When the dancefloor links tribalism and utopia

Sound System Culture


Marco Cechet

Stretching the idea of sites of knowledge production, I have focussed my research on Sound System culture, where the dancefloor becomes a place characterised by a collective ritual and its symbolic value.
What interested me was the origin of this culture; its transversal manifestations within different subcultures; its political connotations and its capacity of linking tribalism and utopia.
Indeed, dancing is often at the centre of tribal rituals—it gathers people, driving them to catharsis—and while music can charge the space with its physical presence, its immateriality allows it to be extremely flexible.

“The Sound System, succinctly put, is a mobile discotheque. It’s a platform on which you play music, that moves around.” Turntables, a microphone and a powerful amplifier with big loudspeakers constituted the audio equipment that is loaded up into a van and carried to different venues.
Sound system culture started in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late ’40s/early ’50s, when live music events were inaccessible to poor people. It used to provide popular music (mainly Rhythm & Blues) at large outdoor gatherings and parties. One of the earliest prominent Sound Systems was Tom the Great Sebastian, which got its name from a circus act and was founded by Tom Wong, son of a Chinese father and an African mother.

When at the end of the ’50s, white Rock music started to supplant Rhythm & Blues, Jamaicans developed their original music —Ska and Rocksteady— starting their own record labels.
In 1962, Jamaica gained independence and started to re-elaborate the culture of the colonisers; it was the time when the users became producers.
In this scenario, music records became like books: a medium with which culture can be reproduced and spread.

Jamaican music came to England along with the Windrush Generation: the first wave of Jamaican immigrants who arrived between the late ’40s and early ’60s. The music was the first real link to keep in touch with what was going on back home. Parties were the only occasions of congregation for the Caribbean community which had migrated abroad.

Every technological implementation, every Western innovation was filtered and re-elaborated by Jamaican music. The fastest Rock generated the slowest shift of Reggae, while psychedelic influences generated the Dub sonic experimentation.
Those musical genres, coming from the peripheries, influenced in turn the western-centric world. It is because of Sound System culture that Hip Hop was born in New York in the early ’70s, as were both House and Techno music in the ’80s.

Although with different names—block parties, house parties, warehouse parties—the plot was always the same: a legal or illegal gathering of people who want to dance and need to feel free.
From political messages of Roots Reggae lyrics, to the libertarian and escapist stances of the rave culture in the early ’90s, it is not by chance that the authorities, through the police, had always repressed these manifestations, dismissing them as dangerous “anti-social” behaviours.

What can we learn from this culture? Which tactics can we borrow from it?