Exploring Birmingham's Sound System Culture

A travelling exhibition documenting soundsystem culture in the UK stops off in Birmingham next month. I spoke to the curators Mandeep Samra and David Schischka Thomas.
Wassifa Sound Crew. Handsworth Leisure Centre, Birmingham, 1983. Photo: Wassifa Photography.

Wassifa Sound Crew. Handsworth Leisure Centre, Birmingham, 1983. Photo: Wassifa Photography.

This exhibition forms part of the Sound System Culture project that began in Huddersfield in 2013. Can you explain how it all came about?

Mandeep Samra: I first had the idea six years ago after hearing people talk about how big the Huddersfield scene was back in the days. As time passed by I heard many of the older sound operators had passed away so there was an urgency to capture the stories. In 2012 I was managing the stage at Deighton Carnival in Huddersfield and the person in charge of the event, Howard Belafonte, mentioned he was part of Armagideon sound system, a well-known sound that played all over the UK during the 1980s and ’90s. I also discovered my boiler man, Michael Royal, had been a sound operator for Duke Warrior, a Huddersfield-based sound system that had been active during the 1970s. Each person I met helped link me up with the other local sounds so it all started from there.

Studio City Sound Crew 1974. Photo: Lewis Fairfield

Studio City Sound Crew 1974. Photo: Lewis Fairfield

Approximately how many reggae sound systems have originated from Birmingham and can you tell us about some of the main ones?

David Schischka Thomas: There are too many Birmingham sound systems to give a precise number. Many pubs in Handsworth and Balsall Heath had resident sounds and if you add the small sound systems that played at blues parties, shebeens, etc, there would be many hundreds. We have managed to highlight 112 sound systems in the Birmingham area. Quaker City is the most celebrated of the early Birmingham sound systems but others include Mafiatone, Studio City, Wassifa, Jungleman, Jah Massigan, Sir Christopher, Duke Alloy and later Luv Injection and King Earthquake.

Which parts of Birmingham were important for the city's sound system scene?

DST: The two main areas for sound systems in Birmingham were Handsworth and Balsall Heath, both areas with large African Caribbean communities. Many good sounds also started out in satellite towns to Birmingham like Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.

What have been the main venues in Birmingham for sound system sessions?

DST: Most sounds started out playing at blues parties or hired community halls, as mainstream venues would not accommodate sound systems. Winson Green community centre and Canterbury school were the most fondly remembered venues by youth sounds like Jah Massigan and Jungleman. However, over time many venues became associated with sound systems. Quaker City played regularly at the 67 Club in Wolverhampton, as did Count Fire. Duke Neville played regularly at the Santa Rosa on Soho Road. Studio City made their name at a venue called Mount Pleasant in Birmingham. The Hummingbird, owned/managed by Mr Blake and Tony Owens, used to book some of the biggest reggae stars of the day, supported by sound systems like Wassifa. Also many of the big sounds from London used to clash with Birmingham sounds at Digbeth Civic Hall (now the Digbeth Institute).

Winson Green, 1979. Photo: Vanley Burke

Winson Green, 1979. Photo: Vanley Burke

Has the Birmingham research brought up any surprising stories?

DST: Many of the stories from the early days of sound systems were both surprising and sometimes quite comical. The sound system operators were often very honest about the struggles to build a sound and the lengths they would go to build a system in an environment of poverty. For me, as a person who started attending dances in the 1970s and stopped in the 1990s due to family and work commitments, I was pleasantly surprised to find out when interviewing Errol Arawak, founder of King Earthquake, that there is a huge interest in roots and dub with young people in Europe. I have also noticed recently in Birmingham more promoters booking the conscious roots and dub outfits. Let it continue.

Did you learn of any tunes that were especially important to any of the Birmingham sound systems, and can you talk a bit about the reggae music that has been produced in the city?

DST: We asked all sound system operators whether they had important tunes or dubplates and they all replied that there were too many to mention, and it was too long ago. With gentle persuasion and further research we managed to find a couple of dubplates that were important to the younger generation of sound systems like Jungleman and Jah Massigan. These were "Very Well" by the Wailing Souls and "Rasta Bussiness" by the Mighty Threes. 

All mentioned the importance of dubplates and white label pre-releases to making sure the sound system was on top and playing the freshest tunes.

The youth sounds mentioned Junjo Lawes and a couple of sounds mentioned being given dubplates by Jah Shaka. Carl Irvin from Quaker City did reminisce about his first clash with Count Fire in the mid-1960s and how he won over the crowd with a pre-release of "Everybody Needs Love" by Slim Smith. This was a couple of years before the official release. 

Many of the sound system operators produced reggae music on a small scale including Carl Irvin from Quaker City and Sir Christopher. However, the best known producer was Stafford Douglas from Mafiatone with his Art and Craft label, amongst others. Another more recent producer of note is Wooligan from Orthadox 38 and Jah Voice.

Were Steel Pulse associated with any of Birmingham's sound systems, and do you know what the story is behind their 1979 tune, "Sound System"?

DST: Steel Pulse did not have any associations with sound systems as far as I know and we did not really explore this element of Birmingham's rich history, which is well researched. However, a number of sound system artists went on to find commercial success in their own right including Macka B and Bitty McLean, both artists with Wassifa. Astro from UB40 was rumoured to be a toaster with Duke Alloy.

What will the Sound System Culture: Birmingham exhibition consist of?

MS: It will consist of photographs, audio recordings, archive film footage and other memorabilia charting the development of the Birmingham sound system scene from the early days. Visitors will also have an opportunity to interact with Heritage Hi-Fi, a custom-built, vintage-style sound system built by Paul Huxtable (Axis sound system) consisting of a turntable, Matamp Super Nova mixer/preamp, Matamp Quasar amplifiers and Fane loudspeakers. For me one of the most exciting elements of the display are the exclusive dubplates containing snippets of interviews with key sound system operators from Birmingham such as Carl Irvin (Quaker City), Lewis Fyfield and Ron Cooke (Studio City), Mykal Brown (Wassifa), Errol Thompson (Jungleman), Adolphus Welsh (Jah Massigan), Winston Mexican (Luv Injection) and Errol Arawak (King Earthquake).

Flyer, Digbeth Civil Hall. C/O: Robbo Tread collection.

Flyer, Digbeth Civil Hall. C/O: Robbo Tread collection.

Sound systems from outside of Birmingham would go there for the city's amp builders, did you talk to any of them, or anyone else from 'behind the scenes'?

DST: There were a couple of amp builders that came up again and again when interviewing sound system operators. One of these was Legs Giant who built valve amps for many people. He now lives in the United States, but when we develop the project further with a book, I am hoping to interview him. Whenever I mentioned this project to people in the street, I was amazed by the amount of knowledge they had, as everyone seemed to be linked with a sound system at one time. Many people were very helpful, for example Robbo Dread from Scientist Sound used to distribute flyers for sound system promoters and has built a great archive of original flyers and posters which we will be using within the exhibition. I must point out that this exhibition is just the beginning of longer term and more detailed projects where we will be interviewing more people from behind the scenes.

A children's book, The Sonar System, was produced as part of the project...

MS: Yes, The Sonar System was written and illustrated by French reggae artist Ras Mykha and published by One Love Books. It's set on a distant planet called Tesfa, part of a sonar system where the planets revolve around a gigantic speaker instead of a sun, and the people spend their time building sound systems. In a nutshell, it's a story about a higher principle of working collectively together as opposed to competing with one another. The book also supports the international #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, aimed at promoting greater cultural diversity in children’s literature.

And finally, what do you think makes the UK so special in terms of sound system culture?

DST: The reggae sound system culture developed out of the ghetto areas of Kingston, Jamaica, and became a huge source of pride and entertainment to poor people throughout Jamaica. When the Jamaican community started arriving in the UK in the 1950s they brought this love of sound systems with them. Duke Vin was originally involved with Tom the Great Sebastian sound system in Jamaica before he moved to London where he built the first sound system in the UK. Gradually a number of systems grew to entertain the African Caribbean community however, reggae music also caught on with many young white people, whether skinheads in the 1960s dancing to rocksteady and early reggae, or punks in the 1970s stepping out to roots rockers tunes. The essence of the sound system has developed and mutated in each generation and in my opinion is the basis of all dance music today. Europe does not have this rich history but I am pleased that young people are reviving the earlier forms of reggae.

MS: I agree with Dave and think the UK has a very rich history in sound system culture and that's what makes it so special and unique.

Sound System Culture: Birmingham is a free exhibition and sound installation taking place at The Drum Arts Centre, 144 Potters Lane, Birmingham B6 4UU from 6 August to 7 September 2015. It forms part of the Sound System Culture project developed by Let's Go Yorkshire, documenting the history of reggae sound systems across the UK.