By David Katz
The multifaceted entity known as Sound System Outernational was formed in 2015 at Goldsmiths, University of London, as a dedicated body that aims to investigate, stimulate and support the culture of sound systems worldwide. Spearheaded by Julian Henriques, the filmmaker, author, artist and academic that has taught at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Jamaica campus and made films such as Babymother, it was co-founded by Leo Vidigal (aka Nardo Leo), a filmmaker and lecturer at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, who also runs the sound system Deska Reggae; Brian D’Aquino, the founder of the Baba Boom Hi-Fi sound system and Roots Defender record label who is affiliated with Universita L’Orientale in Naples, Italy; along with Vincent Moystad, a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, plus
Sound System Outernational 5 was held in Naples over the first weekend in April and was easily the most ambitious and inspiring edition yet, raising the bar for future editions. The most pertinent aspect of the Naples edition was the key participation of local activists who brought a reality check into focus, reminding that sound system practice has always stemmed from and reacted to the oppression experienced by marginalized communities. As the symposium and related events revealed, Naples has a longstanding sound system scene that is linked to the squats and alternative community
Unfortunately, budget flight logistics meant that I missed the “Warm Up Session” held at Palazzo Giusso on the afternoon of 4 April, in which Italian sound system practitioners Lampa Dread from Rome’s One Love Hi Powa and Mimmo Superbass of Bari’s I&I project took part in a roundtable discussion on the history of sound systems in Italy, together with Brian D’Aquino from Baba Boom and Nadine Dogliani, aka Muxima KDW from Italy’s far north, along with the journalist Grazia Rita di Florio, who has written about reggae culture for Il Manifesto. Those present said that the testimony was very pertinent on the importance of sound system culture in a country with a chequered history of fascist leanings, and noted that the challenges facing practitioners was also discussed. Although I was sorry to miss the session with these important practitioners, each of whom has a rich history, I was happy to catch Mimmo and Lampa in action, together with Santantonio Rockers sound system, at the evening sessions held at the cavernous Kestè Art Bar, where a photo exhibition showcased the excellent work of Sara Sugoni and Mary Ciaparrone, capturing sound systems and reggae performers in evocative photographic work.
On 5 April, there was something of an academic marathon at the ornate Palazzo Du Mesnil, beginning with a dense opening address “Return to the Echo Chamber: Race, Sound and the Future of Community,” given by Louis Chude-Sokei of the University of Boston, revisiting a lecture he first delivered at the Global Reggae Conference held in Jamaica in 2008. In a lengthy and complicated delivery, Chude-Sokei began with problematic aspects of the representation of “roots” as a concept in reggae and black culture more generally, including its attempted commandeering by both the hard Left and the far Right. Taking in elements of Garveyism, Ethiopianism and other aspects of Jamaican social movements to arrive at an “auditory imagination” that informed Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s aural roots prism, Chude-Sokei went on to interrogate some of the contradictions inherent in reggae culture and its overseas consumption, as well as tensions between new and old migrants, robots and cyborgs, grime and drill music, and many other complex concepts too numerous and convoluted to mention here.
Afterwards, in the panel “Sounds on the Frontline,” members of Unity sound system from Tunisia gave a fascinating talk on the small and recent sound system scene developing in that north African country, followed swiftly by activists from the alternative space Scugnizzo Liberto, housed in a former prison in one of Naples’ most marginalized
The final keynote for the academic portion was “Sounding the System: Noise and the Politics of Citizenship,” delivered by Sonjah Stanley Niaah of the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Dr Niaah’s excellent book Dancehall: From Slaveship To Ghetto is a manditory read that makes clear dancehall’s function and status in Jamaican society and its ability to potentially erase entrenched dividing lines; here she drew on historical aspects of Jamaica’s colonial past to give context to the innovations of audio technician Hedley Jones during the 1940s, resulting in the very first sound systems on the island. She explored the 7 or 8 distinct genres of Jamaican music that came into being largely through sound system culture and noted how the sound systems have since influenced similar modes of audio transmission throughout Europe, Brazil and India, among other places. Later, she used diagrams to show where and when various British Caribbean colonial authorities banned the use of drums and horns on plantations, as well as obeah and other African cultural practices, and went on to show how the modern-day equivalent can be found in the dreaded Noise Abatement Act of 1997, which has greatly curtailed sound system activity in Jamaica. Plenty of important questions were raised, including the notion that overseas nations are now embracing sound system culture, while the form has seriously waned in its place of origin; what this means during a time when UNESCO has belatedly recognised Kingston as a Creative City and added reggae to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is truly food for thought. As with Louis Chude-Sokei’s opening address, there was plenty more in Stanley Niaah’s closer and by the time that Professors Silvana Carotenuto and Tiziana Terranova of the Università L’Orientale and Professor Julian Henriques of Goldsmiths gave their closing remarks, everyone was thoroughly exhausted. Yet, the events certainly weren’t over yet.
That night, everyone headed to Scugnizzo Liberato for very vibrant performances by Thali Lotus of CAYA and Nardo Leo from Deska Reggae, alongside local heroes 55 sound system. Thali was firmly in techno-influenced “UK steppers” mode and although that’s not necessarily the sound that warms the cockles of my heart, she delivered her tracks on vinyl with grace, wit
It was a good thing we had a bit of time to recover the next day, because on the night of 6 April, things definitely went out with a massive bang, when a full night of sound system runnings was held at CSOA Officina 99, a gigantic squat on the eastern outskirts of the city that has been continually occupied for over 20 years. After an illustrated talk on King Tubby delivered by yours truly, France’s Manu Anti-Bypass demonstrated how various dub effects units work, suggesting that the public could follow his example and create them using largely found materials; hands-on mixing sessions at the end of the talk allowed the public to try to mix dubs some of Manu’s productions in real time, with largely positive results.
Junie Rankin’ of Nzinga Soundz kicked off the musical entertainment portion of the night with a sterling set of deep roots classics, delivered 100% on vinyl. This set was a real high point for me and the energy in the space was positively electric, with
Delivered in such an evocative setting as Naples during a time when the protracted Brexit negotiations threaten to cause further divisions in Britain and throughout Europe, the diverse appeal of sound system culture and the various meanings ascribed to it in different lands was highly inspiring and the testimony of grassroots practitioners the most touching of all. The next edition of Sound System Outernational is slated to take place in the spring of 2020 in Sao Luis do Maranhao, in the far northeast of Brazil, where a very unique sound system scene has been in a major part of the local culture for several decades; the high