Lewisham: Home of sound-system culture

Jah Shaka. Photo: Em Terceira Visao

There is little left in the blue borough that points toward its bass heavy history. But back in the day, two of the most famous and influential UK reggae music sound-systems were residents: Jah Shaka in New Cross and Saxon in Lewisham town.

Les Back, reggae aficionado, sociology lecturer  and former Goldsmiths student, spent most of his spare time during his student years,  soaking up the sound and culture that thrived in the community around the  campus.

He has vivid recollections of attending dances hosted by Jah Shaka: “It was the kind of thing that moved you to your bones. It was a music that wasn’t being played by a band but it was live. It was a live form but using records.”

He is of course looking  back some 30 years, to a time before current forms of DJing had developed; when operators such as Jah Shaka used one turntable, a mic and a ton of effects to convey their message. The sound-systems they played through would be built large enough to shake the foundations of the earth.

Jah Shaka is renowned primarily for playing dub reggae. Old recordings of his sessions reveal commitment to a classic style: a vocal tune played, then followed by the instrumental version, so as to create an elongated piece of music stitched together by a downpour of psychedelic siren effects. Lyrics were important, but the deep contours of a bass line more-so.

Saxon was different, as Les explains: “It was the platform for a new generation of MCs, or what came to be known as fast style MCs. It was absolutely about lyricism. Saxon came to prominence a little bit later.”

The MCs who represented Saxon are now legendary. Their crew counted Papa Levi, Maxi Priest, Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie, all top selling singers who enjoyed brief bouts of pop-star fame at the height of their careers. The style that they practised fed directly into the development of hip-hop both in the US and the UK.

Jah Shaka and Saxon were the biggest sound-systems (in terms of popularity and sonic force) to come out of Lewisham but were also part of a much wider network that encompassed London and many other parts of England. From the late 1970’s to the mid 80’s when the reggae phenomenon was hitting a peak of popularity, sound-systems prospered. And at the time, south-east London reverberated with the sounds of Kingston, Jamaica.

Sounds such as Jah Shaka and Saxon pioneered vital forms of reggae music, and they were also highly culturally significant. They represented the communities in which they were situated and created a space in which people could come together.

“The sound-system men were businessmen; they were running dances but they were catering to an audience that wasn’t being catered to, not only in mainstream society, but in the context of this part of London. A part of London that is deeply implicated in the history of empire.”

“One of the things I think was so important about the dynamism and innovative nature of Lewisham based sounds, especially Saxon, is that they were so often working with translation. It wasn’t  a replication of culture in London, but a culture of translation that brought Kingston and Lewisham into dialogue and made Kingston and Lewisham mutually recognisable.”

During sound-system dances London’s black population could escape segregation and find empowerment, . : “It wasn’t just a space to live and be free in the night-time hours, it was also a place in which the music was being used almost as a kind of resource, a kind of sound-track, upon which the history of the present, the experience of what it meant to be young and black in that time, was also being recorded, written, commented on.”

One of Back’s former students, Lez Henry, used to help out on Jah Shaka’s sound-system as a teenager before making a name for himself as a deejay under the name Lezlee Lyrics. He has also taught in the sociology department at Goldsmiths and continues to work as a social anthropologist. He too expresses the importance of sound-systems: “Music was the mainstay of our communities. I think that if it wasn’t for reggae sound-systems, black youth would have rioted and probably destroyed half of London. Sometimes, the only thing that would calm you down was the music or the words from the deejay. It was a healing space. A lot of it cooled us down, because we were under some heavy shit.”

As a deejay, Lez toured the country and was a regular on the Lewisham scene: “We set up sound-systems wherever we could. We were using warehouses and garages. We’d capture houses. You name it. White people did not generally hire out their clubs to us. That’s the bottom line. So we used to appropriate spaces and perform.”

“We would say we’re gonna have a dance today in 407 New Cross road. We’d set up in there, the police would come and raid it. Someone else would say; ‘There’s another house down the road.’ We’d go down and string up in there and move the dance there. That’s how we used to do it.”

Lez can recollect a time when dances occurred every night in Lewisham. These days, you’re more likely to hear reggae booming out of passing cars or tumbling out of barber shops than on a sound-system. Jah Shaka now plays in North London and Saxon appear s every so often at special events. If you’re lucky, you can find a small sound set up in Deptford on the odd occasion.

Reggae is still very much a relevant form but cultural focus has changed, as Les Back points out: “That 1980’s version of reggae culture – that moment has passed and shifted. It’s become a historical moment rather than a current moment. But I think those forms; those types of production of music and the sculpting of sound have had a lasting effect. It informs all of the history of the emergence of dance music culture in this country.”

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