Denis Kilcommons: History of reggae

Huddersfield was a centre of excellence for reggae in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aswad

Huddersfield was a centre of excellence for reggae in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was here that the UK sound system culture developed after being imported from Jamaica, and the famous West Indian club in Venn Street was the first – and sometimes only – port of call for visiting reggae stars from the Caribbean.

The history of the music and the sound system phenomenon has been traced in a Heritage Lottery funded project in partnership with Huddersfield University.

A travelling exhibition was compiled, a documentary film made and a book, Sound System Culture, produced. They were launched at the university in May.

The hardback book, conceived by historian Mandeep Samra and written by Paul Huxtable, has loads of photographs from the period. It’s published by One Love Books and is available on-line at £19.99 and has received great reviews here and in Jamaica.

The Guardian based a two page spread on it recently, to record the unique part Huddersfield played in the development of the music.

Reggae sound systems are mobile discos on which records are played through huge speakers. While the West Indian Social Club, that later became Cleopatra’s and the Silver Sands, was the focal point for the music, the sound systems being built at home by young West Indians had one great advantage over competitors from other towns and cities: Mat Mathias at Matamp, his music shop in King Street.

He hand-built amplifiers for the systems with valves rather than transistors for a better bass sound.

“Mat was a German Jewish man making amplifiers for West Indians in Yorkshire,” said Ian Smith. His band, Inner Mind, recorded in the studio Mathias ran near his shop. “You couldn’t make it up. He sold chocolate, cigarettes and amplifiers.”

Paul Huxtable said: “Every town with a large black community had a sound system scene, but Huddersfield’s was vastly out of proportion to the size of the place.”

All the major names of reggae appeared at Venn Street: Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Sugar Minott, Desmond Dekker.

Dr Stephen Dorril, author, expert on covert intelligence, and now a senior lecturer at the university, also contributed to the promotion of reggae.

He studied at what was then Huddersfield Polytechnic and, for three years booked bands into the Great Hall, which was, at that time, a major venue on the college circuit.

For promoting reggae bands at the Poly, Steve got a commendation from the music industry in London.

“I took over in the Poly in 1976. We put on about 20 reggae bands, more than any other student venue.”

He booked bands such as Steel Pulse and Inner Circle, as well as ska bands like Madness, Specials and Bad Manners.

Aswad, he says, was the finest live band he ever saw. He booked them for a Rock Against Racism gig in the Great Hall.

The reception was incredible but, afterwards, they were silent in the dressing room. They were amazed that the audience had been overwhelmingly white.

More about the Poly, the Coach House and Steve in Monday’s column.

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