One love: Traditional sound systems 'stringing up' in the English countryside

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Ian Burrell reports on the last hurrah of an urban phenomenon being driven out by new technology

The hop fields of Paddock Wood in Kent, for so many years a site for seasonal pickers balanced on stilts, will this summer be filled with towering piles of speaker boxes.

One of the greatest collections of traditional sound systems will be “stringing up” in the Garden of England, offering a rare chance to experience a music form that is slowly being driven out by technological change.

Coxsone Outernational, Saxon Studio, Youthman Promotion, Aba Shanti-I, will all be present along with both Jah Tubbys and King Tubbys. So too will Unity and Channel One. Most of the cream of British proponents of the Jamaican art of sound system – all on one farm.

We tend to think of the sound system as an urban phenomenon, the speakers stacked high on a street corner at Notting Hill carnival or a similar big city event. But the culture’s origins are also in the Jamaican countryside, as touring night-clubs that would play under the stars on the village green, or “lawn” to use the sound system vernacular.

“From their beginnings in Jamaica, sound systems have existed in outside locations and the English countryside is a perfect place to hear them,” says Dan Wiltshire, managing director of the One Love Festival, who has brought all the systems together in a rural setting. “So you have the sights, the smells and most importantly the sound of reggae music which you can literally feel as it comes off these big speakers. It’s multi-sensory overload.”

Marketers tell us we want to consume our music through dinky devices that fit in our pockets. But there’s still something magical about the vast apparatus of the sound system and the thunderous noise it generates.

The traditional sound has an army of staff. There’s the “controller” to ensure everything functions smoothly, the “operator” on the turntables, the “selector” to pick out the tunes, one or more “MCs” to add vocal accompaniment and a crowd of “box boys” to hump the hefty wood-encased speakers into place.

In times of high unemployment in the 1970s and 1980s, the sound  system was a viable career option in marginalised Caribbean communities.  Entire rooms in residential homes were often given over to the storage of the speaker boxes and equipment that provided the income for several families.

These days, when a DJ will work solo from a laptop, the great sounds are rarely seen, which makes the One Love Festival such a great opportunity – and one all the more poignant for coinciding with the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence next month . 

Veteran figures such as Lloyd Coxsone, whose Battersea-based system ruled the London dancehalls in the mid-late 1970s, have kept the tradition alive. Last month Coxsone sound played in  a rare "soundclash" in the Coronet theatre in London’s Elephant & Castle, “testing” rivals Jah Tubbys and the long-standing Nottingham sound V Rocket by playing sequences of specially-commissioned dub plate recordings, many of them more than 30 years old.

Coxsone arrived in England from Jamaica in 1962 and first performed as Lloyd the Matador, until water in an amp caused his system to implode. He started “Sir Coxsone” sound (named after the founder of Studio One records and Jamaican music pioneer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd) in 1969 and with his team – including star selector Blacker Dread – has amassed an almost unbeatable record box.

For 30 years, Coxsone has been rivalled by another south London system Saxon Studio and the two will play side by side at the One Love Festival. During the 1980s, Saxon was known for its incomparable line up of MCs, including Tippa Irie, Papa Levi and Smiley Culture, as well as the singer Maxi Priest. Saxon selector Lloyd “Musclehead” Francis, compares the traditional sound systems to football teams, each commanding the support of a faithful following of fans. “We try to keep it authentic,” he says. “If you are going to hear the bass and the real quality when you have a big crowd of people gathered round then you need the power and clarity that comes with stacks of speakers.”

He says much has changed in a modern era, where insurance cover is needed to set up an old-style sound system in a nightclub and separate premises are needed to house large collections of speaker boxes. “It’s not easy and you’ve got to love it - or you ain’t going to bother,” he says.

Unlike the modern DJs who might flit from one club to another during a Saturday night, a sound system will take many hours to set up. The speaker boxes – in ascending order, the low and high bass bins, mid-range and "tops" - are delivered in large trucks and must be wired and positioned just so, in order to broadcast evenly to a wide area.

Mikey Dread of Channel One sound, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, likes to play with eight speakers to get the best “warm” analogue sound from his vinyl records and dubplates. Typically, he begins a session at 10am when he collects a hired van to transport the mighty system from a lock-up garage to the music venue. “You need your troops to gather round and help with the lifting but that’s part and parcel of the sound system – it’s too easy to just grab a laptop out of a bag.” Unlike the modern DJ, he has no need for headphones to cue up a record. “If you know your music you know what you are playing. As a sound system you do your homework – that’s your craft.”

The object of the exercise for the sound system operator, is to hit upon a tune that so moves the audience that it provokes calls for the track to be played again. Beth Lesser, in her book “Dancehall”, perfectly captures the spirit of this interaction. “The crowd would let out a cry of ‘Forward!’ – meaning backwards, ie that the selector should start the tune all over again from the top. For a brief second, silence would reign until the selector would lift the arm down onto the record again, carefully and with maximum thumb control; then the music would come booming out of the speakers...”

The One Love Festival is at Hop Farm, Paddock Wood, near Tonbridge, Kent, 10-12 August

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