Sound System Culture by Paul Huxtable, Al Fingers and Mandeep Samra, book review

Huddersfield's loud and proud reggae history is revealed
  • @iburrell

It's strange to think of Huddersfield – so evocative of Yorkshire that you could call it onomatopoeic – as an outpost of Caribbean culture. Yet this industrial town in West Riding was a destination for post-war West Indian migrants in the same way as the biggest British conurbations.

And in reggae music circles, Huddersfield always punched above its weight. So it's appropriate that it is the setting for this elegantly-produced study of the sound system, the elaborate and towering edifices through which Jamaicans have for decades chosen to play their music in public. While British parties of the Seventies and Eighties shuffled to the discreet mobile disco, the West Indian sound system crews operated on another scale entirely. Their constructions of piles of speaker boxes stretched from floor to ceiling.

The ambition for thunderous noise is reflected in some of the names in the roll call of Huddersfield sounds: Armagideon, Assassin, Earth Rocker, Mr Tremble. But as Paul Huxtable makes clear, there's more to this than maximising decibel levels. It is about the arrangement of the hand-crafted boxes, with their distinct audio frequencies of bass, middle and "tops", into a formation that will produce the optimum sound.

It's a fiercely competitive world. "Who sounded the heaviest? Who sounded the sweetest?... Who had the best music? Who was the most innovative?" Huxtable observes.

The culture permeated West Indian life in Britain for decades. "Most Caribbean families had a member who was a sound man, or knew a sound man," we are told. "Sound system dances, be it in the dance halls or blues parties, were present in many minds all the time. During the week you would be looking forward to one, at the end of the week you would be preparing for one, at the weekend you would be at one, and you would start the working week with the memories to savour…"

It brought back my own memories of all-night shebeens and "Blues" house parties, where a sound would string up in the darkness of the back room and splashes of rum in plastic cups were sold through the kitchen hatch. The king of the Blues party in Huddersfield was Bernard Clark. "When I [held a Blues] up Sheepridge, most of the time I have to make breakfast because they won't leave. That's how good it was."

Another of the heroes of this book is the German Jewish refugee Mat Mathias, an electronics wizard who settled in Huddersfield and supplied the local sound systems with his "Matamp" amplifiers.

The town's Venn Street nightclub (variously known as Cleopatra's and Silver Sands) became a favourite for touring reggae stars such as Burning Spear and Gregory Isaacs. There's something elegiac about this story. Sound system culture – although it has inspired modern adherents around the world – has been relentlessly undermined by changes in technology and noise abatement officers.

Venn Street was bulldozed to build a car park.But Huddersfield's West Indian story applies to many manufacturing towns, such as Reading, Northampton and Bedford, places rarely included in descriptions of multicultural Britain. With so much British Caribbean history told through the prism of Notting Hill Carnival this is a valuable document.