(photo by Alex See)
“originally reggae is a bit the music of the oppressed. We’re not really oppressed in Europe, we’re rather privileged. But we still have things to say, and it’s part of an alternative”
“You don’t always have to talk about world hunger, you can also do a little song “I’ve got mushroom and cheese in my dancing shoes”
Interview of Albah from the Welders HiFI sound system on what it means to build your own sound system, the role of free parties in the french sound system scene, and the art of chatting on the mic.
How did you discover reggae, and what pushed you to build your own sound system?
How did I discover reggae… My parents had records of Bob Marley, Third World and Peter Tosh, so I had already heard it at home. Then the first things I listened to was Massilia Sound System [a sound system from Marseille]. Because we are in the south [of France] and it was the first concert I ever went to.
Then during high school, from 2000 to 2005, I used to be involved in the techno scene and free parties, all while continuing to listen to reggae. Then when I started going to rave parties, I started buying vinyl, mostly new roots at the time[…] That’s how I started collecting records.
The first reggae sound system I saw was at the Garance festival in 2003.
But Garance, when it was in the south of France or before?
No, before. Well, when it was the Jamaican sunrise. 2003 I think it was. I think it was King Earthquake or Jah Shaka. Something like that because I remember that there was a huge sound system, and it really impressed me.
So in 2003 I discovered that there were also reggae sound systems, not only techno ones. So joining all these aspects, the techno sound systems, the fact that I liked reggae, and also I played a lot of instruments – well mostly percussions. I was in several bands with Joe, my friend with whom I started the sound system. 10 years ago we started an association for that initially.
So essentially, when I discovered the reggae sound systems, it linked all the aspects that I enjoyed: a big, powerful sound; reggae music and instruments, a more melodic aspect than techno, but still in a sound system set up. So that is how I discovered the scene, but it wasn’t at all with the objective of building my sound system at first.
Life went on, I studied in Nancy, in Spain… and then I came back to Avignon to finish my masters. And I met up with friends with whom I had played in bands with […] and so we started a dub band, because I liked reggae and the others started listening to it too.
So that was the Dub Welders?
Yeah, the Dub welders. So that was in 2008 I think. We focused at first more on ‘French dub’, but in the end it was all kinds of dub. For a while we had been going to the Dub schools in Montpellier, with Lion Roots. And so most of us also collected records, we were going to sound system dances, and then one day the idea came up: we wanted to have our own sound.
My friend Joe had a lot of equipment because he’s a sound engineer. He had a factory made system, so we used to string that up […] But we quickly realized that if we wanted a good sound, we needed to actually get down to it and build one ourselves. We began building it around the end of 2008 – if I remember correctly the first gig we did was in 2009, with 2 scoops. And then we thought 2 scoops are not enough, we need 4.
The way we built it – I mean whether it was in music or for anything else, we had always been quite autonomous. We would organize our band gigs by ourselves, we would rent the amplifiers and equipment […] so then that evolved into the craft, home-made ways of doing things, where not only are you autonomous, but everything is made by you. […]
At first there were quite a lot of us in the project. But when it got to the point where we take 2 weeks off work, get 2000 euros to buy wood, amplifiers… only 2 of us were left. Because some friends didn’t have a job or things like that. But we wanted to go on, so little by little fewer and fewer people were involved – not because of any problems, but because we were keeping at a certain pace.
So that’s how it started, and like I said, the association we started in 2004.
Which association was that?
That was Association Entre Collègues (AEC). It’s the one which manages the Welders sound system, the one we use to do the Massives Corners.
And so the City Wall one is different?
City Wall is another association we started in Avignon that is open to others. It involves local reggae groups, small sound systems, that regroups all the activists from Avignon and with that we organize concerts, sound system sessions. The money we get from that goes to organize other events. And we have the AEC that we use only for our sound system. The money that comes from that one is put back into our sound.
So with that we began to organize our Massive Corners – I think the first one was in May 2011.
And was that at the Akwaba?
No the Akwaba came after. At first it was in small venues that we would rent out – complete autonomy. We would organize our thing, rent small venues around Avignon.
The Akwaba is a venue that we have known for ages. We played there with our bands, and Joe is a sound engineer in the area, so he had worked there before. So he went there, and they wanted to do reggae-dub nights, so it kind of happened. We started a co-production, and now we do 2 or 3 nights a year there. But the Massives Corners we do a lot outside of the Akwaba.
What seems to come back a lot is the idea of autonomy.
Yeah. We quickly found the limits in the fact that we were all on a voluntary basis, and in the end, if you want to do things that are bigger, you need a bit of help. Structures that know their field, that have employees, a place – like the Akwaba. So in that case we had to join them. But I don’t consider that as a loss of autonomy. Especially as the Akwaba is a cooperative, so it is still relatively independent.
So yeah, it’s still an independent scene. We have never asked for subsidies. Maybe that will change later on, but we try to keep our autonomy. But it doesn’t stop us from collaborating with other people as long as we’re on the same wavelength […] When we do things with our sound system, we can just say “ right, we going to bring such a person, such a sound, and off we go”. Joe and I just book a venue, make a few calls for the beer, and it’s done. But with the Akwaba and even with City Wall, we have to have a more “mainstream” line up. We have to talk with both of them so that we can get something big enough to get 3 to 400 people […]
So both are complementary. With the Akwaba the focus is more on the line up […] and then on our side we organize our small sound meetings in the venues that we organize from A to Z.
And the fact of having a home-made system, it contributes to the feeling of autonomy, but does it contribute anything else?
Yes, it contributes several things I think. […]
First of all it costs less than if you were to buy it – except if you buy it second hand.
You can have new equipment for cheaper than if you were to get factory made equipment. That being said, you can buy hand-made scoops from Lion Roots and others that build them, but it wouldn’t have been your making. And in the process of autonomy, I find that there is – I don’t know what word to use – merit? …. It is a kind of reputation to have built your own sound.
The guy that spent a week building his scoops, drilling, gluing… that built his whole system from A to Z, from my point of view, will have a greater reputation in the sound system scene. More than people like Jumbo Rock, who buys 10 scoops from Jah Tubby’s and off he goes.
The fact of building it yourself – it’s a question of finance, but you can do it at your own rhythm, and it allows you to get the feel of things. You get to know your sound.
I’ll use the example of Jumbo Rock again – I have nothing against him – but he bought his 10 scoops, came down to the Garance where he set up his sound on the camping ground 2 years ago. And he burned out all his mediums. Had he built his 10 scoops himself, it would have taken him 5 years, and he would have learned how his sound system works and not burned everything.
So there’s that. Of course you can buy stuff later. But the fact of building it allows you to understand how it functions, to really think about what you want in terms of sounding, the quality you want to get… […] Those that try to have everything quickly in the end might not know their sound as well and not know what to do if anything goes wrong. […]
And like I said, I have tendency to have consider more highly crews that built their sound from A to Z than the guys who bought everything and come up one day with 10KW. Of course they can do good things, and learn with practice, and after a while there may not be any difference.
But to be able to play your tunes on your sound, that’s what we’re aiming for.
That reminds me of debate that took place online: what makes a sound system’s identity?
Well there are several things. Actually it’s quite funny because some of them have really strong identities. You can have Mungo’s, OBF or Blackboard; well all three are completely different.
But those are things that develop over time. Ours is still being built. You have to find it. You have the rastas, those that aren’t rasta, those that aren’t rastas but are closer to them…
The identity can already be from a visual standpoint. A sound system that is all black, covered with grids like with Iration, it’s quite aggressive. And generally there is a meaning behind that. If you look at the Channel One sound system, it’s all wooden, the grids on the speaker are round, you have the feeling they are going to play roots, and it tends to be that way.
Iration nights are “ruff”, people hit the speakers and so they have to put full grids on the speakers.
I mean ours are bit beaten too, and you have people that play ruff tunes on wooden sound systems. But I still think that that tends to be a recurring theme. […]
So you have that visual aspect. […] Then aside from the music that you play, the identity can have to do with the texture that your sound has. Some sound more metallic, a lot rounder if you put multi-way speakers. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Equal Brother’s sound system, but it is all in multi-way, and it sounds really round, really roots. If you play the same tune on a sound system like OBF’s or Dawa Hifi’s that have tops that shatter your ears, it sounds a lot dryer. […] Everyone has that particular texture that is linked to what you play. You try to have a sound system that sounds best for what you play the most.
So there’s that. After, the sound system’s identity… I think that whether you’re a Rasta or not impacts a lot on the sound system. […] For sound systems that are rastas, that’s a big part of their identity.
After there’s the identity that you build according to what you play, in terms of your selections, what type of tunes you play the most, and especially in the dubplates that you have.
By dubplate I mean the tunes that you produce […] and the collaborations that you do. For example I know a few dub-makers that are artists that I support as well as being friends with, and I will play a lot of what they do, and that also defines your sound.
So, OBF are going to play some Iration, some TiT, some Iron dubz… their friends that play similar stuff. Blackboard will bring out things with rockers disciples, a real band, and they have things a lot more roots or UK dub, less ‘techno’ influenced.
So even if you don’t produce tunes, I think your identity is linked to the singers you bring in, and the dub-makers that make you dubplates, and your collaborations […]
It’s cool, you’re making points that haven’t been made before.
Well for me, if it’s just stacking up speakers, plugging them in and playing records… I mean, a guy invites you to play in Italy for example. He invites Welders sound system to play in Italy. If it’s to go and play the same Vibronics release that all the Italians have… it’s cool, if you have massive collectors and you’ve been in the scene for 50 year, why not. But for me it feels like a sound’s identity is based quite a lot on the dubplates.
So then, if when you play in Italy, on someone else’s sound system, can your identity be transposed on to their system?
On other people’s systems? Well sometimes you can have real surprises! (laughs)
It doesn’t sound the same at all, there’s some tunes you can hardly recognize […] It is true that we don’t have the experience of playing on a lot of different sound systems. We have tried most of the different types of preamplifiers, but only once. Aba shanti, he can come to a dance, whether there is an Irad, a Jored… he’ll know how it works, how to get the system to sound how he wants it to sound. Apparently the big UK sound systems, Aba and the rest, they have dubplates that they only play on their systems because they know how it will sound, or they don’t want to take the risk of it sounding wrong. But when we were in Italy […] we went once with our system, and once we went to Rome to play on another system. And there are songs you’re like “pffouu, that does NOT sound the same at all” (laugh).
So yeah, it’s those moments that allow you to take a step back and have a good look at your system. It allows you to see that the song you produced sounds good on your system, or sounds better on another’s. And after if one day you want to release something on vinyl and it needs to sound good on the most systems as possible, it’s good to test it. That’s why we send pre-releases to everyone so that they can play it on their systems and give us feedback.
And does the way you set up your system and how you organize your dance change according to where you play? Whether it’s inside, outside…?
Well already you need to find a venue (laugh). So now I’m a specialist in venue-finding, after having been through dozens of different places.
Yeah it changes quite a bit. But that’s due to several things.
When we organize the night ourselves, we aim for the kind of venues that organize weddings, the private venues. So we try to find somewhere far from any inhabited places. Industrial areas or in the countryside. Already, that is not easy. You have to make sure by using aerial photos […] if the place looks like a castle, then forget it. You have to find something a bit shit, but not too much, not too expensive, it has to stay accessible, where you can turn it the sound up and the place won’t fall apart. Sometime, you get a venue and the whole place shakes, you can’t do anything. You’re gutted, the night is ruined. But you can’t know those things until you’ve strung up the system and played something at 30 Htz.
Then once you’ve found a place, the aim is to play facing your system. There is no feedback, the feedback is your system.
So it’s quite hard to get people to understand that when you play in venues like the Akwaba. When you come in and say you want to have your system facing you, they’re like “but no, you have to split in two” […] the guys have been stage managers for years, and they are sure they are right. They do proper concerts, which is a European way of consuming music. We do sound system which is originally a Jamaican way of consuming music […].Originally it was a poor people’s concert. You could have burning spear, all the music bands playing for you in one night, and it wouldn’t cost you anything.
So in the concert venues, they have a little trouble understanding that we don’t use feedback, that we play with our system facing us. It really confuses them (laughs).
Most of the time, we place ourselves where the stage is, so either we undo the stage or we just stay in front. Then we put the system at the other end of the room, so it hits in the opposite way that they are used to hear. So that really confuses them, I’m telling you. The first times at the Akwaba we had to split our stack in two because the guys didn’t want to do it the way we said […]
Then one day we did it, and they all said “that’s really good, it sound a lot better than usual”.
[…] So that’s the way always do it – controls, sound system facing it. […]
After, in the ways we organize the space, it depends. Essentially, we go into the room and spend half an hour talking about where we are going to put the things […]. At first when we do the tests we go to the middle of the crowd space and we try to get benchmarks. So when I hear this at the controls, it means that the guy in the middle of the dance will hear that. Because sometimes it can hurt their ears while being fine for us.
Then there is always the bar that tends to be – mainly through a lack of alternatives – in the same room as the dance. We try to protect it a little from the sound, so that the guys working there don’t have to deal with the full volume[…]
Then in terms of visuals, of lighting, I quite like it when people can’t see each other. Well, can’t see each other – that it stays in the shadows.
We have two lighting points, well I’m saying this but we have to fight with the Akwaba for that too. Sometimes they put things, it looks like a nightclub. So we have a light where the guys are singing, so where the sound is produced; and one light where the sound comes out. And in the middle I prefer that it stays relatively dark […]I notice that especially at the beginning of the night – after, when there’s lots of people they don’t care – but at the start it brings on a dancing atmosphere much more quickly. People don’t look at others so much, so they not as embarrassed to go there or to be all alone, because in any case you’re in the darkness […]
And so it creates something special, because in the end with sound systems, even if the people look a bit at the guys that make the sound, who sing or the sound system, they still have a lot less visual fixation points than a traditional concert. […]
In a sound system session, there is only sound, so I try to get people to focus on that, to just have two spots, and the rest no lighting. Most of the time it’s a fixed indirect lighting, for example a light behind the stack, which produces that vibe, more favorable for dancing, especially for more meditative dances. When you come into a sound system session, that you get hit by a wave of bass, it’s a bit dark, you can smell a bit of weed, and you see just one bright light with Pupajim or Soom t underneath […] you’re in the vibe straight away.
And the fact of not seeing anyone else means that there is only sound, you are in the music
Yeah you’re focused on your thing. It’s true, there isn’t like what you see in rave party sound systems, lasers and everything. There are some who do that a bit, but we don’t. That’s just my personal opinion; there are guys that do great decors. We do some from time to time, but it will be more for the bar or the control tower. But dancing area stays quite dark.
You’ve played in places…let’s say a bit unusual for sound systems. For example the dance you did at the Fou d’Allos on the ski slopes, or the Fete du Panier underneath the Cathedral de la Major, places where you wouldn’t usually put a sound system. Do those change from other nights?
I like it to be honest… I remember in Paris I was at sound system dances on a barge. And just the fact that it was on a barge I’m sure you get 100 more people. When you play in a ski resort, just the fact that you put your sound system on the snow, people are like “wooaa awesome”.
I was talking about this with Lilou from the I-skankers, and she was saying “fuck, you always have good spots”, we could almost do like in Amelie Poulain, where you have the travelling gnome. We could have the sound system at the sea, the sound system in the mountains (laugh).
But yeah, I like that aspect, the scenery in which you play your sound, even if in the end you’re always playing on the same system. The fact of going to an unusual place, it’s nice. For the people that come it’s something new. And the open air dances, even if we are in the south, there aren’t that many people who organize them. So it creates… I don’t know… it creates a festive vibe, a something a bit quirky.
That’s actually something I’d like to develop further, well even if that would mean having to work in cooperation with local authorities, but to play in places with a past, a bit like La Major, or the Vasarely Foundation.
Places that one wouldn’t really associate with gigs?
Yeah. For example playing in front of the Papal Palace (In Avignon), I would really like that, or on the Pont d’Avignon, places like that. Then you have to really justify your idea, because local authorities will be scared that you wreck the place. But it’s true that the overall surroundings in which you play create another vibe. When you play in the mountain or on the slopes… but even that, you don’t play the same thing. When you play at the beach or whatever, it changes.
So the place you play in influences what you play?
Yeah, it changes your state of mind. We never really managed it, because we always have issues and get kicked out of our venues, but on one hand it’s good to have a residency somewhere, a place that you are used to, because you know how your system will sound. Even when we play several times in the same venue, we have tried all the possible layouts. We had a small venue in Avignon, the ‘Graffiti’. Well there we tried one stack, two stacks of two ]scoops], one stack of three, four stack of two when we invited people… I mean we tried everything. And each time you try to organize the dance a different way “no, there there was too much light, next time we’ll have less”, “there we had the toilets, everyone was walking in front of the controls”…. So bit by bit you find your final layout, it’s true that changing all the time is annoying.
But the open air areas, there isn’t all that issue with how it sounds, how it doesn’t sound, because you know that if you place yourself 12 feet away from your system, it’s good. We measured our distance. But it adds something on one hand for those that come, because for them it’s nice to have something on a barge or whatever. And for you as well, it allows you not to feel like to going round in circles.
But do you manage to create the same vibe, for example at the Major or on the ski slope, which you would get in more normal places?
It wouldn’t say it depends on the place, it depends more on who comes and who doesn’t. […]
Say for example we go and play at the Akwaba, we might have people who come that know the venue but that have never seen a reggae sound system, or if we play under the Major.
While if you play in a venue that you rent and you organize the night, and you only have 20 people that turn up, you can be sure the guys didn’t just happen to be pass by.
So it’s true that when you use a different place, it allows you to have people who may only have come for the venue you are playing in and who aren’t necessarily there for the sound, and who will discover it.
If you do your PR right and manage to get enough people… but even with people who aren’t from the sound system scene, you can get the dance really going. But that’s got more to do with the people, and if you can capture that vibe, what the people like.
And sometimes they enjoy it but you can’t see it. For example the Italians, it’s quite weird. They don’t yell like here. That said I don’t know how it’s like in the north (of Italy), but here when you pull up, everyone shouts and everything. They’re used to it, they grew up with the dub stations. In Italy you do a pull up, you have 3 guys who shout out, you’re not really sure if the people are enjoying it. They wait… Right… So you put the tune back on. And at the end of the songs, of the good tunes, they clap. I mean I’ve rarely seen people clap in sound system dances in France […]
Something that I seem to hear often is that in Italy they’re a bit more ‘conservative’, more roots in terms of sound.
In France there are conservatives too, but maybe there are more sound system that crossover than in Italy.
But it’s true that the vibe you create, well it depends on the place. When we do our open air dances in Eguilles, the guys who come, they’re hyped-up straight away – because it’s often the last open air dance of the year, or it’s a place where people feel good. Or when we do our dances at the Fou d’Allos, not on the slopes, but we also play in a bar. The bar is the outing of the weekend for a lot of the seasonal workers, and don’t worry, when they come, it’s wild! They don’t necessarily attend sound system nights, but its places that are maybe more favorable to the party vibe than others […]
And it doesn’t even depend on the amount of people. I remember we did this night in the mountains; we had only 70 entries, when the venue could host 200. But the 70 were there from beginning to end […] and it was awesome. Had we had 200 people it would have been the same.
But it’s true, sometimes you don’t know why. Sometimes there is a spark, sometimes there isn’t. I think with experience you can manage to bring things around a lot more if you’re not with a very favorable crowd.
So it has a lot to do with the interaction with the people? That’s the big difference between a gig or a DJ set, and a sound system dance.
Well before we were talking about identity. The identity is also in the message that you try to put across. Maybe rastas put through a lot more than us, but I’m still going to say things.
At the start there is always a warm up. Often we get the younger generations to do them. But in fact warm ups are very important. They are what will make the guy who is slouched at the bar drinking his beer actually come and drink his beer in the dance. And when he’ll be finished with the beer he’ll start raising his arms, and there you have it. And it’s true that if the warm up is shit, and until midnight you play only crap, you don’t talk to people… I’ve had that experience, and that’s why I’ve started to talk and sing.
At first I wouldn’t do it at all and I’m not especially good at singing, but I started because I had to, because no one else was. Also when you talk and there isn’t really anyone in the dance, sometime and especially at the start, you’re kind of embarrassed to say things, no one answers.
But you see, if you play the same (tune) while not saying anything, even if you cut the bass and bring it back on, I mean people won’t even notice you put the bass back. But when you’re there saying things… Especially depending on the intonation you use […]
But it’s true it’s quite hard, it’s an exercise that requires experience. To build up your dance, to get people to get into the vibe by maybe playing a tune they will know, something a bit more mainstream […] And once they’re in the dance, you can play some more ‘obscure’ things.
And this is even more true when you have people that aren’t really used to it, kind of like at ‘world music day’. Then it’s funny because if the people don’t really know about it, they come up to you and ask “why do you only have one turntable?”, “why are you always talking? Stop talking”…. Because they are used to DJs that just play set. But that isn’t a sound system; a sound system is everything we’ve said up to now. A guy that sings, a guy that talks… So it’s true that the vibe that gets created in the dance, and the space that people occupy between the system and the controls, it depends a lot on the music that you play but also, especially for beginners, it depends on what you are going to say to get them to come into the dance.
I was watching an Interview with Aba Shanti a couple of days ago, and at one moment he talks about what it is with dub and reggae, what it is with that music that makes everyone dance, that makes people happy. What is it for you that makes this music special?
Already, I think that that they are reggae nights and they have emerged from quite a tolerant tradition. Well, tolerant, I mean open. To can come as a Rave-head with piercings everywhere or in a three piece suit, or as a dirty shepherd (laugh) you’ll still get in. While if you go to a nightclub, its selective. That being said, concerts are quite open too.
So there is already that freedom of being able to come however you want, that allows it to be a big party, because you aren’t judged.
After, I don’t know, some of the guys who have their system are pro, but we are in a scene that is mostly amateur, in France. Or semi-professional, but sound systems that live only from their sound, in France, I think there is Salomon Heritage, Lion Roots and even him I think he has other revenues, Blackboard Jungle, OBF.. maybe Legal Shot and even then..
The others they all have a job. Jah Militant grows fruits and vegetables, we’re not going to through all of them but you get the idea.
So already the people who do this, it’s their little pleasure. So they come to have a good time – I mean […] if it pisses you off, you don’t do dances. The guy that does the sound, he’s there to party so he’ll try to pass that on to the other people that come.
There are people that are more serious… But I consider the sound system dance like a place of entertainment. You can crack jokes – that comes from the Jamaican tradition. The DJ tells some jokes, talks about what goes on in everyday life. You don’t always have to talk about world hunger, you can also do a little song “I’ve got mushroom and cheese in my dancing shoes” (laugh).
Make the people forget about their shit week
Exactly. And it’s relatively accessible financially. And the anonymity you get in the darkness, as we were saying earlier, it helps you completely let go. You don’t care, no-one’s looking at you. People can’t see who you are even if they look at you […] It’s the same thing that happens at rave parties, although there people tend to use a lot of substances.
So it’s that party vibe. I imagine, I’m not very knowledgeable in the other things, but there may be vibes in more dancehall sound system or in rap and clashes that are a bit more aggressive. But generally, in the dub sound system scene anyway, we’re more in the idea: let’s make the most of our saturday night, we’re here to listen to music.
Of course, there is also a little message, but both are not incompatible. Guys who say “no you have to stay with roots, with something serious”. Who say Jah Rastafari, all the time, all the time. It’s good, get your message across, but crack a little joke from time to time. You can mess around in sound systems […] Sometimes I have a laugh, I say things, I do a French-English mash-up. So then you go “right guys, that didn’t even make sense, just bring on the sound”. For the warm up it works quite well to say some jokes, you go “hey! you three at the back, come to dance after that third beer”.
On a much broader note. The sound system originally was Jamaican, after it moved to England in the 80s to 2000. And then since 2000, it has moved to more continental Europe. Would you have any idea on why this happened?
I think that the rave parties have a lot to do with it in France, and even in Italy. Because they’re quite big ravers in Italy. And now it’s starting to get to Eastern Europe. I think that base has played a big role. I know a lot of people who go to sound systems today, 10 years ago they would never have put a foot in it and they are old ravers. They still continue to go a bit to raves, but they calmed down, they have kids… And the music is a bit calmer. So I think they come for the sound system aspect, massive speakers. They recognize certain codes, that come from the techno sound systems, that themselves come from [reggae] sound systems. You see, it’s a sort of circle. And I think it came to continental Europe through that.
In the 00s we had lots of small French reggae bands that helped make reggae popular in France. The big French reggae festivals, Sun Ska, Jamaican Sunrise, Garance or Jah’Sound have been around for 10 or so years, but it all sort of came at the same time.
I couldn’t really say, because originally reggae is a bit the music of the oppressed. We’re not really oppressed in Europe, we’re rather privileged. But we still have things to say, and it’s part of an alternative – we’re not massive anarchists either – but there is that underground side to it. Well maybe less today, but I still quite a bit because we can’t find venues to do our things, on TV you don’t see anyone reporting them.
But yeah when we used to go to raves I was 16, well I think that for the young ones today, raves have lost their charm a little – why I don’t really know, maybe it got too popular, more publicized.
And so [reggae] sound systems that have remained a bit underground it attracts the youths. You know having something underground but that is still a bit more organized than a rave which tends to be anarchy […].
It’s semi-official, but it plays a lot on the underground aspect because there isn’t much media attention. In any case, it isn’t like this thanks to the media. It was developed by the activists. I think dub stations, in France anyway, have played a big part. Dub station and the others that did it around the same time. After in the other countries I don’t really know. But you see they are a bit behind – well behind – they have a maybe less sound system in Italy, in Spain. But they are now where we were 4 or 5 years ago I think.
In Jaimaica and in England, sound systems came from the oppressed, the ‘sufferahs’. In England it was linked to racism, to social problems… And in France you wonder where is the link? In France, its mostly white, mostly middle class people that are building systems.
Yeah in France it’s not ruff. If it came from poor areas, it would be in the ‘cités’ [French estates] that they would be building them. But that isn’t the case.
I mean you look at Aix [en-Provence] the number of sound system there is. Aix is more of a rich town. But I think that there may be an aspect… I mean in the 70, our parents were hippies. Hippies weren’t necessarily people who were living in poverty, but they were people who were educated, and who believed in something else than what is happening today. And so they were claiming this by listening to rock, psychedelic rock, I don’t know what.
But they were not necessarily from a disadvantaged background. We are also the ones creating a mess, in Africa, in South America, wherever […]. You join a movement because you become more aware that you, the western affluent culture, it’s something that is not necessarily a model, and that there are things that should be changed. And so you identify with reggae because it holds values such as unity, peace, tolerance… I mean what we try to introduce in reggae is the notion that you have to be nice to others. It may be a little biblical, but don’t care.
When I listen to dancehall lyrics and I hear “if you look at me weird I’ll put my gun in your mouth”. Essentially in the rap and dancehall scene, if you want to be famous you have to be ‘bad’; and in reggae, well if you want to be famous, you have to be ‘nice’.
So you see, It’s something a lot of people can relate to. I think that it helps a lot people to identify to reggae. Even if it comes from Jamaica, from poor neighborhoods, in the end it stayed a strong music. You can very well come from a fancy background, it doesn’t mean you can’t speak out against things that are happening around you.
And to finish, what would be for you the main differences between rave parties and reggae sound system?
Well already in terms of sound, reggae is more based on melody. That’s maybe why we play on one turntable. Because you can’t mix two reggae tunes. You have one that is in D, one in C… in a rave you have a tempo and that’s about all you have to mix. For me that’s quite a big difference.
Also what I like is the mix between acoustic instruments, a melodica, a skank, a piano; and the more electronic side. Whereas in raves its almost entirely electronic.
So we managed to keep that in the dub movement. Even if some like OBF aren’t very acoustic. But there will still be a singer, you see? There is still a ‘live’ act – an acoustic creation – that you don’t necessarily find in the techno scene. The guy might create something because he twisted some buttons […] but that creation is only electronic.
After of course there is the issue of drugs. Even though in the [reggae] sound systems you have some guys that take loads of things. But it isn’t as ostentatious. In raves you have guys with bags full of ecstasy that are going around yelling “ecstasy! Ecstasy!” If someone does that at one of my nights I put him outside, if not call the cops. So there is that side that rejects drugs – so the crowd isn’t the same.
There is also the aspect – well, it’s also that the ravers have been given a lot of shit – but we are still a bit more respectful of the law… Because we don’t want to get our sound system confiscated. Even if we always do things that are on the limits of legality. But it’s true that raves are often… You have old ravers, the guys who clean the areas after, they don’t go too crazy… but generally a rave is a lot less controlled, people give donations when they come in whereas we tend to have a fixed price…. It tends to be a lot more anarchy. But it is something they are attached to, it’s good in some way too […]
Ravers also tend to want the most Kilowatts possible. We don’t give a shit about kilowatts. You don’t even say the number of KW your system has. We have at times put it up, but more as a message to ravers. […] If someone asks me how many Kilowatts my system has, I know he’s not someone from the (reggae) scene. Someone who wants to ask me what my system is made of in reggae terms will talk to me about the number of scoops, it’s kind of the basic unit […]
So there is a real importance awarded to the quality of sound. You look at Blackboard Jungle’s system, it sounds so clean. The dude can put 24 scoops, you still have a quality of sound that is impressive for the actual power of sound.
Whereas ravers often just pile up speakers, the things are out of ‘tune’, and so they have so many kilowatts but the things cancel themselves out. They want a huge kick. Maybe the fact that they make electronic music with little melodies allows them to do that. But if we start doing that, you won’t hear such and such frequency anymore, you won’t hear the voices anymore… So the music we play forces us to put the quality of sound at the front […]
After I don’t know if the massives that come to the [sound system] sessions have the same approach, but I think they are capable of knowing if a system works well or not. As much as in raves you hear a massive kick, it makes you dance because you’re already bouncing around on the fast bass. There are synthesizers but if you don’t hear them it doesn’t change much. Whereas in reggae, and this goes back to the issue of dubplates and how to build your dance. Well recently I went to a session organized by people who I will not name, the system did not sound good, and well the people did not get into the mood, they couldn’t spread the vibes. Even though they had good artists playing, there wasn’t that fusion between the people and the sound system.
So for your dance to work well, you have to have a good quality of sound in order to spread your vibe.
And that I think is quite an important difference.