This article is part of the “Emerging Issues” section of Music Research Annual. Articles in this section of the journal present critical analyses of topics that are beginning to attract scholarly attention and point ways forward for new music research.
“Each One Teach One”: Music and the Pedagogical Dimensions of Reggae Sound System Culture
Abstract: The objective of this article is to characterize, deepen, and appraise the pedagogical dimensions of sound system culture. Historically, sound systems were catalyzers of music production in Jamaica, and after their expansion to the UK in the 1950s, and later to the five continents, sound systems affected audiences in a way that turned them into sound listeners and creators. Sound system cultures are building a consumption, music production, and learning environment for a genre that is not engaged in the mainstream music market, fostering its underground activities and motivating people to fight for their rights in the process. The idea of Jamaican reggae sound system sessions as what sociologist Lisa Amanda Palmer calls “self-generated sites of learning,” and of soundmen and soundwomen (as they are known in the culture) as nonformal and informal educators, is at the center of this article’s argument. These themes are developed by examining several aspects of sound system culture: the internal practices of apprenticeship; pedagogical activities developed by soundcrews, like film screenings and roundtables before the sessions; academic events designed to bring practitioners and academics closer together, like the Sound System Outernational conference; and events carried out by music festivals and other happenings. The fields of community learning theory, musicology, film studies, reggae studies, sound system studies, and popular music studies support the discussion in a transdisciplinary theoretical framework. The article uses documentaries, films, and videos on reggae music and sound system culture as crucial sources of testimony and information about the people who make this cultural manifestation possible.
Keywords: popular music, pedagogy, reggae, sound systems, documentary film and video
Leonardo Vidigal is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of Photography and Cinema at the Fine Arts School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Vidigal, Leonardo. 2022. “‘Each One Teach One’: Music and the Pedagogical Dimensions of Reggae Sound System Culture.” Music Research Annual 3: 1–19.
This article addresses the pedagogical dimensions of sound system culture, a subject that has received little attention in the academic literature. Given the urgent need for further research, the article is panoramic in its approach, exploring the wide range of topics that are informed by the culture’s learning practices. Sound system studies is developing on a transnational and transdisciplinary basis, covering a variety of musical genres, cultural systems, and theoretical approaches. These pages will review the emerging literature on this subject, with a focus on reggae sound systems, which are at the center of a growing web of research.1 Paraphrasing cultural studies scholar Julian Henriques (2003, 453), I suggest that sound systems are at once a source and an expression of reggae music’s power. Reggae artists and songs are known for their capacity to mobilize affect, and sound systems play an important role here, though the academic literature has not sufficiently acknowledged this. Reggae music initially developed in Jamaica outside of mainstream popular music. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, it was promoted by the global phonographic industry and became irreversibly globalized, though it has not always been favored by big media corporations. In the 2000s and 2010s, despite moments of great popularity in certain countries, reggae culture returned to an autonomous path, with almost no support from big corporations, and was disseminated by small labels. Today, many reggae artists are cultivating a smaller but very loyal audience, which has kept the genre alive and well transnationally. Recently, UNESCO recognized reggae as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” (see UNESCO 2018).
In reggae and other popular music genres, the term “sound system” refers to a set of sound amplification equipment that has been culturally appropriated and is used to dominate the soundscape of a given space and entertain an audience. As this article will show, a crucial part of sound system culture is its many systems of learning. Starting at the end of the 1940s, the people who built and operated sound systems began to play blues and rhythm and blues from the US, and “many musicians and singers developed their craft by learning the styles which they heard on the records” (Toynbee 2000, 77, quoted in Howard 2009, 507). This catalyzed the creation of a whole lineage of musical genres in Jamaica, from Jamaican rhythm and blues, ska, and rocksteady to reggae, which since the 1960s developed various subgenres, such as early reggae, roots reggae, rockers, rub-a-dub, dancehall, and reggae revival. Later genres, such as reggaeton, samba-reggae, drum ’n’ bass, jungle, dubstep, and grime, came from the fertile minds and skills of producers and artists inspired by reggae music, as documented in the academic literature (Davis and Simon 1977; Gilroy 1987; Bilby 1995; Rodrigues 1995; Barrow and Dalton 1997; Stolzoff 2000; Bradley 2001; Cooper 2004, 2012; Stanley Niaah 2010; Henriques 2011; Katz 2012a; Muggs and Stevens 2019; Henry and Back 2021). Synthesizing the ideas in this work, the ethnomusicologist Michael Veal has argued that the 1970s music produced in Jamaica, particularly dub, was “composed in the recording studio with the 1970s sound system experience in mind” (2007, 43). Though it was also used to enable MC performances, the music was initially created to supply the sound systems with new songs (which are also known as tunes) and was made by singers, singjays, and MCs (who were also called “DJs” in Jamaica because of the way disc jockeys talked over songs on the radio).2
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the population built a market for local music, where tunes had to pass testing on sound system dancefloors to be released on 7-inch, 45-rpm singles (Bradley 2001). The soundcrews that ran the sound systems generally had three main roles: the selector, who is known outside Jamaica as the “DJ” and who plays the records; the operator, who EQs the music and often does small remixes; and the MC, who communicates with the audience, keeps the vibes flowing, and performs new lyrics for old or new riddims (the prerecorded instrumental tracks found on the B-sides of reggae singles).3 Their efforts are often conditioned by the work of the sound engineer, who sets up the equipment for a performance and adjusts it to accommodate the acoustics of the space, a process that Henriques called “fine tuning” (2011, 73).4 As a result of this work, the soundcrew and their sonic apparatus can amplify the sound at a very high volume without distortion, thus getting the most power out of each song.
What I have described here are the most common roles and practices in reggae sound systems, but these have developed over time and can vary significantly from performance to performance, being modified, maintained, or resumed, depending on the wishes and circumstances of each crew. Their agency is thus materialized in the session, a self-organized event in which the equipment is used to dominate a given space sonically for a period of time that can last several hours (Henriques 2003). Even though a sound system, in its most basic form, is just a record player, a small amplifier, and a pile of speakers, sound systems are at the heart of popular music produced in Jamaica, though more recently producers have come to play a larger role in the music.5
Below, I will show how the pedagogical dimension of sound system culture served to inform, debate, rethink, and disseminate this music, a process that depends on factors such as reggae’s do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality (Bradley 2018), practices of customizing pre-amplifiers and speakers, idiosyncratic methods of voicing the sound equipment, the phenomenon of reggae clashes (which are also known as soundclashes, duels between sound systems that are judged by the audience; see Henriques 2011, 68), and the efforts of artists to gain autonomy from cultural intermediaries, like big record labels and popular music distributors. Sound system workers and supporters gradually built a culture around these practices, one that was heavily influenced by the Rastafari religion and its philosophy (Barnett 2012, 270), which Bob Marley summarized as “resisting against the system” and which sociologist and education scholar Adwoa Ntozake Onuora described as a “vital communicative, pedagogical, and instructional tool” for opposing colonialism (2012, 142)—one that has been disseminated by artists and soundcrews throughout the history of reggae music.
This article is based on many years of informal participation as a selector in sound system sessions in Brazil. From 1991 to 1997, I worked with the Radiola Sound System, the first soundcrew in the southern region of Brazil, inspired by the experience of Maranhão, discussed below. Since 2011, I have worked with Deska Sound in the city of Belo Horizonte, as one of the founders, and also participated in sound system sessions as a selector or audience member in other Brazilian cities, as well as in Jamaica, the UK, Italy, Greece, Poland, and Spain. As a result, this article should be understood as an example of a methodology known as “practice-as-research” (see D’Aquino, Henriques, and Vidigal 2017). The article draws heavily on documentary films about reggae and sound system culture made in the past fifty years, which are crucial sources of testimony about this music and which shed light on the people who make this cultural manifestation possible (Vidigal 2020). My aim here is to bring together diverse experiences, readings, conversations, and performances of and about sound system culture and to understand how learning works in sound system events. The article develops a transdisciplinary theoretical framework by drawing on scholarship from the fields of community learning theory, musicology, pedagogy, film studies, reggae studies, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, sound system studies, and popular music studies. It identifies and characterizes the pedagogical dimensions of sound system culture and also reveals some of the potential to be developed more systematically in this field.
“Each one teach one” is a phrase often heard in reggae sound system sessions, spoken by the MC or even the selector, who is putting the needle on the records so that everyone can move and dance. It is also the first part of the title of an article by sociologist Lisa Amanda Palmer (2020), discussed further below, from which this article draws inspiration. The phrase explicitly calls attention to everyday learning, emphasizing the importance of pedagogy for the people who are referred to in this culture as the “soundmen and soundwomen” or the “soundcrew,” and it emphasizes what in education scholarship would be referred to as “nonformal and informal” modes of pedagogy. Here, “formal learning” is typically characterized by the existence of an explicit curriculum, performance indicators, and forms of official certification, while nonformal and informal learning emphasizes the process of exchanging ideas and information with others as well as personal growth. Discussing the work of education scholars Phillip Coombs and Manzoor Ahmed, Malcolm Tight explains that nonformal education occurs through activities that most of the time are conceived of as learning but are “carried on outside the framework of the formal system,” like “occupational skill training,” which is delivered independently from universities and other formal schools (Coombs and Ahmed 1974, 8, quoted in Tight 2002, 70). Like the formal variety, nonformal education has clear objectives, occurs at a specific place and time, and involves a person who leads the process, but even if any of these conditions are not present, what is often important here is the learner’s intention to be taught. Informal learning happens in everyday situations and is “[t]he life-long process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment.” It is “unorganised, unsystematic and even unintentional at times” (Coombs and Ahmed 1974, 8, quoted in Tight 2002, 71). Informal learning is heavily based on people’s high potential for learning and self-criticism, what Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire calls “epistemological curiosity” (1998, 32), even if the person is not aware of this process at first. For Freire, even before the moment when people recognize themselves as being learners, learning takes place.6
We can further understand the pedagogical dimensions of this culture by treating sound system sessions as what Palmer calls “self-generated sites of learning” (2020, 101). Below, I will treat soundmen and soundwomen as nonformal and informal educators, and the audience immersed in this culture as participants in, as well as disseminators of, music and culture. First, though, it is necessary to emphasize the importance of the spaces and affects generated by sound systems for sharing the knowledge of this music, a phenomenon that was especially true of the period before the Internet, with its proliferation of information sources through digital networks and the cultural manifestations that accompany it. With this in mind, we can identify four main ways that the pedagogical dimension of sound system culture is materialized: (1) systems of apprenticeship among sound system practitioners, (2) pedagogical initiatives developed by sound systems in relation to their audiences, (3) initiatives to bring sound system performers into contact with academics, and (4) initiatives at music festivals dedicated to the discussion and dissemination of ideas about sound system culture and other events where the culture of the sound system diaspora is debated.
In the moments when these four forms of sound system pedagogy take place, one can learn a diversity of topics. Sometimes, the learning focuses on technical matters, like the use of cables to link the many components in the system or how to power up the equipment and operate the turntables, the mixer, and the handmade pre-amplifier that feeds four or five amplifiers, each of which is connected to a line of piled speakers (woofers, drivers for the lower mid-range and mid-range frequencies, and tweeters). At other times, the learning is focused on cultural knowledge, like how to select the best tunes, a complex matter that requires a deep understanding of the history of reggae music and its artists, sound engineers, producers, and others. Still other forms of learning are aimed at cultural practices. By observing and listening to experienced MCs, the aspirational MC can learn a lot about how to say the right words and at the right time to inspire or control an audience. Understanding how these differing forms of learning take place can provide powerful insights into sound system culture.
Sound System Sessions as Self-generated Sites of Learning
In “ ‘Each One Teach One’: Visualising Black Intellectual Life in Handsworth beyond the Epistemology of ‘White Sociology,’ ” Palmer describes radical bookstores in 1970s South London as “self-generated sites of learning” (2020, 101). The article analyzes how Black youth created “counterhegemonic sites of knowledge” and the roles that “circuits of a roots reggae music, sound system culture and Rastafari discourses” (98) played in their experiences. Created through the initiative and hard work of their practitioners, sound system sessions were part of the “active pursuit of knowledge” (98) by young Black intelligentsia, despite structural racism and prejudice that they faced, a process that is illustrated in Horace Ové’s 1976 film Pressure (see Smith 2018), which I discuss further below.
Sound systems were created in Jamaica because people in the ghettos had little access to the songs most popular in their neighborhoods, which were not played on the radio or in clubs (Stolzoff 2000), many of which were closed to the Black population in the colonial era (Brodber 2012, 21). Those in the community who had a bit more purchasing power than their neighbors sponsored these events, often in partnership with local liquor stores, teaching listeners that access to music and cultural inclusion was within their reach. The coming of Jamaican independence in 1962 accelerated the process of musical innovation that led to the creation of the ska genre, which was tested and approved in sound system events. This is illustrated in the documentary Rebel Music: The Bob Marley Story (Marre 2001) by the reenactment of a session from that time by King Stitt, MC of the legendary Downbeat Sound System, which was owned by Coxson Dodd.7 As Veal explains, a key part of this process was the “dub plate,” a record composed of a “soft wax coating over a metal core,…[which was] meant to provide a limited number of performances before decaying” (2007, 51). Dub plates served “the purpose of previewing unreleased songs” (51): if they became popular, the artist or the group who recorded the track would have more records pressed to sell to audiences. Another illustration of performances from this period can be found in the second episode of the documentary series Deep Roots Music (Johnson 1983). Titled “Ranking Sounds,” it shows a performance of Sir Lord Comic and Count Machuki, considered to be two of the first sound system MCs.
At this time, sound system culture was also developing in the UK. There, the homely “blues parties” of the 1950s gave way to sound system events in the 1960s, which played an important role in the spread of this culture (Rosenior-Patten and Reid 2020). Watching the pioneering documentary Reggae (Ové 1970), we can deduce that these events were invisible to most of the British population, as the film depicts the London reggae music scene at that time without mentioning sound systems. Ras Kayleb, MC of Channel One Sound System, observed in an interview in the documentary Weapon Is My Mouth (Vidigal and Mavignier 2016) that Sir Coxsone Outernational went to Germany in 1976, which led to other sound systems from the UK touring Europe. This spread the culture across the continent, a process that accelerated during the 1990s and 2000s.
The main elements of reggae music and its message were themes from the Rastafari faith and way of life, such as the fight against the oppressors of Black and other excluded populations, criticisms of poor living conditions and local politics, adoration of Jah, the notion of repatriation (the return to Africa, which was first expressed in the traditional song “Ethiopia,” from Lord Lebby, in 1955), and the construction of a fairer society in Jamaica (Murrell, Spencer, and McFarlane 1998; Campbell 2016). As reggae artists and soundcrews taught these values to the general public, people outside Jamaica began to associate them with the reggae counterculture, and the values were adopted by Indigenous people in the US, Aotearoa / New Zealand, and Australia (see Steffens 1998; Panday 2010; Douglas and Boxill 2012; Tennant 2013; Aboagye 2018; Grieves 2018) as well as cultural resistance movements from developing countries (Nasser 2018).8 The unique intertwining of religious, spiritual, philosophical, sentimental, and political themes in reggae and Rastafari—as well as its articulation of music, message, iconography, and other cultural practices like design, contemporary art (Møstad 2018), clothing, and painting—has given reggae a positive reputation among people from all over the world. Slowly but surely gathering an increasing number of admirers, reggae music has become what we might call a “spokesgenre” for millions of people.
Of course, we cannot ignore the impact of record companies, which were responsible for much of the spread of reggae in Brazil and other countries until the mid-1990s (see, for example, Paulraj 2013). But when these companies stopped investing massively in reggae, sound systems continued to disseminate the music, intensifying its impact and making it a self-produced phenomenon. In many places outside the island, reggae’s messages were poorly understood because the lyrics were sung in what reggae studies scholar Carolyn Cooper calls the “Jamaican language” (2004, 282). Nevertheless, MCs and DJs often translated at least some of the lyrics for their audiences, which was common practice on radio shows in places like the state of Maranhão, Brazil, where since the 1970s radiolas (local versions of the Jamaican sound system) have played reggae at high volume and used the music as their main repertoire (Rodrigues 1995; Vidigal 2008; Katz 2012b; Czermak and Brandão 2018).9
The ways of organizing a sound system session are diverse, but they always involve nonformal or informal learning. For example, one can often find people selling records, CDs, or DVDs of clashes as well as books, magazines, and fanzines managed by the soundcrew. In these ways, sound system sessions operate like libraries, bookstores, or record shops. The presence of such vectors of cultural distribution makes clear the pedagogical character of the experience of attending a session, but even in their absence, learning is a key part of these events.
A crucial factor here is the dominance that the sound equipment exerts over the performance space, and especially important is the emphasis placed on bass frequencies. A single stack of loudspeakers is often enough to overwhelm all the other sounds in an event, whether it is held in a closed or open space, and sometimes two or three stacks are arranged in a circular shape or in a continuous wall, thus creating an immersive sonic experience. This “sonic dominance” (Henriques 2003) has the effect of making the sound system session into a learning environment, even though it is usually seen as a form of leisure, because whoever attends a sound system session rarely leaves the event feeling indifferent. This is not to say that there is something inherently pedagogical in music that favors bass frequencies and exerts a temporary dominion over the soundscape of a place. However, those who are exposed to amplified sound in this way are often profoundly affected, which can generate within them the desire to learn more about the music and its culture. As Ras Kayleb observed in Weapon Is My Mouth (Vidigal and Mavignier 2016), “Reggae music don’t go there first [points to his head], [rather, it] goes there [hits his hand on his chest]. It’s the body that speaks to your mind. You know, it’s like when you hear that bass, the name ‘bass’ means ‘down there,’ it doesn’t mean ‘up there.’ So it first comes along and [hits his hand on his chest], it comes first to your heart.” These remarks resonate with Henriques’s idea that sound system culture produces “sonic bodies,” alternative “ways of knowing,” and a process he calls “thinking through sound” (2011, xvii).10 They also resonate with the ideas of media theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, who argues that “the qualities of an experience of learning are crucial to what is learned” (2005, 18, emphasis in the original). Such qualities shape the “movements and sensations” of the participants and their “learning selves” (18), which are conditioned by the physical disposition of each element in a site of learning.
Finally, sound system sessions often occur in places regularly used for other kinds of nonformal teaching. In Belo Horizonte, for example, sound system sessions are often presented at NECUP (Núcleo de Estudos de Cultura Popular; the Center for Popular Culture Studies), a cultural organization that regularly offers classes in percussion, dance, capoeira, and other practices.11 Although much of the pedagogy found in sound system culture does not occur in classes like these, the practices of teaching and learning are no less important. For each role in a soundcrew (e.g., the operator, selector, MC, engineer, or producer), precise knowledge and exacting procedures must be learned. Soundcrews often work with equipment that has been highly customized, requiring the engineer and operator to have knowledge and skills specific to the particular apparatus at hand—knowledge that must be transmitted by the soundcrew themselves or by people closely associated with them, a form of pedagogy that is crucial to sound system culture. But before addressing these processes, it is first necessary to understand soundmen and soundwomen as educators.
Soundmen and Soundwomen as Educators
For many soundmen and soundwomen, working on a soundcrew is a way to make a living, and many do not think of themselves as educators or talk about sound system sessions as sites of learning. But to operate such complex and powerful equipment, with amps that are often rated at more than 10,000 watts (Henriques 2011, 85), as most sound systems are today, it is crucial to learn a variety of technical procedures. Indeed, Henriques devotes chapter 4 of Sonic Bodies (2011) to the deep listening skills that soundcrews must acquire to get the best result from their equipment—skills that are only acquired by supervised learning from an experienced soundcrew member (91). And when we place this technical knowledge in the context of the wider epistemological curiosity involved in transmitting the Rastafari messages of reggae music, it is not difficult to think of them as educators, since sound systems are precisely the cultural institutions that select and disseminate these messages. The formative role that the culture plays in the lives of its practitioners was highlighted by Lynda Rosenior-Patten and June Reid of Nzinga Soundz, who state in their chapter in Narratives from Beyond the UK Reggae Bassline, “In many ways, it was sound system culture that pursued and shaped us” (2020, 130). To participate in this culture is to dialogue with its tradition and its educators, recognizing what Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo call “the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing” (1995, 379).
Another way to understand the pedagogical dimensions of sound system culture is to examine them in terms of what sociologist of education Basil Bernstein (1990) calls the three kinds of pedagogical rules present in any learning situation—hierarchical rules, sequencing rules, and criterial rules. For Bernstein, hierarchical rules depend on the fact that “in any pedagogic relationship the transmitter has to learn to be a transmitter and the acquirer has to learn to be an acquirer.” As a result, “[t]he process of learning how to be a transmitter entails the acquisition of rules of social order, character, and manner which became the appropriate conduct in the pedagogic relation” (63). In sound system culture, an experienced operator or engineer with the technical knowledge required to operate a customized sound system may take on the temporary role of the transmitter and present the information to someone who wants to learn to work on a soundcrew. This can occur in a mentor-apprentice relationship, as discussed below, but it can also take place in nonformal educational situations, such as debates or film screenings, where an experienced practitioner or scholar presents a film to an audience. Such relationships do not imply the kind of hierarchy or forms of power found in a formal educational system. Their connection is more horizontal, with an apprentice showing respect for someone who is sharing knowledge with them, often without remuneration.
Bernstein’s sequencing rules stem from the fact that to make a learning situation effective, an individual skill or piece of knowledge has to be taught before another skill or piece of knowledge is presented, and must be delivered at a given pace. This leads us to the criterial rules, which “enable the acquirer to understand what counts as a legitimate or illegitimate communication, social relation, or position” (1990, 64). In a session, it is not uncommon to witness moments of teaching and learning, even if there is no long-term mentor-apprentice relationship at play. For example, an equipment owner or an older member of a soundcrew who employs a lesser known or customized mixer or pre-amplifier may teach a guest operator or selector how to activate its most commonly used functions. Here, the procedures will be shown in the correct order, the most relevant information will be shared, and only a minimal hierarchy will be established. In even more informal occasions, one can see how the selector’s set might motivate the soundcrew to converse with the audience about the many versions of a tune or about less well known artists—information that can be useful for the participants at some point in the future. Understood in this way, sound system events involve a wide range of practices that Bernstein would refer to as “invisible pedagogies” (80–81) and that are a critical part of the culture’s informal learning.
The sound system owner is the soundman or soundwoman who is the proprietor of the equipment, and some soundcrews have two or more business associates as owners. The owner performs some of the functions listed above and is the guardian of the sound system’s memory and tradition (Henriques 2011, 42). Indeed, the tradition flows from the owner to the people who work with them. The selector, for example, has their repertoire of songs and knowledge but is also aware of the sound system’s memory; “performing the archive” (Henriques 2011, 135) and “conceiving linkages” with sound system culture (Bourriaud 2002, 34), their knowledge keeps the atmosphere of the event lively. The MC transmits their knowledge verbally through the words that they perform while the riddims are being played or through speeches between tunes, thus fulfilling one of the main objectives of the educational process, which is to give back to society what one has learned (Jorgensen 1995; Regelski 2006). Despite the fact that there is some separation between the roles of the soundcrew and the audience, in most cases, the sound system equipment is placed at ground level. This is especially important for the MC, who has the power of the voice. Unlike a singer on a stage, the MC is not physically raised above the audience, minimizing the hierarchy between the transmitter and the acquirer, and making the sound system sessions very different from formal learning spaces (Henriques 2011).
Despite the ways that sessions diminish hierarchy, they are often understood as pedagogical. Practitioners give their events names like “University of Dub,” a traditional session in North London, where two sound systems take turns using the same pre-amps and turntables.12 On special occasions, the pedagogical dimension becomes even more explicit. For example, on Ethiopian New Year in 2016, when most Rastafarians in a London neighborhood gathered at a community center, elders played nyabinghi music (which explicitly imparts religious ideas) and Jah Shaka Sound System, which was in charge of this session that year, performed. Selectors and MCs themselves can provide information about the tune spinning on the turntable, and one way to do this is by showing the album cover to the audience, as is customary for the Brazilian selector Dubstrong. Sometimes the selection of tunes is deliberately educational. For example, at the São Paulo headquarters of Fórum do Reggae (Reggae Forum), I saw the selector Stranjah play a set of Jamaican singles in chronological order, from old mento recordings to recent tunes.13 The inclusion of instrumental tracks in the set allowed Stranjah and me to talk a little to the attentive audience about each subgenre of reggae, the riddims on which some tracks were based, the artists that were singing or MCing, and other topics. Discussing this kind of situation, Paul Gilroy has observed that reggae “records become raw material for spontaneous performances of cultural creation in which the DJ, the MC or toasterwho introduces each disc or sequence of discs, emerge as the principal agents in dialogic rituals of active and celebratory consumption” (1987, 164). We can add that these performances foster sound system pedagogy by promoting a deeper knowledge of the historical and cultural value of these records among their audience.
MCs like Ras Kayleb often deliver speeches about events happening locally or globally. As he explained in the film Weapon Is My Mouth (Vidigal and Mavignier 2016), “We are trying to put poetry into music, in a way to make people think. When you are dancing, and your mind is on a certain level…you think.” A phrase from Gregory Fabulous (MC from Jah Tubby’s Sound System) expresses a similar idea and gave this film its name: “Weapon is my mouth, with word, sound, and power.” Jah Shaka Sound System and Channel One Sound System are two of the oldest soundcrews in London, which is why they are located at the top of the sound system hierarchy and are among the most well-known and popular sound systems worldwide. While the MCs exert a great influence on the repertoire, actions, and speeches of other soundcrews, they are aware of their responsibility as educators and strive to impart messages that are true and that support sound system culture.
Four Materializations of Sound System Pedagogy
THE APPRENTICESHIP FOR PRACTITIONERS
In his seminal book Sonic Bodies,Henriques (2011) provides a detailed description of the traditional system of tutoring and apprenticeship in Jamaican sound systems. The discussion begins with the origins of the system in the skillfulness and generosity of Jamaican audio engineer Hedley Jones and goes on to explore the pedagogical practices of speaker cabinets manufacturers, sound engineers, and the soundcrew members who work hard to produce each session. In this system, a small number of apprentices live and work with veteran practitioners for several years, observing what their mentors do, reading the books they recommend to acquire basic technical knowledge, and performing other activities. At the end of the process, the apprentices inherit the roles of their mentors when they either retire or leave their original crew to form their own sound systems (88–99). Henriques examines these process in depth, discussing how becoming a sound engineer means learning to listen, rather than merely mastering technical information—“monitoring ‘by ear’ ” the pieces of sound equipment and “manipulating them ‘by hand’ ” (73).
This system of pedagogy has also developed in England. For example, the soundman Aba Shanti-I began his apprenticeship by helping his father, Count Alan, assemble his sound system. At first, Count Alan would not let his son stay for the sound system session after the equipment was set up, because he his son was too young. Eventually, he was allowed to stay, and Shanti-I came to perfect his craft with Jah Tubby’s sound system (Shanti-I 2013). After that, he set up his own crew, which for the past twenty years has been celebrated as one of the best in its metier. Another experience, with a different sound system, was lived by William “Lez” Henry, a former member of Saxon Sound System in London. He relates how he was an apprentice in Jah Shaka’s sound system in the early 1970s as a box bwoy (sound system crew member), whose role “was to travel to the venue in ‘di van back’ with the equipment and then help unload the equipment from the ‘Sound Van’ and help set out the speaker boxes” (Henry quoted in Henry and Back 2021, 42). Other contemporary sound systems, such as Channel One Sound System from the UK and Stone Love from Jamaica, have apprenticeship systems of their own.
The short documentary House Sounds (Ramos 2018) illustrates the workings of what we might call the “apprenticeship chain” in Brazilian sound systems. In the past fifteen years, sound system culture in Brazil has grown at a dizzying rate, mainly in the diverse communities of Greater São Paulo.14 Supporting this growth are practitioners such as Fábio Murakami, better known as Yellow P, who is the founder of Dubversão (Takano 2021), the first sound system to play regularly in São Paulo.15 In House Sounds, Daniel “Pulga” Andrade, who is the owner of the sound system from which the film draws its name and a veteran skateboarder, describes how in the early 2000s he attended Dubversão events and listened to skate videos in which vibrant reggae soundtracks accompanied images of famous skateboarders performing their sport. Initially, Andrade felt shy at the sessions and did not want to disturb Yellow P while he was deejaying, but they soon became friends. When Andrade received funding from the city of São Paulo to buy a modest set of equipment, Yellow P offered to teach him and his crew how to install and operate the new sound system. The film shows Yellow P talking with the crew at their base of operations in the community of Vila das Belezas, which is located in the disenfranchised south side of São Paulo, and playing records during a local session. The end of the documentary presents testimony from a new member of House Sounds that recognizes the importance of Andrade’s teachings and illustrates the continuation of the apprenticeship chain that began fifteen years earlier.
Although the apprenticeship system is essential for maintaining the technical, cultural, and artistic traditions involved in sound system culture, it has its restrictions, as the long period of time required for an apprentice to complete their training limits the number of people who can learn to be soundcrew members. Nevertheless, it is an essential foundation for all of the other pedagogical initiatives in this field, as it creates the conditions for dialogues among people who deeply understand their metier and allows for the wider dissemination of knowledge in the culture. Indeed, the organization of learning in workshop settings derives from the apprenticeship system that is at the heart of the culture’s nonformal means of education.
PEDAGOGICAL INITIATIVES IN RELATION TO THE AUDIENCE
It is easy to think of sound system audiences as people who see the culture as nothing but a form of leisure and sessions as places to dance, unwind, and amuse themselves, rather than as sites of active learning. But when we regard the forms of interaction and other practices that take place in reggae sound system sessions around the world, the importance of nonformal and informal education becomes clear. This is most apparent when we consider the typical crowd reactions that take place in sound system culture. One of them is the “rewind” shout that audiences use to indicate their deep appreciation of a song. It is accompanied by the “pull-up” gesture (meant to signal to the selector that they should pull up the needle from the record and repeat the song) and applause from all involved. Henriques (2011) highlighted the performative aspect that all of this entails: stopping the song produces the effect of “intensifying” the “vibes” or “mood” of a session, because the rewind induces a suspension of the music and dance but creates an expectation for the return of the song “from top.” This can happen repeatedly in a session, producing a “cyclical alternating frequency of presence and absence” (137). In the Brazilian documentary Sound System, the Voice of the Ghetto (Augusto 2019), collector and DJ Stranjah observes that in the past ten years, he felt that audiences in São Paulo interact more frequently with soundcrews, requesting rewinds and making other approval shouts, like the popular “guntalk” cry, “Pow! Pow! Pow!”
All these reactions bring what is often referred to as a “Jamaican vibe” to a session, because they were created and developed by audiences in Jamaica. Comparing the interactional codes of audiences in two different cities can highlight the ways in which audience participation involves a kind of nonformal learning. Having observed audiences in both São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, for example, I have found that those in Belo Horizonte are less familiar with the culture’s interactional codes, even though I sometimes see them performed there as well. These reactions, which I have also witnessed in places like Kingston and London, are built up over years, as the audiences learn more songs and develop a repertoire of favorite tunes that can be requested for rewind. Some of these tracks are common to the global reggae music canon, but others are unique to a local scene and can involve surprising choices. Audiences can also call for a rewind of a local artist’s song, such as “Fortalecendo a Cultura” by the singjay Monkey Jhayam, which is a popular tune in São Paulo.
As Gilroy has noted, the development of these interactional codes has been “built around the pleasures of using exclusive or specialized language in cryptic coded ways which amused and entertained as well as informed the dancing audience” (Gilroy 1987, 194, quoted in Henriques 2011, 32). People who participate in sound system sessions learn these codes through audience-performer interaction. The process begins when someone who has attended other sound system sessions (often ones from other countries) uses a new code. This action provokes a reaction from the selector, who is often aware of the code and encourages its adoption by other audience members, who eventually learn to use it as well. In this way, the culture’s informal pedagogy acts to shape the audience’s conduct, a pleasurable process that encourages them to learn more songs, which itself is pleasurable and promotes the desire to continue the tradition.
A practice that has been spreading in recent years is the screening of films on sound system culture at the beginning of an event, and these films are often followed by a brief Q&A session.16 The screening may happen in a space adjacent to the sound session and using other sound equipment; more often, though, the screening occurs on the dance floor of the session itself, with temporary seating provided for viewers and the sound system’s apparatus amplifying the audio. This is possible due to the recent growth of both shorts and feature films that focus on reggae music, mention soundcrews, or have sound system culture as their subject (Vidigal 2016). These films can teach us a lot.
One example of this kind of event occurred before a 2017 performance by Deskareggae Sound in the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Arriving early, audience members packed the house to see a screening of the film Babylon (Rosso 1998) and ask questions about racism in British society. In the film, the character of Blue (played by Brindsley Forge) is pursued by racist policemen in London, and the audience compared this scene with the situation of Black people in Brazil, who frequently face serious abuses of police power, ones that are often fatal. Responding to other scenes, the audience asked questions about how clashes work in British sound system culture, the way British soundcrews produce their tunes, and Rastafarianism.
One attendee who was familiar with the Rastafari movement drew attention to a scene at a Rastafari gathering in which Blue listens carefully to a speech by a character named Rastaman (played by Cosmo Laidlaw). Here, Rastaman describes Jamaica as the first Babylon and England as the second Babylon, and he advocates for a return to Africa, the original vertex, as an escape from this “Babylonian triangle of captivity.” In the scene, Rastaman turns his back on Blue, just when Blue made a sign to speak. In the film’s last scene, Blue, as the MC of the Ital Lion Sound System, engages in a soundclash with Jah Shaka Sound System, singing that Haile Selassie taught him to fight for his rights. Shortly thereafter, the police come to shut down the dance. Discussing the scene, the attendee concluded that Blue’s chanting shows that he learned what Rastaman had taught him. In his opinion, the film argues that because he was serving as an MC in a sound system session, Blue was able to more effectively pass on Rastafari teachings and encourage Blacks to fight for a better future where they live in England, rather than in Africa. The attendee made it clear that in a real Rastafari gathering (in opposition to the fictitious one in Babylon), Blue would have room to express himself by talking or singing, but in a sound system session his message could also reach those who do not attend a “holy meeting” regularly. These ideas echo the sentiments of Ras Kayleb and Gregory Fabulous in Weapon Is My Mouth (Vidigal and Mavignier 2016), which was screened the month before, about the enormous strength that the union of words and music has in a sound system session. Arising from the horizontal, rather than hierarchical, relationships among the film’s presenter, the soundcrew, and the audience, and depending on the audience’s desire to learn about sound system culture, discussions like this constitute a kind of nonformal learning. They share much in common with what Freire calls the “pedagogy of the oppressed” (2005, 124) or the “pedagogy of autonomy” (1998, 98) and bell hooks refers to as “engaged pedagogy” (1994, 15).
It is not only films by professional directors that are shown at sound system sessions; sound systems also screen videos produced by the practitioners themselves. These shed precious light on the history of sound system culture or events in other parts of the world, from old VHS recordings of Jamaican rallies to recent documentaries such as Dubapest Hi Fi (Istvandi 2020), which examines the first sound system in Hungary, or Ina Vanguard Style (Manozzi 2022), which discusses the Iration Steppas Sound System.17 Another fresh documentary, which took several years to be released, is Bass Culture (Nygh 2020). The film illustrates mechanisms of musical pedagogy that arise among members of a family and between soundcrews, transferring knowledge such as the music production secrets, approaches to vocal training, and the practice of soundclashes that have made sound system culture a model for the creation of new musical genres, such as dubstep and grime. Commissioned by professor Mykaell Riley, a former member of the band Steel Pulse and director of the Bass Culture Research Project at the University of Westminster, London, this film is an example of the close relationships that exist between academics and sound system culture, which is the subject of the next section.
BRINGING THE ACADEMY AND SOUND SYSTEM CULTURE CLOSER TOGETHER: SOUND SYSTEM OUTERNATIONAL
Sound System Outernational (SSO) is an academic event produced in association with Goldsmiths, University of London, and the Sonic Street Technologies Project, where the pedagogical dimensions of the sound system culture are actively at play, even if they are not addressed explicitly. The event’s objective is to productively and respectfully bring together practitioners and academics, creating opportunities for dialogue between them. The organizers invite practitioners such as sound system owners, DJs, selectors, MCs, and sound engineers to participate in panels and offer workshops to the general public. A comprehensive synthesis of Sound System Outernational’s principles can be found in the article “A Popular Culture Research Methodology” (D’Aquino, Henriques, and Vidigal 2017). The article starts from the premise that sound systems are “a collective rather than individual creative practice…as part of a popular rather than high art or avant-garde cultural tradition” (2, authors’ emphasis), and it recognizes that the practitioners’ wisdom and “sonic intelligence” is a “collective, transnational, multi-layered body of knowledge” (4). The event focuses deeply on audio technology, examining the sonic apparatus used in sound system culture, the creative means that soundmen and soundwomen use to customize loudspeakers and pre-amplifiers, and the way that this technology shapes dancefloor vibes.
The desire by both academics and practitioners to develop this kind of dialogue has grown across the seven SSO conferences that have been organized since 2016, which have provided a safe and productive space for people “to meet each other, building networks and exchanging ideas” (D’Aquino, Henriques, and Vidigal 2017, 6). The first conference featured “presentations from Dr. Sonjah Stanley Niaah (Jamaica, researcher via Skype), Taru Dalmia (India, Delhi Sultanate sound system via Skype), and practitioners such as Pax Nindi from Zimbabwe” (6). Four other SSO conferences have been held in person. They examined issues like the work of female soundcrews (SSO 2 and SSO 4), the recent rise of vinyl discs (SSO 4), the direct influence of sound system culture on the global cultural market (SSO 4), sound systems in Brazil, Australia, and the Global South (SSO 6), and the challenges of the pandemic times (SSO 7).
Highlights of the fifth SSO, held in Naples, Italy, were two events that took place near the end of the conference—a presentation by journalist and author David Katz titled “Version to Version: King Tubby and the Evolution of Dub” and the “Dub Electronics Workshop,” presented by sound engineer and music producer Anti-Bypass from the French collective Dub Addict. These events stood out for their quality and also because they occurred immediately before the conference’s final sound system session and took place in the same venue as that session, Officina 99. An abandoned warehouse that has been occupied by art collectives since 1991, Officina 99 is an alternative cultural center that is also the base of operations for the Bababoom Hi Fi Sound System. The venue has impressive graffiti and many provocative posters on its walls, representing thirty years of activist resistance. Many attendees felt that they could feel the vibes of the hundreds of events that had taken place there, which seemed to permeate the whole building. In these presentations, it was possible to learn a lot about King Tubby, who remixed instrumental versions of reggae songs and is considered the first sound engineer to produce dub music, a genre that was crucial for bringing remix culture to popular music. Immediately after Katz’s talk, attendees could watch and listen to Anti-Bypass demonstrate these techniques live on analog equipment similar to that used by King Tubby. Describing the informal means by which people in this culture acquire knowledge about electronics, the abstract for Anti-Bypass’s workshop states that soundcrews have “an alternative way to learn. Funny, experimental, cheap, safe and Earth-friendly,” and the workshop illustrated “what any dub electronician can do to enhance and modify his machines for a dub-purpose” (Sound System Outernational 2019, 28). Anti-Bypass’s presentation was followed by a sound system session with music produced using those techniques. Drawing on Elizabeth Ellsworth’s (2005) ideas, I would argue that, inspired by the environment of Officina 99 and the content of the presentations, “the sensation of past interfusing with present” was a key part of the learning that took place in this event, and that sensation must be accounted for if we are “to understand the relevance” (19) of these learning experiences for the participants, which involved a strong feeling of mind-body connection. The conference design intensified these experiences by programming two richly complementary presentations with a reggae music and dance event, mixing historical and cultural knowledge with soundcrew practice and audience performance. In so doing, the closing events of the fifth SSO reinforced the idea that learning must occur in both cognitive and bodily ways.
The sixth and seventh SSO conferences were held online, providing attendees with the opportunity to interact virtually with practitioners and researchers from around the world, including those from Australia, France, Aotearoa / New Zealand, Brazil, the UK, Italy, South Africa, and the US. The learning that occurred in these events generated a range of experiences and sensations. While they may not have been as intense as the ones that occurred in the live Officina 99 event, the presence of participants from so many countries and the online format enhanced the “outernational” nature of the event.
A truly transdisciplinary conference, SSO has involved researchers from many fields, including musicology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, popular music studies, and film studies. A vital part of these conferences is the dialogues between researchers and practitioners that happen in the Q&A sessions after each panel, during the coffee breaks, and at lunchtime. During these sociable interactions, new opportunities for research and other kinds of work emerge and invitations for interviews or other sound system sessions are made possible, opening the door for informal learning on lesser known aspects of sound system culture. The feedback from participants has been very positive, because soundmen and soundwomen feel valued and respected by academics, and researchers get closer to people they want to understand and learn from. In the way the event is structured, the learning process involves a kind of “role-reversal,” “with the supposed ‘researched’ taking center stage in lectures and workshops, and the ‘researchers’ forced to re-craft their presentations in order to be attractive to a non-academic crowd” (D’Aquino, Henriques, and Vidigal 2017, 11).
EVENTS CARRIED OUT BY FESTIVALS AND OFFICIAL VENUES
Reggae music festivals dedicated entirely to sound systems, such as Dub Gathering or the United Nations of Dub, make their pedagogical aspects explicit by opening space for booksellers, workshops, and debates. Within the Rototom Sunsplash megafestival, an area called Reggae University has also helped the pedagogical dimension of sound system culture to gain prominence.18 Organized by David Katz, Ellen Koelings, and Pete Lilly from Riddim magazine and the journalist Pier Tosi, Reggae University is a huge tent where artists, journalists, soundmen and soundwomen, and specialists participate in “book launches and readings, lectures and workshops, [and] exhibitions and seminars about Rastafari livity” (Rototom Sunsplash 2019).19
In the tent, attendees can meet researchers, academics, producers, artists, soundmen and soundwomen, and others interested in a deeper study of this music and its cultures. Panels with soundcrew participants have been held since the first Reggae University took place in 2007, including presentations like “Dubmasters & Sound System—Past, Present and Future of Reggae Music,” with producer and selector Neil Perch from Zion Train.20 The “Global Reggae” panel in 2013 featured Carolyn Cooper and Sonjah Stanley Niaah from University of the West Indies, in Kingston, Jamaica; Mark Iration and MC DanMan from the Iration Steppas Sound System in the UK; singer ChaCha from Shanghai; and Jubba White, drummer for the Jamaican band Dubtonic Kru. With so many members of the culture debating, teaching, and engaging nonformal education, a place like Reggae University can evoke feelings that are similar to those experienced at Officina 99. Rototom Sunsplash also has a “Dub Academy Area,” a name that also highlights the pedagogical dimension of sound system culture. Here, soundcrews present their music to audiences who know their sets well from past sessions all over the world.
Beyond music festivals, other kinds of events can involve historical reflection and enhance the experience of sound system learning. Activists in the US created Black History Month (BHM) as a way to remember and celebrate the history of the African diaspora, and BHM has since spread to countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, where it is supported by the City of London. In 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a BHM debate at Dulwich Library called “Sound System’s Early Days in London.” The event covered the sound system scene in the London of the 1960s, mainly in Southwark and other South London areas. The presentation was led by Aubyn Graham, a veteran soundman who later became a Southwark councilor and mayor, and Philip Dixon, a sound system pioneer. Dixon gave an emotional testimony about how he and Graham, driven by a love of reggae, got involved with sound systems as a way to entertain audiences, “uplift the community,” and encourage self-esteem among the Black population. According to Dixon, sound systems at that time had only two “houses of joy” (i.e., a record player and a small amplifier), with a power output of only 300 to 500 watts.21 Dixon cited the names of important 1960s sound systems (e.g., Superino B, Lord Aubyn, Rootsman, Viking Sound, and Shaka Downbeat, which was the original name of Jah Shaka’s sound system) and talked about the venues where the first UK sound systems played regularly (e.g., Marquis de Granby, Moonshot, Bouncing Room, and The Crypt). In the Q&A session, the audience discussed the role of women in the early days of sound systems, and testimony was given by Dubplate Pearl, one of the few, pioneering female selectors who continues to work with sound systems to this today. Events such as these are instrumental in the spread of sound system culture and empower the practitioners of an activity that has been invisible for a long time, especially in Europe. In so doing, they help to make sound system culture increasingly recognized, respected, and studied as a source and expression of reggae music worldwide.
This article understands soundmen and soundwomen as cultural catalysts and people who produce music, not just technicians who spin records. Even at a time when reggae music admirers have access to a huge range of both old and new tunes via audio streaming services and Internet sites, sound systems remain alive as counterhegemonic man-machine composites that inform, awaken, impact, and shake those who experience them in loco, affecting their audiences in different ways and often making them enthusiastic about the culture and its messages. In sound sessions, the listener is affected by sound amplification that favors the low frequencies, and their enthusiastic reception of the music can catalyze the will of other individuals to become practitioners of the culture. The possibility of “converting” people and bringing them into the culture is referenced explicitly in films and television programs that focus on reggae audiences, in which the subjects do not only see music as a vehicle for messages but allow themselves to be carried away by the feelings provoked by its melodic and rhythmic combinations. Understood in this way, the reggae music admirers and radiola owners from the Brazilian state of Maranhão (known as the “Brazilian Jamaica”) who appeared in the TV show Documento Especial, for example, are not merely imitating Jamaicans when they listen to music from that country. Rather, they are actively choosing to let themselves be affected (Favret-Saada 2012) by the same music that affected Jamaicans in the 1960s and 1970s, as shown in films like This Is Ska (Jamaica Film Unit 1964) or television documentaries like Deep Roots Music (see Vidigal 2008, 196). This form of emotional involvement is essential to sound system culture and the processes that take place there.
In this article, I have dealt with the pedagogical dimensions of sound systems, analyzing the space of their sessions as self-generated sites of learning and the practitioners who produce the sessions as educators. Soundmen and soundwomen build the pedagogical dimension of their culture through what Jean-Luc Nancy would call a “resonant meaning” (2007, 7) or what Henriques would call “thinking through sound” (2011, 115), but they may also do so by teaching practical skills or by the traditional forms of teaching found in formal pedagogy. In this context, both practitioners and academics can pass on the tradition to others. At a performance, the techniques of the selector, the operator, and the MC create a kind of sonic dominance that amplifies the pleasures of sound (Henriques 2003), opening a space for the construction of a sonic pedagogy, an enjoyable form of learning like the one defended by Anti-Bypass.
The pedagogical dimension of sound system practice is central in forming subject positions of people who identify with this culture, and it is also key to constituting them as a collectivity, which emerges in reggae and sound system festivals and has created an audience for this music all over the world. This sense of the collective is paving the way for reggae’s cultural politics by reaffirming its autonomy from big media companies and other cultural intermediaries, as well as by spreading the music’s nonconformist ideas globally.
Though this article is focused on the pedagogical dimensions of reggae sound system culture, similar processes can be found in other groups that play amplified music, such as the sonideros in Mexico, who spin salsa and cumbia records. They can be found in Mexico City, as illustrated by the documentary Yo No Soy Guapo (Garcia 2018), as well as in the countryside. Their efforts have been recognized as part of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Mexico, and their sound equipment, promotional materials, and other artifacts are an integral part of the collections found in museos de barrio (neighborhood museums). These institutions are supported by local governments and, in the words of one such museum, are organized by their communities to “spread and preserve the kinds of educational experiences that take place outside of schools” (Museo de Barrio Mixcoac 2022). These soundcrews have been studied by a transdisciplinary academic research group called Proyecto Sonidero (“Sonidero Project”; see Delgado 2012, 175), which has argued that the “appropriation and transformation of spaces in the city” by sonideros “reorients and resignifies practices of coexistence” (Cornejo 2012, 111) there and opposes “racist ethics and epistemologies” (Palmer 2020, 18). Addressing issues of accessibility, social inclusion, and equality, sonideros engage concerns that are also at the heart of the reggae sound system ethos.
The pedagogical dimensions of sound system practices have been a crucial vector of transmission for this culture, helping to create a sonic network that spans the entire planet. The nonformal and informal learning that takes place there presents many opportunities for future research, with the impact of pedagogy on the sound system culture of each country, region, and city calling for greater attention. Further study of the role that formal education plays here is also warranted. For example, scholars might examine projects like Ras Mykha’s The Sonar System (2015), a picture book that seeks to make this culture accessible to children. Another avenue of inquiry is the way that contact between academics and practitioners can spread the music’s sonic network. Sound system culture has proven itself to be highly resilient in the face of adversity, with many soundcrews quickly resuming their activities when the global COVID-19 pandemic began to subside. Further research into the pedagogical dimensions of sound system culture can help to reveal the potential of this music in a world that increasingly needs positive and constructive vibrations.
1 My work on this topic began in 2015 and 2016 when I developed a proposal for postdoctoral research at Goldsmiths, University of London, under the supervision of Julian Henriques.
2 A singjay is an artist that performs in a “hybrid style that blends singing and DJing techniques” (Stolzoff 2000, 172).
3 Michael Veal refers to the riddims as the “generic patterns” of “chord progressions and/or bass lines that have formed the basis for subsequent songs” (2007, 48).
4 The role of sound engineers in Jamaican sound systems is much more complex, as these engineers sometimes design and build their speakers and pre-amplifiers, which are the core of the sound system apparatus. Julian Henriques dedicates a whole chapter of his book Sonic Bodies (2011) to sound engineers.
5 As Ray Hitchins (2016, 37) has observed, the role of a music producer in the Jamaica of the 1970s was to find funding for a recording project; choose the songs to be recorded; hire arrangers, musicians, and engineers and manage their work; and sign off on the final release. However, creative producers such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry often did far more than this and should be seen as composers in their own right.
6 “Epistemological curiosity” emerges out of the relationship between the teacher and apprentice and depends on critical and creative thinking about the world and the object of learning. This is opposed to what Freire calls “ingenious curiosity” (1998, 32) and does not depend on the transfer of information from the teacher to the apprentice or rely on the training itself to link the knowledge that is acquired with the rest of reality.
7 Note that this spelling of “Coxson” was established by Dodd himself, who is quoted in a 2017 book by Roger Steffens as saying, “[w]ell, when it’s me, it’s [spelled] Coxson. When it’s the label or the sound system, it’s Coxsone” (22).
8 Among the world’s Indigenous peoples, the Māori are, perhaps, the most involved in sound system culture, and there are many sound systems owned by them in Aotearoa, such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel Sound System NZ and Roots Foundation Sound (Tennant 2013).
9 David Katz writes that the radiola “is what the locals [in Brazil] call the huge sound systems that blast reggae in every corner of the city” (2012b). Drawing on his personal experience with radiola culture and also the writings of Carlos Benedito da Silva Rodrigues (1995), Sean T. Mitchell refers to them as “enormous traveling speakers” (2018, 203).
10 Henriques understands sonic bodies as “the flesh and blood of [the] sound system crew and ‘crowd,’ as the dancehall audience is known” (2011, xv)—people who are deeply affected by the sound that is amplified by the event’s enormous speakers. In the book, Henriques seeks to understand the forms of “embodied knowing” (2011, ix) that take place through cultural elements like vocabulary, clothing, behavior, dance movements, technical skills, and practices of music production, elements that favor the collective creativity and knowledge built around the particular way of life found in sound system culture.
11 Capoeira is an Afrobrazilian martial art that involves dance and other expressive forms.
12 Other examples are the “Teachings in Dub” sessions that have taken place in the UK city of Bristol since 2007 and “L’Escola del Dub” (School of Dub), which is the name of the session held by a Spanish sound system known as “Each One Teach One.” Their Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/eachoneteachonesound/.
13 “Mento is a social dance music” (Neely 2008, 6), the first musical genre recorded by Jamaicans, derived from colonial work songs. Begun in March 2016, Reggae Forum holds monthly meetings and works “from a horizontal and self-managed structure” to defend the “collective and social interests of the Reggae and Rastafari community” in São Paulo and throughout Brazil (Fórum do Reggae 2020). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from non-English languages are my own.
14 According to Mapa Sound System Brasil (Pimenta and Nascimento 2019), which is the first book to map the Brazilian scene, there are 120 active sound systems in the country, most in Greater São Paulo, but with others in Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Fortaleza, Recife, Salvador, Guarulhos, Araraquara, and elsewhere.
15 Murakami learned about sound system practices on his own and by working with Dubversão co-founder Lucas “Corpo Santo” Magalhães, who is not currently performing in the scene. For an extended period in the 1990s, Corpo Santo lived in Europe, bringing his knowledge of sound systems to Brazil when he returned at the end of that decade. Their official webpage can be found at https://www.instagram.com/dubversao_sound_system/.
16 Film has long been a part of popular music in Jamaica. The first song to be recorded on the island was not released as a record but rather appeared in the feature film The Devil’s Daughter (Leonard 1939), a sensationalistic US production about pocomania, a Jamaican religion of African origin. In the opening scene, which was filmed in Hope Gardens, Kingston, a group of people sing and dance to the mento songs “Linstead Market” and “Sweetie Charlie,” which are played by four men on acoustic guitars and burro drums (see Vidigal 2012). The first feature film produced by Jamaicans, The Harder They Come (Henzell 1972), does not deal directly with sound systems, but there is a guest appearance by Jamaican producer and soundman Prince Buster and a scene where the title song is played in a dancehall, although the soundmen do not appear in the footage.
17 This film was produced by the French soundcrew OBF, which also produced the sound system documentary United We Stand (Gaonach 2019).
18 Founded in Italy in 1994, Rototom Sunsplash is an annual music festival that since 2010 has taken place in a large area inside the city limits of Benicassim, Spain. Lasting seven days, it features performances by live bands and sound systems as well as tents for DJs, selectors, and debates, including the Reggae University tent and Foro Social (Social Forum) tent. The website for the Sonic Street Technologies Project can be found at https://sonic-street-technologies.com.
19 The word livity can be glossed as “lifeways” or “ways of life” and refers to complex social practices of Rastafari people (Taylor and Case 2013, 775).
20 For a video of this event, see Rototom Sunsplash (2021).
21 The term “houses of joy” comes from pioneering soundman and engineer Hedley Jones, who, following the usage of a Jamaican salesman he had once heard, started to use it for the sound system loudspeakers he made in his early days. See the interview with Jones in Carayol (2019). As Horace McNeal, chief engineer of the Stone Love Sound System, reported to Julian Henriques, on average Jamaican sound systems of the 1980s had 600 watts of power, while today’s sound systems often have approximately 19,000 watts (Henriques 2011, 85).
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