Sound System Culture & Dubplates
Sound systems were and remain an intrinsic part of Caribbean music and culture. Giant walls of speakers, turntables and powerful generators pumped out music, from the back of trucks, to a loyal audience. Before there even were people buying headphones when on a budget as they jog, large speakers roam the streets sometimes. Accompanied by food and drink, to make money, sound systems gave the people a good time and did battle with rival sound systems. Fierce competition lead to a move away from imported American R&B hits, to the most exclusive tunes with an original local flavour. Sound system artists and producers began creating their own exclusive recordings. (Watch this Sound system culture documentary). Dubplates were the first copies of these, pressed to an acetate disc, that would be played at a sound system event to test the reaction of the dancing crowds. If the audience showed mass approval, the recordings were mastered and cut to vinyl for public commercial release. Most importantly, a dubplate was the most exclusive version of a track that a sound system had access to, so competition for the most exclusive ‘dubs’ lead to extreme secrecy over the identity of the track. Dubplate ‘specials’ featured re-recorded vocals to include the name of the sound system it was created for, pushing competition even further in notorious sound clashes. Duke Reid’s ‘Trojan Sound’ and Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s ‘Downbeat’ sound system were notorious rivals, later to be joined by a third player, Prince Buster’s ‘Voice of the People’. Sometimes the competition was too fierce and sound systems were damaged in the process, it was not uncommon for a single head replacement to be required at every show.
Caribbean Migration & Settlement to the UK
On 22nd June 1948, The Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, London, carrying 493 passengers from Jamaica. These West Indians were the first immigrants invited to Britain to help the ‘mother country’ rebuild itself after World War II. New settlers were unprepared for harsh winters and hostility from the local people. Verbal abuse, harsh stares and feeling ostracised were common-place. The infamous ‘colour bars’ meant that regardless of migrants’ ability, education or experience, they ended up in manual labour employment. Discrimination continued with terrible housing conditions, where window signs like ‘No Coloureds! No Irish! No Dogs!’ were not unusual. With accommodation in short supply following the wartime bombing, overcrowding was rife, prices were high and conditions were unsanitary in the deprived ‘ghettos’.
One passenger on the Empire Windrush was the celebrated Calypsonian Lord Kitchener. He had hits during the late 1940s and 1950s, including ‘London Is The Place for Me’ (1948) alongside Lord Beginner’s ‘Victory Test Match’ (1950) to celebrate the West Indies cricket team’s first triumph over England at Lords. Artists used their music to commentate on current affairs and often mock the politicians of the day, drawing their lyrics from folk and poetry. Meanwhile in the US, artists like Lord Invader and Harry Belafonte were also popularising Calypso abroad. Harry Belafonte’s album Calypso (1956) was the first ever album to sell one million copies on the US Billboard Charts, featuring the song ‘Day O – the Banana Boat Song’. With the introduction of a more urgent up-tempo beat, often drawing influences from East Indian rhythms, Calypso was later modernised and re-popularised as Soca.
Notting Hill Riots & Birth of the Notting Hill Carnival
In 1958, following a series of nationwide racist attacks on West Indian communities by the dominant gang culture of the time – Teddy Boys – tensions finally boiled over into a riot in Notting Hill, London, on the August bank holiday weekend. Gangs of white youths, inflamed by right-wing groups like the White Defence League, took to the streets armed with sticks, knives and bottles and attacked the houses of West Indian residents. Fuelled with the years of ritual abuse and harassment, people came from across London to help defend the Notting Hill black community [link: Notting Hill Riots http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PsNmTB4LEA&list=PL1FE860B3C43D2A7C].
St Paul’s Festival Following the riots, local community leaders decided to stage a cultural event to unite the black and white communities and share positive aspects of West Indian traditional culture. Led by Trinidadian Claudia Jones, the first Notting Hill Carnival began in 1959. It had a lasting imprint on British culture, soon spreading to other cities like Bristol, who held the first ever St Paul’s Festival in 1967, later becoming St Paul’s Carnival. Alongside the partying, costumes, Caribbean food and sound systems, the message was clear: black people were here to stay in Britain. St Paul’s Carnival still goes on today. www.stpaulscarnival.co.uk
Rebellion against Racism: The Bristol Bus Boycott
The issues of migration, discrimination and rebellion merged to trigger a British civil-right movement. In 1963, inspired by Rosa Parks’ Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955, local Bristol activists Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett and Guy Bailey led a boycott of the Bristol transport system, which operated a colour-bar, excluding black and Asian people from employment. After six months protesting, finally on 28th August, the Bristol Omnibus Company removed the colour-bar (on the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech). Soon afterwards, Prime Minister Harold Wilson introduced the Race Relations Legislation Act to combat discrimination in employment, housing and society. Paul Stephenson was later honoured with an OBE and the Freedom of the City of Bristol.
Nightlife & Community Culture in Bristol
Faced with colour-bars in all areas of their lives, the West Indian communities in Britain set up their own entertainment. A network of unregistered clubs and dances known as Blues or Shebeens sprang up to serve their needs for music, dance and to feel at ease. Some became notorious, like the Bamboo Club which was opened in 1966 in St Pauls, by Bristol businessman Tony Bullimore and his West Indian wife Lalel. The club had dominoes and card games; a Caribbean restaurant and, most importantly, DJs playing the latest Jamaican and American tunes and international live music acts, including Bob Marley. Far from just a night-club, it was home to a football team and the Bristol West Indian Cricket Club, still going today. The club sadly burnt down in 1977 but is remembered affectionately by those that frequented the place. Other shebeens or blues opened up in the neighbouring streets, including Brighton Street, Grosvenor Road and Campbell Street.
Rise of Recording Studios in Jamaica
Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, entrepreneurs were building on the success of their sound systems to set up recording studios, including Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd’s ‘Studio One’ in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica, founded in 1963. Here, artists like Lee Scratch Perry, Burning Spear and Toots and the Maytals found a spiritual and musical home, alongside one young Jamaican Ska artist – Bob Marley – who would later put Jamaica on the map. His band The Wailers (alongside Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) became Reggae’s first super-group, with the breakthrough Ska hit ‘Simmer Down’ in 1963. Other legendary (and rival) sound systems to become recording studios included Duke Reid’s ‘Trojan’ system, becoming ‘Treasure Isle Recordings’. These created big opportunities in the business of producing records, for people like Chris Blackwell of Island Records and Edward Seaga of West Indies Records Limited (who later became the fifth Prime Minister of Jamaica in 1980).
From Ska to Reggae
Another musical genre, called Rocksteady, slowed the Ska beat down. It was popularised by Alton Ellis (pictured), the ‘Godfather of Rocksteady’, who not only influenced music in Jamaica, but also spent time in Bristol [link: Alton Ellis ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’. Rocksteady classic ‘Do The Reggay’ (1968) by the Maytals – featuring the soulful lyrics of frontman Toots Hibbert – and recordings by others like Lee Scratch Perry, brought music closer to the Reggae beats we recognise today, heralding a musical revolution that would sweep the world. By the latter part of the 60s, new settlers to the UK from Jamaica and the Caribbean had fought hard for their rights, battled racism and discrimination and were transforming Britain’s cultural tastes in fashion, sport, entertainment and, of course, music. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, Reggae was becoming big business.