Ronan Lynch, exhibitiion producer photographed here with Micheal Thompson (one of the two artists in the exhibition). Photo: Nils Kersten
Dublin reggae fans and sound system heads are in for a real treat over the next few weeks as the Reggae Movement exhibition comes to town. Curated by Ronan Lynch of Irie Up magazine, the show promises an illustrated journey into the history of sound system culture, not to mention the chance to get your wind on to some dancehall. James Redmond talked to Ronan for www.rabble.ie and hears why the only good system is a soundsystem.
Why do you call it a “reggae movement,” rather than say a ‘scene’ or the like? Is there something different about reggae culture that signals it out as being something more?
Reggae is a movement, it’s one of the new styles of music that came out of the 20th century, but it’s still evolving and there’s a phenomenal back catalogue of reggae music, especially from the 1970s, that is still being discovered or uncovered. I think there was something special that happened in Jamaica and reggae and soundsystem culture in particular has had a huge influence on modern music, and modern dance music, on lots of levels. Technically, musically, spiritually, lots of ways.
This exhibition is connecting some of the dots, because you find that from necessity, Jamaica developed this kind of radio of the people, a street corner soundsystem, and started making their own music to play on their own soundsystems. This is all steeped in struggle and slavery, but people around the world caught the message of this music and since that time it hasn’t stopped growing and spreading around the world.
How does an Irish man get caught up in reggae culture? Can you give us some details on how you came to be involved and what was a pivotal moment that saw you open up to it all?
Actually I got into reggae when I lived in Austin, Texas in the 1990s. A guy called Nabeel Zuberi, who was a DJ, introduced me on to that kind of psychedelic roots reggae and dub from the late 70s, deep roots music, and as a musician I started trying to figure it out. The lyrics caught me, I could instantly relate to what parts I could understand, you know! I was working as a journalist at the time with the Austin Chronicle, and Austin had an incredible independent media scene, excellent journalism, citizen television and all that. The themes in reggae were addressing the corrupt system, the world of illusion, propaganda, Bablyon. I started to see that reggae was not just a music, but a medium.
I was also studying in Austin and writing about music as news, and its influence on society. Jamaica in the 1960s and 1970s, it was one of those places where the music was stronger that the mainstream media. Records flew off the shelves. This is what the people from sound system culture recall, that the singers and the DJs – people like U Roy and Dillinger, Big Youth – were the journalists of the people. The press and radio was controlled by the rich but the soundsystem and reggae was independent.
The UK obviously has a long standing relationship with Jamaica and reggae culture, you only have to think of carnival and the legacy of the Windrush generation over there. But Germany? Can you give me some background on how reggae came to take a hold on city like Berlin which surely is better known for techno?
You can’t imagine the influence that Bob Marley and the Wailers had in terms of planting a seed for reggae in Europe. Marley played in Berlin in 1980, he had a huge impact here. Germany had the first big European reggae festival from the mid 1980s and a few Jamaicans made their way to Berlin in the 1980s, and brought Jamaican music to a small local reggae scene. Some of the local DJs went to Jamaica, caught the vibe and started these sessions in Berlin. There were a few of the first soundsystems around in the 90s and wherever there was jungle or trance, there would be a dub chill out room. The UK sounds started visiting the Berlin Dub Club and then people like Mortiz and Mark Ernestus who were producing techno in Berlin started making minimal dub as Rhythm & Sound, with a lot of the West Indians living in Berlin, Dominicans, Jamaicans, so there’s always been a crossover.
A lot of modern reggae has the tempo of techno, but you can say that club tempos were also influenced by rockers, 70s reggae. And dubstep is a another crossover scene from reggae. Reggae came to Berlin in the 90s at a time when it was dominated by dancehall, but you had bands like Seeed who crossed dancehall and roots and hip hop and were a big success, people were proud of them in Berlin. Then there’s been this reggae yard called Yaam since the early 1990s, which is still going, on a place down by the river, and it’s really a great spot, unique probably. It’s a kind of meeting place for Africans, Europeans and the Caribbean crew. It’s still the main spot for soundsystem sessions in Berlin.
You are working with an illustrator to bring some of the themes in the exhibition to life. How did you guys hook up?
Michael Thompson contacted us as he does mostly political illustrations but he is trying to draw attention to reggae music and the struggle of the music and the people behind it. He grew up in Jonestown in Kingston and he has lots of great stories from the soundsystems. So we did a story on his work, and asked him if he would illustrate some panels for the exhibition. He lives in the States now, but he travelled to Berlin for the exhibition and he’s developing some new projects now, he’s determined to take the exhibition to Jamaica for a start. We ran a night with a solar powered soundsystem and it was mostly the Africans and people from the Caribbean who were interested in this, places where it’s not always easy to just hook up to the grid.
Then a guy from Vital Sound in the UK put us in touch with Mau Mau, who is a painter, he also had a great feel for reggae and the culture, and we used some of his work too.
You also have a background as journalist. and these days you are better known for editing Irie Up magazine. Being a print publication in digital times is fairly tough, how is Irie Up faring as a magazine?
Well, there’s a soundsystem scene worldwide now, people actually building up soundsystems for the first time in places like Mexico, China, Norway, you name it, and there’s interest in the history of soundsystem and the culture and the stories. So it’s a niche market, but people like the quality, we print on nice paper, and people collect the magazine So we sell to about 30 countries now, a lot by subscription, and we get good advertising support from independent record labels and shops and that.
The exhibition is brought to Ireland by Posterfish Promotions . They have organised a fundraiser on November 5th with The Bionic Rats (Ska, Reggae), Madu (Dub, Reggae, Jazz, Soul), Enda Star (Firehouse Skank), Tuathal (Roots Corner) and Carax (Punky Reggae Party). The Exhibition takes place from 09 November – 15 November 2011 at The Little Green Street Gallery, Dublin 1.