On a calm Sunday in the Kingston yard of the Jamaica Sound System Federation headquarters, home to Jam One Sound System, a group of sound system operators, enthusiasts, researchers and academics gathered to discuss Jamaica’s sound system industry as part of the Sonic Street Technologies (SST) project, a research initiative based at Goldsmiths, the University of London in the UK. Through an informal round-table discussion, entitled Sounds of the Future, moderated by Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah and Dr Dennis Howard representing the SST local partner, the University of the West Indies’ Institute of Caribbean Studies, the conversation consisted of a range of topics, from employment to the COVID-19 pandemic to technology.
Some of Jamaica’s most accomplished sound system practitioners were present such as Jack Scorpio of Black Scorpio Sound, Wee Pow of Stone Love and Ronnie Jarrett of 8 Mile. Joining them in conversation was Luke Davis Elliott, a first-year student at the Alpha School of Music. The panel gave Jamaica’s sound system operators, builders and selectors the opportunity to share their thoughts on what has changed amid a technological and social (distancing) shift, what the impact of these changes has been and what they believe is required for the continuation of Jamaican sound system practices.
Luke Davis Elliott is doing what he can to contribute. At Alpha, the 17-year old brings an impressive 7 years of experience as a selector (the person who plays pre-recorded music at an event using turntables or a disc jockey controller). Almost through with his first year at the Alpha School of Music, Davis Elliott shared with the panel how Alpha’s music curriculum, which covers the fundamentals of music has already helped him become a better selector, musician and producer. Next year he and his classmates will begin to explore music technology such as Pro Tools and sound system culture. In his third year, Luke plans to declare his concentration in Music Engineering or Music Production and further establish himself on the local and international music scene.
The unique opportunity to have a seat at the table with sound system owners and operators who had been masters of their craft before he was even born was not lost on Luke. So, how did his training at Alpha prepare Luke to engage in this conversation with sound system veterans from decades ago? It starts with the history, he says. Luke credits Alpha’s training with providing key knowledge on the history of sound systems and understanding sound itself. Luke represented the next generation of sound system operators who hope to continue the decades-long Jamaican tradition of entertainment.
“It was really amazing to be the youngest person there… and I’m working on it. I’m working on pushing us forward toward that mix of digital and analogue,” Luke noted with confidence.
Alpha’s Band Master, Gay Magnus, who is in charge of the music programme at the Alpha School of Music, said she is very happy for Luke to have had the opportunity to participate in Sounds of the Future. Magnus noted, “Luke is fortunate to have been exposed to this discussion and I am glad to know that his Alpha music training has had an impact on his understanding of what it means to be a selector. This will make him a better selector, a better musician and a better producer.” She continued, “Sound system culture is a form of ensemble performance and the Alpha School of Music is looking forward to introducing the theory and practical training in sound system culture next year.”
While sound system culture has gone worldwide, there is some concern locally in Jamaica that it is dying out. The continuation and reinvention of sound systems in Jamaica in the digital age lies in up and coming selectors such as Luke who are passionate about the fundamentals at the core of sound system culture. Indeed, Luke and his Alpha classmates may just be the ones to surge new energy into sound system culture. This continuation also lies with institutions such as Alpha ensuring that the history, best practices and techniques are passed on. The world is watching and listening as the sounds of the future reveal themselves.
Contributing Author: Ashly Cork