Short interview with Lion Roots Sound System, about what it means to run a sound, the differences between the UK and French scene, and the early sound system days in the sound of France.
How did you discover reggae and what pushed you to build your own sound system ?
Yes-I, greetings. Well what pushed me to build my own system, was the fact of going to London and seeing the sound systems in England. En terms of reggae, I was listening to some before but not with the sound system influence. It was more traditional bands like Israel Vibration… the foundations. Bands that allowed reggae to have today’s status.
Then sound system came a lot later. I discovered that movement 15 or so years ago.
And since when have you been active?
Well in the area, because I was born in Cannes, it’s been nearly 15 years. I tried to get things here to move a bit in the South-East, because there wasn’t anything in terms of sound system culture and Jamaican reggae. There was nothing. But besides that there were a lot of people that would go to concerts, with the foundation bands. With famous bands like that promoters are sure people will know them so they go. But when it’s a bit more obscure, it’s harder to make people discover things.
You are the ‘oldest’ sound system in the south of France that I know of. Is your sound system home-made?
Yes, it’s completely home-made
And what does having a home-made system add?
Well it’s kind of the sound system’s identity. It’s true that now with more accessible means, internet and all that… we were talking about that just before with Aba Shanti, today it’s easier to get such and such equipment, whereas before, you had to build everything yourself. And it was even worse when Aba started, where everything was home-made. I mean everything from A to Z. From the amplifiers to the pre-amplifiers.
Talking about identity, what makes a sound system’s identity? What creates it?
The identity also comes from the quality of the preamplifier. It’s the preamplifier that reproduces the sound. You also need decent speaker so that the sound can be heard well, and that’s the most important I think. Then you experiment with the boxes, try different models. One builds other models on the foundations that have existed for a long time. Si in that sense we are lucky to have the internet. It helps a lot.
In your opinion, what is it that makes this music special; that creates that vibes. A reggae session has a vibe that you can’t find anywhere else.
That’s true. Part of it is the acoustic pressure, the fact of listening to this over-sized music. But that is how it is supposed to be heard. We are not used to listen to music with that much acoustic power. Even at a concert, unless you go and see the big bands, U2 or stuff like that, but otherwise, in small venues, there isn’t the quality of sound that you find in sound system sessions.
That pressure and the quality of sound, that comes from the knowledge of building your own boxes. It’s a chain – if you have amplifiers that are at the end of their life, but the rest is good; the result will be average. It is a whole that allows the sound to be good.
So sound is the most important?
Yeah, during a session. When you aren’t used to listening to this kind of music, when you listen to some tunes you have previously heard at home or on a small hi fi system, and you hear them at a session with big kilowatts and a huge bass, it’s another dimension. That’s the thing.
Someone once described a reggae session as if you were swimming in the music
That’s it, you are completely within it. Sound sends a “wave”, that’s how they call it. So it’s exactly that, you should feel the waves of the sound in the dance.
When you organize a dance, you bring the music of course, but is there something else you try to bring?
A sound system session isn’t only about playing music and spinning records, well in my opinion anyway. It’s about message you try to pass on through the music that you play, with the artists that you may invite. It’s a message of peace, unity. Those are the foundations; if we don’t have them, then unfortunately we aren’t going to go very far.
And then again, I think we have a responsibility, for the future generations, to show that there aren’t only bad things. It may be because of this that reggae has difficulty gaining attention. Because it’s a really strong message, and maybe that the elites are scared of it. It doesn’t push you to start a revolution, but it does make you think.
About that, in Jamaica and in England, at first the movement was very political and social. Is it possible to find this in France as well?
Well there are two categories, I think. Those who see the thing and say to themselves this movement is quite good, and who have some money so they say “we’ll start”. And then there are those who struggle, and who really want to do something and will do anything to make it. The fact that the owners of a system have the finances behind them or that they struggle and organize nights to make a bit of money and pay for a scoop, it’s not the same. But in the end it’s the message that is the most important.
I imagine you have noticed this but for a while the sound system scene in France has been evolving quite a bit. Would you have an idea why?
Yeah, for the last 5-6 years it’s started to grow. Even 7-8 years. After I’m not sure why, but it’s good. Things are being built, it’s moving. It’s good.
One observation I have made through this research, is that France has begun to level with England in terms of the number of sound systems, of production…
For sure. There are good labels in France. Good French live bands. Good dubmakers, and good sound systems. In the reggae-dub scene there is quite a lot. But I think it’s still harder to organize dances here than in England. Here concerning the law it’s harder.
In England, I imagine considering the amount of nights there are, that people can bring their system everywhere. In a small nightclub they bring in 4 scoops. It’s not in a small bar in Cannes that you will see 4 scoops. Despite this enthusiasm, people in the sound system scene – like everyone else – we struggle. It’s different from when we get booked and play for other people.
It’s different when you want to organize your own thing and there aren’t any venues, well you can’t do anything. It’s a lot harder in France I think.
There are some towns where it’s more or less open than other, but still…
When you organize a night, does what you play change according to where you are, or according to the crowd?
Already, it depends a bit on the place. Especially in the region, because you really need to show people what reggae is about. So you have to play more or less ‘commercial’ tunes, get people to dance a bit, and then venture into more obscure things.
I play mainly according to the feeling. I don’t have a prepared selection that I decided on at home – “that one is the first”, “that one is the last”. We were laughing about that with my friends earlier, because I always bring a ton of records and in the end I’ll only play 40 or 50. 50 records with a version, a couple of singer, you can easily make it 3 or 4 hours. It goes really fast.
It’s essentially according to the vibe. In July, I did this thing for the “nuit de la glisse” in Cannes. In that case there were young kids everywhere so it was more to let them discover it. But there was a stack next to the water. When I’d push the sound up a bit they were amazed.
The future mayor did his speech on the sound system. It was fun.
It creates a link with the town hall. They were the ones organizing that, so now they know I’m here. Every month they organize a ‘night neighborhood’ as they call it, and in july it was on boardsports.
So they had put a mini-ramp for the summer open to everyone, right at the end of Cannes, just near the sea. A great spot.
It created a link with the town hall, so we’ll try make it last. The guy was up for it.
I think we have to now. I could try and be more or less official, so that people decide to come. I think you have to go through city councils. So that there can be a message passed on through them as well, that can reach more people.
It’s true that is a bit in their interest
Of course. If it works, they see that it doesn’t cause any troubles. I have never had any issues in the sessions. It’s a conscious message.
And the fact of building your own sound system, being autonomous in organizing your night, is that still possible?
The hardest part is to last. Being 100% autonomous, having your own generator so you can set up anywhere, that’s a bit more difficult. Generally all the reggae nights in France are official I think. It’s managed by associations, either there is a profit or there isn’t. Often there isn’t any profit. It’s often very tight. Often we lose out, very often.
But the plus side is that they aren’t considered as rave parties. And I say that without criticizing raves.
And vinyl, it’s a central part of sound systems. Now that we have serrato, mp3… how come it has stayed around for so long?
Vinyl is the basis. Then having everything on vinyl when you have exclusive tunes, pressing everything on vinyl or on acetate discs, it costs a fortune. You have to be realistic.
I have my laptop for everything that is dubplate or pre-release. I can’t go ahead and press everything. When you add up the system, all the other equipment that goes with it. I think I’m one of the only (sound system) to have my own truck, for example. That brings in costs.
Pressing everything on vinyl I don’t think that would be possible. Having ‘collectors’ on the other hand, that’s something else.
I generally juggle between the two. I play a lot of records, and when I have things that I don’t have on vinyl I play them from the laptop. I preferred to switch to laptop because I find it easier than having 50 CDs, which also means an extra turntable. So might as well have a laptop, and everyone tends to use one these days. If it’s well encoded, it sounds like a CD, the sound won’t change.
As long as what you have behind it is good.
Something that differentiates a concert or a DJ set from sound system session is the interaction between the sound system and the crowd. How do you view this interaction?
I talk, but more because I have to, especially if there’s only me. Otherwise I have 2 or 3 friends that are quite good. What they do is ok. Because it’s hard to find someone that can do things well, that can get a vibe going.
So because I didn’t particularly enjoy it, I got quite a lot of contacts, and now I’m in the habit of getting singers to come over, to play with me. And it promotes them too. They are happy as well.
So with Jah Marnyah we’ve known each other for nearly 10 years. He comes from Montserrat. He arrived in England after the volcano’s eruption. And he’s been singing since he came over.
Of course, having someone to pass on a good message with the people, make it more interactive is important. It’s another way to make the people aware of the music, of the message. Because not everyone understands English.
Does having someone who interacts with you allow the people to appreciate the sound more?
I think there is a way of doing it, that’s certain. When a tune is running, you have to let it run. The guy that’s constantly talking over records, I can’t stand that. You have to be reasonable, find a middle ground. That’s the hardest thing for an MC I think, being a singer is something else.
It’s a ‘know-how’. Not everyone can be a singer.
The special feature of sound systems is that generally there is only one turntable. So when you change a record there a small time lapse which leads to calling out to people. They aren’t DJs.
I used to do some juggling at first. I always enjoyed that way of playing on one turntable, but at first we only had Jamaican records. We couldn’t find English records. If you didn’t go to England you wouldn’t find a distributor. That was back at the beginnings the internet, in 2002.
That’s starting to date back a while
Yeah [laugh] We’ve been doing this since 1998. The first time I saw Aba Shanti was in 98.
I lived during 3 or 4 years in the south west (of France) and during that time my wife was in England for her studies. Due to that, some friends and I we had a house in the Lot & Garonne. I was already listening to reggae, I had a friend that was a rasta. But they were albums, there weren’t any 10 inches, 45s. They were mostly albums. So we would listen to that.
And from then on, we learned that there were some nights in Bordeaux, because we were only 100km away. So we would go to Bordeaux to hear sound systems.
Who was active in Bordeaux at that time?
There was King Jammin. Big up by the way, because he’s still there – on internet in any case, he’s still got his website. So I began buying Jamaican records off him, because he used to do albums, CD and Jamaican records. He didn’t do English records. There wasn’t that link yet to buy them.
Even though it’s closer?
It’s crazy! There were links with Jamaica but nothing with England. Only 7”, Jamaican press. So I would go up regularly to England to see my wife, and one day we were walking around and we saw some flyers for Aba Shanti. So we went to see him for the first time, and it was a shock.
When I went back down to France I bought two small full range speakers, in the countryside we were on the edge of the Garonne, there was no-one around us. We would put the speakers on full volume all day, at was awesome.
And then my wife came back down to Cannes, and I came back down too. And we decided to set up an association, to get a small studio. My friend in Bordeaux who owned the record shop gave me all the tips, the suppliers. And we started a small record shop in Cannes, when there wasn’t anything else. That was in 2000. It was Lion Roots Records. It worked relatively well, it was cool. There were two or three DJs who bought Jamaican presses, who played in Pubs in Nice, or sometimes in nightclubs. They were more hip-hop, ragga, jungle, a bit of dancehall. You know, Jamaican.
So that would pay the bills and the costs. And so I would also play in pubs in Nice to get things going. And so that’s how it began. Then from Nice we went back to England. We went to the Carnival for the first time. We saw Aba again, and that’s where we made a link. We had him come down in October after the Carnival. And there was a demand, so I got him a gig in Toulouse, one in Bordeaux. And then I organized a gig in a pub between Nice and Antibes that closed at 5am, in an industrial zone. It was a good set up. At the time I didn’t have all that. I had four 15” scoops, and the chromed speakers that are over there.
And to finish, do you think there is either a difference in the message or in the vibes between a more roots dance like Aba Shanti, and a more technoid style like Iration Steppas?
No it’s good, I think it allows a mix of people when you vary. There may be young people that go to see Iration because it’s more “jump up”. But Aba can still turn up a dance with roots.
The thing is knowing how to bring your selection, how to spread your message. And what’s good about that ping pong effect is that you don’t have the same thing for three or four hours. It’s good when there are different sounds and it’s varied. It gives energy to the people who are there as well.