way things have been evolving, it's hard for the youth nowadays to do things exactly like it used to be done back in the day," he said. "The established sound systems that you know about didn't earn their names overnight. It took time. So while I agree that they should learn as much as they can about the music and the sound system culture, they should also make a name for themselves in their own way."

Walford also said that the Noise Abatement Act also contributes to the disappearance of sound systems from street parties.

"Nobody is booking a sound to play at their events anymore. They rather get a man with two speaker box and a laptop because that makes more sense economically, especially when the party a guh lock of at 2 a.m. and the people them start coming at 1 a.m.," he said.

He also believes that these men with their laptops and speaker boxes are also the ones contributing to the downward spiral of the sound system culture as they do not represent what is authentic about the culture.

"Well, they call themselves sound system operators, but they are really solo disc jockeys. A sound system is when you have speaker boxes 'stock and pile' and when you turn it on and the bass makes your entire body jump. That is an authentic sound system, and that is what we need to preserve," said Walford.

For veteran sound system selector A-One of King Addies Sound (responsible for giving the likes of Tony Matterhorn his break in music), he says the sound system culture is revolutionising, not dying.




"Sound system culture can be broken up into a few different categories. First category would be the physical sound (speaker boxes, sound truck). This has definitely lost steam compared to the earlier era of sound system, in my opinion, because of the full-powered systems used to play in the dancehall. This change by itself took away jobs for many (box boy, truck driver, etc). Sound systems are mainly used today in lawns and road-side parties. Here in the US (where he is now based), there has been a shift where persons have regained interest in having a sound system again. Within the past four years, there have been many physical sound system clashes at which the attendance has grown in numbers," he said.

The second category he identifies as 'sound clashes'.

"Again, within the past five years, DJs and sound systems have regained interest in voicing dubplates to 'brag' about their sound. The reason I believe clashing went quiet for a while could have been because the new generation of artistes were on the rise. Older artistes were no longer putting out music to the standard we were used to. Some even went as far as saying, 'Reggae music is dying'. But once the new generation of artistes got the respect of the people and they made hits, this also sparked a new interest in sound systems for the new-generation youths. Today, we have Guinness clash and many other tournaments, which is also helping keep the culture alive."

A-One says, "Being a part of one of the biggest sound systems in the world - King Addies - we have also contributed to keeping the culture alive in the US by continually cutting dubplates and keeping our own events. This includes bringing Reggae artistes and sound systems from around the world to give that vibe in New York."