Duke Vin: 'Soundman' who brought sound systems to Britain
Wednesday 21 November 2012
In 1955 Vincent "Duke Vin" Forbes launched the first Jamaican-style sound system on the British public; it was the prototype of the enormous sets of speakers on display each year at the Notting Hill carnival. "When I came here the people was backward – them didn't know what a sound system was," said Vin, who enjoyed a semi-mythological status in Britain's West Indian community.
In the late 1940s in Jamaica, where few could afford radios, sound systems ruled the entertainment circuits; they would set up at outdoor dances, playing such American r'n'b as Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris and Roy Brown. None was more popular than the "sound" run by Tom "the Great Sebastian" Wong with his innovation, replicating the jive-talking voice-overs of US radio disc jockeys, with Count Machouki rapping over the records.
Meeting Wong on a Kingston street, helping him change his punctured tyre, Duke Vin found himself asked if he could stand in for the sound system owner the next Saturday as "selecter"; Vin's magically intuitive alignment of 78rpm discs was a resounding success, which turned into regular work.
But he earned almost nothing from this: when he arrived in England in 1954 it was as a ship stowaway. Taking employment as a railway engine cleaner for British Rail, for just under £5 a week, he found lodging in the slum area of Notting Hill.
"One morning I came down Portobello Road and I see a box with a 10-inch speaker in it. I gave a man £15 for it. I had an amplifier made for £4. Then two guys asked me to use this for a party." Vin rented his nascent sound system to them for £5.
This became Duke Vin's regular Saturday night fee as he played at Jamaican private house parties all over London: "Sometimes until 12 o'clock the next day – until police came to stop it. But I was just thinking to liven up the place."
Other sound system operators set up, like Count Clarence, and Count Suckle, who opened the Cue Club in Paddington. Soon Duke Vin was taking part in sound system "clashes", competitions in which each set tried to woo the audience with the rarity and originality of their tunes. Famously, Duke Vin won an event over Count Suckle in 1956 at Lambeth Town Hall: Vin played almost entirely the type of US r'n'b popular in Jamaica – Big Jay McNeely's "Big Jay Shuffle", Joe Thomas's "Page Boy Shuffle" and Ernie Freeman's "Dumplins", the last finally winning Vin the championship. The next year he repeated his triumph: "I was never once beaten in a clash."
By 1958 a record industry had begun in Jamaica. The first Jamaican record Duke Vin played was Laurel Aitken's 1959 smash "Boogie in my Bones". "Eastern Standard Time", by master trombonist Don Drummond, a member of the Skatalites, was the first ska record that worked for Vin. "When I play that tune at the Flamingo, the people went mad."
By the early 1960s Duke Vin was a regular deejay at Soho's Flamingo club, spinning discs between sets by the likes of Georgie Fame and Zoot Money: "I have a good time with those people," he recalled.
Playing at house parties and in Notting Hill's shebeens, sound systems operated on the fringes of the law. Battles with officialdom were frequent. "Police gave me a hard time. One inspector told me that if I played my sound system in his area, he would get me 10 years in prison. Another policeman take a shovel and mash my speaker, saying, 'We don't want this thing in this country.' And all the while them young white girls and guys love the music: 'We've never heard anything like this before.' The Rolling Stones and Beatles would come and watch me play.'
At the end of the 1960s Duke Vin was charged with pimping and sent to prison – he claimed vehemently that he had been framed. While serving his sentence he studied his Maroon heritage, of which he was fiercely proud. Escaped slaves who took to the Jamaican mountains, Maroons fought the British redcoats to a standstill, being granted autonomy in a 1739 treaty.
Released from prison, he embarked on a successful legal process against the Inland Revenue, asserting that under the terms of that 1739 treaty he was exempt from tax payments. With the money returned by the taxman, Vin built a larger sound system and bought a house off London's Harrow Road, turning its basement into an upmarket shebeen – "Aristocratic people would come there, the type who drink brandy and champagne." His "sound" was a regular fixture at the Notting Hill Carnival and at dances all over the UK and Europe.
"I do not smoke, drink, gamble. I do not take drugs," he said. "My music make me happy. A soundman must play for the people. I know what they want and I go and play it. Some deejays try to impress their friends and play the wrong records. Play for the people: they will keep you going."
Always apparently healthy, Duke Vin suffered from a series of strokes, and died in hospital.
Vincent George Forbes (Duke Vin), sound system operator: born Kingston, Jamaica 25 October 1928; partner to Vera Dennis (three children); seven further children; died London 3 November 2012.
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