Carolyn Cooper | University of London promoting sound systems
In 2015, The University of London’s Goldsmiths College launched an innovative research project: Sound System Outernational (SSO). The college’s website describes SSO as “an ongoing initiative of practitioners and researchers ... dedicated to recognising, stimulating and supporting sound system culture worldwide”. If The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica had taken the initiative to establish an academic programme on sound systems there would have been such a hue and cry about the waste of resources on “foolishness”.
Goldsmith College establishes its credentials as a focal point for sound system scholarship in this way: “There are more sound systems in operation around the world than ever before, more women’s sound systems, more aficionados, more practitioners and more interest across different countries around the globe. Goldsmiths is located in SE London, a historic centre of the capital’s sound system culture.”
Seven decades after the invention of the sound system in Jamaica, this revolutionary art form still has not received at home the critical acclaim it deserves. The origins of the sound system in the concrete jungle of Kingston have obscured the technological brilliance of this megawattage musical instrument. The Jamaican elite routinely dismiss sound systems as pure noise. They do not calculate the contribution that the multilayered culture of the sound system makes to the Jamaican economy. Nor do they understand the psychological and social benefits of the sound system as a way of building community.
Furthermore, the global reach of sound system culture is not usually acknowledged in Jamaica. Sound systems are treated with such contempt that some of us simply cannot understand how this buguyaga sound could possibly appeal to audiences across the world. Sound System Outernational has hosted six academic conferences which demonstrate just how ‘big an broad’ Jamaican popular culture is. The theme of the first conference in 2016 was ‘Sonic Entanglements: Jamaica, Europe and Brazil’.
The seventh SSO conference focuses on ‘Sound Systems At the Crossroads’, assessing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The conference overview notes that, “In a positive direction online formats have been encouraging a new inventiveness and creativity in formats and content.” But there have been devastating consequences: “The lockdown has silenced the streets worldwide, freezing sound system activities and depriving practitioners and the wider community of their primary source of income.”
This year’s virtual conference is being hosted in collaboration with Sonic Street Technologies, another initiative of Professor Henriques, which attracted a grant of €1,988,710.00 from the European Research Council. The description of the four-year project highlights the centrality of Jamaican sound system culture: “Sonic street technologies (SST) emerge in marginal environments in the cities and societies of the Global South, becoming an essential part of popular culture. Jamaican reggae sound systems, Brazilian mobile carnival trio elétrico, Mexican sonideros and Colombian los picos are among the representatives of these rising ‘street’ technologies.” In the case of Jamaica, sound system technology rose up more than half a century ago!
Last Friday, the conference was launched with an informative round table featuring Laylah and Daniella (Feminine Hi Fi, Brazil); Abigene and Tikur (Conscious Way Outernational, Guadeloupe); Lekentle (Kebra Ethiopia, South Africa) and Ricardo (El Gran Latido, Colombia). It was moderated by Dr Brian D’Aquino, a senior research fellow on the Sonic Street Technologies project. He’s the author of Black Noise: Tecnologie Della Diaspora Sonora (Technologies of the Sound Diaspora). For a decade and a half, he has been a sound system operator with Bababoom Hi Fi in Naples. The conference is free and can be accessed at: https://linktr.ee/Outernational.
This week, there’s another sound event affiliated with the University of London that illustrates the powerful resonance of Jamaican culture. Ananya Kabir, a professor of English Literature at King’s College London, and Ari Gautier, a writer from Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), India, who now lives in Oslo, are collaborating on a project they’ve dubbed ‘Le Thinnai kreyol’. The name reflects their focus on ‘Creole Indias’. British colonisation of India is a well-known story. What is more obscure is the history of other colonial encounters with the French, Portuguese, Dutch and Danes.
‘Le’, meaning ‘the,’ signifies the French influence. Puducherry was a French colony for almost three centuries and was briefly captured by both the Dutch and the British. ‘Thinnai’ is a Tamil word for ‘verandah’ and ‘kreyol’ evokes the complex process of cross-cultural interaction over many centuries. Believe it or not, there’s a Goa Sunsplash Reggae festival held in the Indian state that was ruled by the Portuguese for 450 years.
This Friday at noon, Ananya and Ari will host a conversation on the thinnai with two Kreyol speakers, which will be streamed live on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lethinnaikreyol/. It’s billed as ‘Irie Vibrasyon’ and will bring together Jamaica and the Seychelles. I will be chatting with them and Mrs Penda Choppy, director of the Creole Language and Culture Research Institute at the University of the Seychelles. The Institute was launched in 2016 with this vision: ‘Nou kiltir, nou konnesans, nou lidantite.’ Our culture, our knowledge, our identity!
The Jamaican Language Unit was established at The University of the West Indies, Mona, in 2002 to address the issues outlined on its website:
i. “a standard writing system for Jamaican
ii. the development of technical and administrative terminology in the language for use by officers of the state,
iii. the monitoring of state agencies with respect to the non-discriminatory provision of services in the two languages in general use, i.e. English and Jamaican,
iv. public education on the language issue.”
Led first by Professor Hubert Devonish and now by Dr Joseph Farquharson, the unit has largely fulfilled its mission in almost two decades. But state agencies have refused to accept the fact that language discrimination is a violation of the fundamental human rights of citizens. The Jamaican elite devalue the mother language of the majority of citizens in much the same way that they diss sound systems. I suppose we need a Jamaican Language Outernational project, supported by a foreign university, to force us to honour fi wi culture, fi wi knowledge an fi wi identity.