How Music Works: Ireland’s reggae sound system culture rumbles on

“Who feels it knows it” – Jason of Galway’s Rootical Sound System tells Niall Byrne about Ireland’s sound system culture

Though it is dismissed by many as a curio of music, reggae, if it is considered beyond its mainstream Bob Marley reputation, was one of the first genres of music to put the DJs and producers of music at the forefront of the culture. Born out of ska and rocksteady, reggae became Jamaica’s main cultural export to the world.

Giant sound systems in Jamaica quaked with huge rhythms that were felt by the body before the ears, an MC would “toast” over the top (they were also confusingly called the deejay back then) and acetates (a quickly degrading vinyl record with limited shelflife) were the preferred method of playback. Dub and versions. Sound systems would battle against each other in sound clashes.

The music travelled with emigrants from Kingston abroad. It permeated hip-hop in the US and informed jungle, grime and drum and bass in the UK. Today, its origin influence is even more prominently felt in the dancehall-influenced music of Major Lazer and with guest verses from Popcaan and Chronixx on huge pop hits.

Ireland's sound system culture
The original sound still has a hold on many. In Ireland, there are three main reggae sound systems: Dublin's Firehouse Skank, Cork's Revelation and Galway's Rootical. Sound systems are characterised by their power and number of speakers. The more powerful the sound system, the more you can control the atmosphere of an event.

"Who feels it knows it," is how Jason of Rootical Sound System describes the feeling of a big sound system. Jason says he has always thought big when it comes to his setup.

“Where possible I love to set up the full system with three large stacks, four bass scoops per stack. The only venues to date in this country that I have been able to do this have been the Black Box in Galway and in a large circus tent at Mantua Festival.”

A lover of reggae since his teens, it was the experience of seeing (and feeling) Channel One Sound System play in 1994 that got him hooked. When the bassline dropped at their Galway show, the idea of owning a sound system became a desire.

“I was hearing some tunes I already knew but in a totally different way,” Jason recalls.

Building a system
Jason began playing in clubs, and used a friend's PA where possible. In 1999, a UK crew called Armagideon Sounds played Dublin and Galway and their set-up spurred him on to build his own. He contacted Keith Swan aka Jah Tubby's in East London and travelled over in 2001 to pick up the equipment needed: six scoops, preamps and amplifiers. He learned from Swan and others.

“Tubby’s would talk to you for hours on the phone on all things sound system. Paul Fingleton from Firehouse Skank who was the first to build a Reggae Soundsystem in this country was also someone that I would talk with. He was the leader in this thing in Ireland. Paul was the first to bring guests from the UK too. Sometimes We would often spilt costs & I would also put them on in Galway at my club nights in the 1990s.”

Jason has a full-time job and recently went back to college to do electronic engineering but maintaining his sound system and promoting nights as Rootical remains a passion.

Ireland’s reggae and dub scene includes artists like Cian Finn, Ras Tinny, Dub Investigation’s Dan Taliras and Fleeting Illusion Studio but it’s a small scene and largely confined to this island in terms of success and the audience isn’t huge, despite there being more people involved then ever.

An undersupported scene
"To date I think the biggest crowd at any Soundsystem session in Galway was for Jah Shaka in 2003 with around 550 in attendance," says Jason. "Unfortunately though this is a very rare occurrence to get those kind of numbers in for any session. It is still very much an underground music & support is relatively low no matter who is playing."

One place where reggae is prominent and ripe for discovery is festivals like Electric Picnic’s Trenchtown and Body & Soul’s Port Royal Jamaican Café, both run by Revelation Sound System.

“It is great to see younger people that get some exposure to the music at events like this and then start to dig a bit deeper & come out to dedicated roots sound system sessions like ours.”

These days Jason is experienced enough to keep equipment problems to a minimum though speakers burn out and amplifiers have stopped working over the years. I ask Jason if hearing damage is a concern to him.

"A well tuned sound can hit you hard in the right way..."
"No not really. I'm conscious of it, but have always looked after myself. I like to play the sound with weight rather than volume. Meaning a well tuned sound can hit you hard in the right way with emphasises on certain frequencies without causing any serious damage to peoples hearing. I am very aware that I am also responsible for the people at the sessions too & take this seriously. I have witnessed many sounds playing at insane volume in the UK and elsewhere & this can be totally overwhelming for people and doesn't do the music any favours as far as I am concerned."

“I don`t do this with the aim of making money to pay my bills. If I did I would be in trouble. Although there are some profitable events, a lot are not. I would love to see more consistent support for sound system sessions in this country. Despite the great feedback we get after sessions, people don’t seem to make the effort to come regularly. The events are few & far apart as it is, so it would be nice if all those people that pass through & enjoy themselves would make a conscious effort to try support the events a bit more.”

League of his own
Jason's love of sound system culture keeps him coming back. His next event is Jah Shaka this Saturday in the Commercial Boat Club in Galway city.

“There is nobody involved in Roots/Dub Sound systems that hasn`t been directly or indirectly influenced by Shaka. He really is in a league of his own. The man has something very special and creates a completely unique vibe when he plays.”

And for those who still need some convincing to go to a reggae sound system event?

“It’s something a bit different to the normal nightclub experience. The system is custom built to deliver the music as it should be heard and felt. Live MCs are there to interact with the crowd and draw them into the vibes. Nothing is rehearsed, we just build a vibe with the crowd & try to ensure everyone has a nice time.”

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