It’s dancing time in West London and to mark this years Carnival here’s a selection of fantastic photographs of sound systems, taken at the 2004 Carnival by Brian David Stevens. The accompanying text comes from Sounds like London, Lloyd Bradley’s just published book celebrating 100 years of black music in the capital (reviewed here on 13 August).
Victor Romero-Evans on the sound systems in the 1970s:
‘Reggae was still being treated as a novelty music by the BBC radio. There might have been one or two reggae hits a year, usually in the summer, but they were never taken as being part of anything bigger. This was before Rodigan, and there wasn’t any black pirate radio back then, So it was pure sound systems playing lovers’ rock – Sir George, Fat Man, Admiral Ken, Sufferah, Neville the Enchanter, Chicken, Sir Biggs, Lloydie Coxsone, Soferno B, Santic Romantic, how can you go wrong with a name like that?
‘That worked too. Made it seem like ours, because there wasn’t an outside influence. Kids would hear a tune at a dance and get excited by it and ask for it in the shops the next day. They might have to quote the lyric or just recognise the artist, but the guy behind the counter would know – maybe he was at the same dance! Then the producers that had sound systems could whip up the demand for a tune by keeping spinning it and having the crowd loving it, but not releasing it. Just let the demand for it in the shops build up, then they know they’ve got a hit on their hands.’
London’s first Jamaican-style sound systems were built not long after the first Jamaican sound-system operators arrived in the 1950s. At first, English equipment manufacturers didn’t take their gigantic specifications seriously, and the only person they could find in London to build big enough amplifiers was an African engineer. They played R&B and jazz imported from the US, and calypso recorded in London; then, once the Kingston recording scene got going, they switched to mento and JA boogie brought in by sailors,
These pioneering soundmen swiftly instituted an underground circuit of blues dances, house parties and shebeens that became a vital aspect of West Indian social life in London. Although Soho held a handful of Jamaican-owned nightclubs, those were out of reach for many recent arrivals, while venturing as far as the West End from, say, Stockwell brought its own set of concerns about personal safety. A few London pubs welcomed Caribbean customers, and engaged sound systems at the weekend, but with outright racial hostility never far from the surface, much of the city’s nightlife was effectively closed off to black men. For most ordinary black Londoners, routinely refused entrance to just about all the capital’s regular dancehalls, the only options were unlicensed, pay-on-the-door dances in basements, empty houses, and school halls, where West Indian caretakers would make premises available after hours.
No one was making a fortune out of these dances, but the soundmen, who often had day jobs, would play them just to keep the back-home spirit alive. As welcoming and familiar environments, full of people who looked like each other, the dances had the significant effect of bringing expatriates from different islands together. After an unforgiving week at work, a house party complete with curry goat and rice, bottled stout or rum, made it very easy for different nationalities to realise that, in London, they had much more in common than was keeping them apart.