Sound System Outernational 5: Street Technology and Public Space, Naples 4-6 April 2019

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 Eliete Mejorado and Bruno Verner of the Brazilian band Tetine. Since its inaugural symposium, held at Goldsmiths in 2016, SSO has staged a number of public events aimed at bringing researchers and practitioners together, so that shared knowledge may be transmitted across different platforms and ways of working. The idea is to delve into sound system’s past, present and future and to explore the diverse aspects, histories and practices that form components of the culture worldwide.

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 centres that give sanctuary to oppositional figures from the city’s underbelly, including stateless refugees striving to survive in a hostile environment. The academic presentations were of high standard, yet the sound system performances held in these alternative spaces and the lived testimony of practitioners were what made SSO5 so very special.

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 neighbourhoods. The Scugnizzo crew explained that the local sound system scene grew out of a “culture from below,” with students and other marginalized and disaffected youth making up the subculture. These “passionate militants” as they described themselves went on to detail the Nadir festival they have created, seeing a function of the arts being to imagine what is possible, and noted their practice as a reaction to the North/South divide that privileges the North in Italy, while the South is strictly neglected. Then, Vincent Moystad’s presentation looked at sound systems as a source of collective active, drawing on the experiences of members of BASS, the British Association of Sound Systems, to posit that the sound system experience is by and large a response to political questions, although not necessarily in an overt or straightforward sense. Finally, Stefano Mazza and Beyene Muse of Tikur sound system gave a truly moving talk about their work with refugee communities in Italy, bringing music as a form of solace to tented hamlets that are often completely cut off from the rest of society, populated by illegal immigrants and displaced persons that struggle to survive, off the grid, in barren camps in the middle of nowhere. Young Warrior also spoke of his journey through sound system culture, which essentially began from birth since he is the son of the mighty Jah Shaka, and it was another refreshing reality check to hear his testimony on the need to run his sound system and record label as a business, since he has no other means to survive.

Following an excellent vegan lunch break, different presentations were being given simultaneously in different rooms, forcing a choice between one or the other. I attended the “Outernational Roots and Routes” strand, which began with Jean-Christophe Sevin of Avignon University’s exploration of the sound system scene in Marseille, which he said began as an offshoot of the hip-hop scene, noting disparate evolving links that saw Jo Corbeau connecting with U Roy and the Mauritian seggae style of Jagdish Konexyon all leading towards the establishment of Massilia Sound System, which drew from dub, hip-hop and north African forms, representative of that city’s mixed immigrant heritage. Moses Iten of RMIT University in Melbourne then gave a talk on digital cumbia’s “tropical bass,” noting how the Colombian form was completely transformed by practitioners in Mexico, especially through the application of echo and delay on the nation’s massive sound systems. Jessica Perera of the Institute of Race Relations, London then tackled the politics of “Generation Grime,” her presentation marred by being overly long and with more curse-words than were strictly necessary, though some good points were raised about British politicians’ attempted co-opting of the form during the 2017 general election. Michael McMillan of the University of the Arts in London then gave his “meditation” on all things related to raving, exploring the content and form of sound systems of old and the strictly gendered division of their followers. The final strand I witnessed was the “Feminine Sound Power” session, which began with a video presentation by Sao Paulo’s Feminine Hi-Fi, delivered remotely in a pre-recorded mode. It was a touching statement that got to the heart of the matter of what it is like running an all-female sound system in Brazil and the function sound systems serve in the have-not communities of the favelas. Nadine Dogliani spoke of her long experience of running a sound system in northern Italy and the way in which her practice has challenged chauvinist assumptions, before the DJettes Collective, run by a duo from Belgium and Italy, spoke of the motivation behind their collective work, aiming to create a safe space for female practitioners. Then, Thali Lotus of the British sound system Come as You Are related the recent experience of launching her own sound system in 2016 and the challenges she has faced as a female practitioner, which was also emphasized by June Reid, aka Junie Rankin’, of London’s Nzinga Soundz, established back in the 1980s and still going strong.

Photo: © Asia Pierotti
Photo: © Asia Pierotti

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 and style. Nardo Leo’s set was also thoroughly contemporary, though more in the hybrid way of new roots that mixes live instruments with some electronic elements, including work he produced with Prince Fatty for Delicious Vinyl, while 55 were more on the dancehall side of things, their mic men delivering their spitfire lyrics in local dialect. Also on offer in another section of this massive space was the Mec Mini sound system, a set powered by a 12-volt battery, run by James Diddio and crew.

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 nuff forwards and people of all ages singing along with anthem tunes. Then DJ Muxima skated the fine line between organic roots and digital oblivion, the intriguing set revealing her as a natural on the decks. Mad Professor and Aisha performed in the peak slot, circa 2-3:30am, dubbing them crazy as the audience numbers swelled the packed dancefloor to bursting, and it was left to Baba Boom Hi-Fi to finish things off, playing until 5am, despite Brian having organized and executed the entire weekend’s activities—well done Brian!

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 calibre of the Naples edition guarantees it will be worth making the effort to reach Sao Luis. For more information, go to: