The history of the reggae sound system culture that evolved in Huddersfield in the 1960s and 70s is little known outside the town’s West Indian community and would have probably remained that way were it not for a new book, Sound System Culture.
In it, author Paul Huxtable, long-time reggae aficionado and sound system designer, has traced the evolution of the unique musical genre that arrived with Caribbean immigrants to Britain.
“It is,” he says, “a binding thread that has reached into the hearts and minds of many during the course of their lifetime.”
While Huddersfield couldn’t compete with cities such as Birmingham and London, it nevertheless had a sound system culture out of all proportion to its size.
Reggae sound systems are mobile vinyl record decks with vast speakers on which selectors (DJs) play discs, with vocal accompaniment by MCs.
The West Indian Club at Venn Street and the Arawak Club, two major Huddersfield venues for reggae, hosted some of the biggest names in the business. Artistes and sound system operators travelled direct from Jamaica to perform there. The music, heavy with bass and rich with rhythm reminded the immigrants of home, gave them a voice and provided entertainment.
Supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund, the new book was compiled, edited and beautifully designed by London-based Al ‘Fingers’ Newman, whose imprint One Love Books specialises in niche publications. He came on board after an approach by Huddersfield oral historian Mandeep Samra, who had begun a heritage project on sound system culture and commissioned Paul to write the text.
Mandeep and the team behind Sound System Culture rightly believe that their book is an important work of social history, containing information gleaned first hand from many of those involved in the early sound systems.
One of the researchers was Paul’s own wife, Amanda, who was born in London to Jamaican parents.
She said: “I took some of the oral histories. That was a highlight for me because these stories would have been lost forever. I sat down with people who are not used to sharing their stories. It was a real honour.”
Mandeep, who is a member of Huddersfield’s South Asian community, admits that at first she struggled to make contacts within the Caribbean community.
She explains: “It was difficult because I was seen as being outside their culture, but when they saw that I was preserving their culture then I was accepted and now I have some very good friends that I met through the project.”
A reggae fan from her teenage years, Mandeep understood something of the sound system culture.
She said: “I was brought up in Deighton and went to the high school where a lot of my friends were from the Caribbean. I used to hear my friend talking Jamaican patois and I loved the music.”
But she was aware that sound system culture operated outside the mainstream music business.
“If you weren’t part of the scene, then you would never have known it existed,” she says.
Sound system culture began in Jamaica where liquor stores used music to draw customers into their premises. In order to get the best sounds, their creators began to make their own speakers and pack them into custom-built cabinets.
Paul, who still works as a DJ (Dr Huxtable) and has a Huddersfield-based business making bespoke sound systems using old-fashion valves under his Axis Valv-a-tron label, explains: “Black people couldn’t buy the sound they wanted so they built their own sound systems. It created an industry in itself.”
Originally from Lancashire, Paul has lived in Huddersfield for 18 years and travels all over the world with his sound systems. “I do clubs and festivals,” he explained, “I specialise in vintage and classic reggae, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s taken me 30 years to make a living from it and I had to subsidise my work with joinery — I’m a joiner by trade — but then the internet happened and people around the world could see what I was doing.
Young people are really getting into reggae, it’s part of the fashion for everything retro, and there’s a demand for high-end bespoke sound systems. Hi-fi buffs still use vinyl. It won’t go away. It’s coming back in a big way and has overtaken sales of CDs.”
Paul became interested in reggae as a teenager — it had lyrics and a consciousness that appealed to someone raised in Thatcher’s Britain. He discovered sound systems when he travelled to St Lucia for Voluntary Service Overseas.
Although he could have made the book into a more technical tome, he says he wanted it to be an entertaining read and capture the personalities involved in Huddersfield sound systems — from Donovan Brown (aka Dbo General) of the Armagideon sound system to Hans Alfred Mathias, whose Matamp amplifiers earned an international reputation. They are simply too many to name here.
The project to record the oral histories has not just resulted in a book, the Heritage Lottery Fund also supported a photographic exhibition and film, while the Arts Council funded the creation of a sound system, built by Paul, which toured festivals and formed part of Black History Month last year.
Sound system culture as it once was may have died out in Huddersfield, but it’s certainly not forgotten. As Professor Paul Ward, from the University of Huddersfield, writes in the foreword, “This book is a celebration of cultural encounters, migration and movement.... I hope this book can also contribute to discussions about how British culture is enriched by its diversity and how such diversity needs due recognition.”
Sound System Culture is published by One Love Books at £19.99.