(Photo by Vincent Besson)
“reggae is a story. Sound system is a story you have to tell.”
Interview with OBF and Shanti D before their session in Aix en Provence for the World Music Day 2013.
What pushed you towards reggae and what made you decide to build your own system ?
Rico: well, we started around the year 2000 to seriously buy records. And what influenced us was the alternative scene in Geneva. It’s really thanks to that that we began to know that world, the world of reggae, of sound systems, of ambient dub – thanks to certain people.
Asher selector and Cultural Warriors who used to organize nights in squats, that were at the time a very active space in Geneva. So they were nights with a really attractive price, cheap drinks, lots of people, sound systems, a good atmosphere. So we were always in those kinds of places, and always when there were reggae sound system nights. So the immersion really began in the cellars of squats in Geneva.
Guillaume: That don’t exist anymore…
Squats, from an organizational point of view, are quite similar to raves and free parties. Are there similarities between the free parties and the reggae sound systems? And are there any big differences?
Rico: what the free party movement and the reggae sound systems have in common, are that the people are united, together for a purpose: the joy of being able to dance to music, have an appropriate volume for the type of music we listen to, and to have the freedom to express yourself however you want on the dance floor.
In the end it’s being able to do what you want, to be autonomous?
Rico: In Geneva, 10 years ago, the nights were really self-managed, yeah. Autonomy was predominant in Geneva.
And in terms of differences?
Rico: Well you don’t have hard drugs in reggae nights. And otherwise, well the Bpm
Guillaume: there is also the identity linked to the sound system we use. So the sound system makes our identity, and so people come to see the people that play but also to listen to a particular sound system. And that’s what creates a sound system’s identity.
So the identity of a sound or a crew is the system?
Guillaume: yeah, it’s the system, because that’s his instrument.
Rico: but there is also the crew behind it, the selections.
Guillaume: that’s what links the two scenes, the “home made” aspect, the self-managed.
For a while now you have been playing a bit everywhere, but quite a lot in England. As it’s the second birth place of reggae sound systems, have you noticed any differences between the UK scene and the French one?
Rico: Well the English have had more of an education since the 70s, with all the Jamaican exiles that came to England. So the Jamaican brought their culture. And so the English, for the last 40 years, more even with lovers rock and all, they have been swimming in that culture for more than 40 years.
Whereas in France, it came later – at the beginning of the 90s with the crews from Bordeaux. With Manutention for example who got Jah Shaka over. And in Geneva it was the same, it was a lot of live bands that would come during the 80, end of the 80s. And the sound system began in the 90s.
But at the same time, in France today there are a lot of sound systems that are growing. To an extent that we could say France is nearly overtaking England.
Guillaume: The English are starting to say that the dub scene today is in France, more than in England. Because over there too it’s becoming harder and harder to play with a system, few venues accept sound system because of the volume…
In France there is the novelty aspect too
Rico: yeah that’s it – there is more euphoria in France. In France I fell that dub is a lot more open, the public is a lot wider.
Guillaume: we often get to meet punk, electro fans… a bit of everything. In England when you go to a roots dance, you will probably only have ‘roots’ fans.
It’s interesting you should say that. Jerome (from Mungo’s HiFI) was telling me that in France they can’t play the same things they play in Glasgow. At their nights they play everything, from dub to dancehall to dubstep… And that, that doesn’t really work in France.
Rico: Well it depends in what nights. But it’s true that in some nights in France you have that people don’t really know anything about reggae, it’s the sound system’s job to give them a small education with some tunes they might know. Draw them in like that, and after you can experiment.
Relating to music again, you have a tendency to play more ‘steppa’, dub that is a bit more electronic. Is there a difference in the vibes or message between what you play, and say the more roots productions, like Aba Shanti for example?
Guillaume: the basis is the same. After, we have a different message than Aba Shanti. Aba Shanti is a rasta, he advocates Rastafarianism, something that we don’t necessarily do.
So if there is a message you try to pass on at your session, what would that be?
Rico: well ours is really a militant message. With the pressure we experience at the moment from the system, we absorb all this throughout the year, and we transcribe that in our nights precisely with ‘harder’ tunes, steppas, very militant lyrics, anti-establishment, or lyrics that simply express everyday life.
So it’s quite political
Guillaume: it’s political, social – everything
For you, how does a successful session go?
Rico: it’s to start with big revival tunes from the 70s, roots radics. Mic-men that kill it on the mic, the crowds who liven up on the dancefloor, who ‘whine’; and then we go one with some more modern tunes.
Guillaume: the crowd is a big part – it has a big part to play.
It’s true that reggae nights are different from a traditional DJ set where the DJ does play his set and the leaves. You have to chat with the crowd.
Rico: Yeah, reggae is a story. Sound system is a story you have to tell.
Guillaume: It’s also that very often people don’t know this. They come and see this physical element, the strong sound, we are at ground level – so often people in France don’t look at us, they are more focused on the speakers. That’s also a habit that comes from the techno movement: people come to be in front of the sound system. In England you don’t really find that, people face those who are playing. It’s different, a different education.
In a previous interview with a sound that came out of the free party scene, he mentioned that the reggae movement is beginning to be a bit like the techno movement: victim of its success.
Rico: yeah, well it depends what nights. There are some nights that are more focused on roots reggae, and that attract a crowd of connoisseurs; and others are let’s say a bit more open. But it’s true that people increasingly enjoy getting together at reggae nights, but why? Because there is a good atmosphere, good vibes. There aren’t any troubles, people aren’t high off their heads. They are here for the music, that’s what prevails. People come for the vibes.
Guillaume: It’s the sound as well. With the sound system there’s the heavier side of reggae, the one you won’t necessarily know by listening to it at home. That’s how it’s supposed to be played, you should feel the bass within you, that’s what makes you dance.
You tend to play a lot on digital formats (laptop, CDs..). But do you still use vinyl?
Guillaume: as we said, we often start our session with some 70s revival, so we can very well play records for two hours. Then after we will play our own productions, or tunes produced by friends of ours, so then that will be more on CD or digital.
Is keeping vinyl going some form of resistance? Do you think one day it will be completely digital?
Guillaume: well no, it’s the basis. We buy records all the time. For a start, you’ll never get the same sound. And hearing the crackling sound of the record, lowering the diamond… it’s a whole thing. There is a warmth to the vinyl.
Rico: and now we are starting to digitalize our records because travelling with your records is very hard. So we’ve started to digitalize everything. But sometimes you still have to show the people you do have that plate.
And your nights, in what kind of places do you organize them?
Guillaume: well we live next to the border with Geneva, on the French side, so we had a squat, an autonomous place we opened. We began having nights in the basement there. Our first guests were Uzinadub from Bordeaux. That was in 2002 I think. And that’s how we started. We managed to organize several nights thanks to that place, we got know that way.
And are the places you use now in the same vein as that?
Guillaume: a lot less. In Geneva it’s a lot harder harder… it’s even impossible to open a space like that now. So now we play a lot more at the ‘usine’.
Rico: It’s still a similar space, but with a much larger capacity. But it’s true that now the reggae scene has opened up itself to the ‘club’ environment. It’s a mix: underground, alternative spaces, and clubs.
What seems to come back a lot in reggae is the DIY philosophy: you build your own sound system, you organize you own night, and often in independent, self-managed spaces…
Guillaume: we can’t play everywhere with the sound system, that’s for sure.
Shanti D: they don’t want you, it’s too loud. If you say you have a sound system you’re banned from three quarters of the venues.
Rico: Even the promoters of ‘official’ venues, the SMACs, they don’t know this scene. Reggae for them is limited to the Gladiators and the Congos, and even then. But otherwise the promoters from SMACs don’t want to open their mind. Now we’ve managed to join the SMACs with High Tone when we tour with them, because they have connections. That’s how we manage to enter the SMAC venues, with groups like them.
But does playing in places like that or in clubs mean losing some of the basic elements of reggae?
Guillaume: No I don’t think so. I think it opens it up to other people who wouldn’t have normally come, to another crowd. I think that’s quite good.
Rico: it’s hard to find places to play – and then it depends on the message you try to spread. You can be hype club, but still manage to bring your own vibe.
Shanti D: as long as you can set up your own system, you’re good. It’s amazing when we play at the 104. The 104 it’s amazing we can put a sound system in there – it’s more of an artsy, contemporary, thingy place… Dub changes the space.
Guillaume: It’s also when we bring our sound system into places like that, that they understand the difference, because they may sometimes see us in a DJ set, they won’t necessarily understand it. When they see us with our system and everything, they go “oh s**t, okay”.
It’s a bit as if you can create your own space:
Guillaume: exactly, it creates an energy, our own energy. And the people too.
Rico: we create our bubble within the bubble
Shanti D: the thing that often in the SMACs, they aren’t interested because they don’t want to work, they’re paid the same you see. Whether there’s a lot of people, no one, whether it’s good, whether it’s not good: they don’t care. There are some people who are invested, but from what I’ve seen, most of the guys don’t care.
What I saw once – the night we did in Lyon for example, the guy told us “no it was too much of a success, we’re not doing it again”. Because didn’t want to work when there are too many people.
Rico: it’s rare but it does happen
Shanti D: because you haven’t played in many SMACs, but I can tell you that you often find yourself dealing with a bunch of good for nothings.
Rico: well you have shits everywhere
Guillaume: when they organize stuff at home, they don’t do any promotion – when High Tone comes to play for example, we don’t even know they’re playing at home.
How would you describe a sound system session?
Rico: well like we said before it’s a story, we come to tell the story of reggae. So we can begin by a couple of rocksteady or sky tunes, then some 70s revival – big roots radics. After we really dig digital so we’ll continue into the 80s. We skip a bit of the 90s period, and then we go on with some more modern tunes. With mic-men that murder the versions, it’s really a show.
Guillaume: well, not all the time (laugh)
To come back to a sound system’s identity:
Guillaume: It’s really what links the techno scene and the reggae scene. The completely self-managed sound system aspect. People come to see a sound for their system. One system will sound like this, one crew will play such and such tune… it’s a whole.
And if the identity comes from the system, if for example Jah Shaka plays on your system, would the night still keep your identity, or would it be like a Jah Shaka night?
Guillaume: People come to a Shaka night to see him play. His selection will never be the same as ours. Shaka is Shaka – but if he plays on his system or on another’s system, it won’t be the same. It’s like if we play on someone else’s system, it will be different.
Of course you can still mash up a dance if you’re not on your system. But it will be different, it’s not your sound.
Shanti D: When you make a tune, you know you’re going to play it on your system, so it sounds a certain way. After if you try it on someone else’s system, you’re going to be like “oh shit! it’s really bad”. You won’t recognize your song.
Rico: yeah that happens
Another thing that often comes up is the fact that there aren’t that many places to set up a sound system. A lot of places if you turn up with 8 scoops, they go nuts.
Guillaume: we can never play with 3 stack indoors. Well, It might happen twice a year.
Shanti D: Well they already came by with the decibel meter. They came by just before – so you see, they come by for the “fete de la musique”, you can imagine what it’s like indoors.
Guillaume: with 3 stacks, we play in Marseille with 3 stacks. In Lyon as well, at the “hangar” and “double mixte”.
Shanti D: With High Tone last time
Guillaume: no with High Tone we never took out 3 stacks. Indoors never.
Shanti D: oh right indoors. Well the 104.
Guillaume: ah yes, the 104 as well.
And do the tunes you play change according to where you play?
Guillaume: It always changes, we will never do the same set twice. We do know which tunes we want to play though.
Shanti D: it’s according to the crowd.
Guillaume: right, it depends on how the crowds react to such or such tune.
So it’s a constant echo:
Guillaume: that’s right, it’s an exchange