Dancehall Days - Anna Arnone
“Have you ever been in a dancehall, the place is rammed silly, it’s like a sardine can and everybody in the dance is shouting for you? I wonder if you’ve ever experienced that? You’ve got to come and take in Saxon.” Dennis Rowe
My book ‘Sound Reasoning’ (publication date October 2017) is a joyous journey through the Reggae radio stations of the 1980’s. It is a narrative, in words and pictures, of the UK’s Sound System culture and scene of the time. Apart from the brilliant introduction by Benjamin Zephaniah and one of Brother Culture’s irie lyrics, the work in the book is all taken from my archive of photographs and interviews. That includes my photographs of Benjamin from two of his earliest performances in Brixton. It is no surprise to learn that Benjamin has his roots in the cultural, oral and music traditions that created Sound Systems and MCing.
You will be taken to a dancehall or two as you turn the pages because I have created interwoven narratives. It starts, as did the sessions with the Soundvan, crammed with boxes, equipment and people. A journey could be a few miles to a local Town Hall or hundreds of miles up country from London to Birmingham or another conurbation hungry for the deep bass, music selection and energy of a Sound clash. I travelled with Fatman Hi-fi in the Soundvan with the crew, in the depths of winter. You had to be dedicated to the Sound, your team, your music and to spreading the joy of crucial Reggae.
This was a time when there was very little Reggae on the legal radio (there was only so much Reggae that Tony Williams and David Rodigan could spin) and before the pirate radio stations really started to widen the selection. That’s why Sound Systems were the radio stations of Reggae. You simply wouldn’t hear it much anywhere else. That’s not to ignore the records shops who were integral to promoting and selling the music.
The photos then tell you the stories; Fatman, Coxsone, Saxon, and of the other great Sound Systems. The women are present in good numbers because they were making their own noise. Sista Culcha and Bionic Rhona were two of the established women’s Sounds who played out in their own style. MCs like Ranking Ann and Lorna Gee were chatting intelligent lyrics. Working with Mad Professor, Neil Fraser, the lyrical style was combined with the musical dub fashion that is Ariwa’s hallmark. Of the men, Smiley Culture and his MC partner Asher Senator, Philip Levi, Macka B, Pato Banton, Tippa Irie were tearing up the dancehalls. They were all innovators, taking the classic Jamaican styles of MCing, from Big Youth to Early B, and transforming them into a witty British-Jamaican fusion for their UK born audiences. The music went…well now we’d probably say ‘viral’ but it was well before the internet and easier to use, cheaper technology that culminated in grime and democratisation of getting your own flavour of beat and bass out to your crowd.
I take you to the home for sick and retired speakers (Wembley Loudspeakers), the dub cutters (including those pioneers of cutting the bass, John and Felicity Hassell), the records shops (you will find Mr Peckings and his son who now runs the store), history (Percy Metro who had the poignant recollections of coming to England and reminding us that it wasn’t just about looking for work) and the amp builders (who regarded their clientele with fondness and caring frustration). I return to pirate radio because Daddy Ernie was there when a raid could mean losing a huge chunk of your record collection and because he and others, like Channel One and Dennis Rowe are now using radio legally and as a community voice. And I must not forget the women singers, Janet Kay, Sandra Cross, Sonie, Toyin, to name a few, whose songs were classed as ‘Lovers’ Rock’ and who experienced Dancehall and Sounds from a variety of perspectives. They tell us that they don’t want to be pigeon holed in one category. Their voices have echoes of soul, gospel and church choirs (where many of them first exercised their vocal talents). These women occupy a special place in the history of Dancehall because they made a special music that was as hard as the beautiful roots and skankers’ dub slates that shook you to your core.
© Maiden Publishing UK 2017 -18 may not be reproduced without permission.
Anna Arnone documentary photographer and journalist.
Published by Arandora Press and available by mail order from firstname.lastname@example.org. The book has 128 pp plus cover, size is 180x180mm. Limited edition run of 1200. Price is £25 per copy plus post and packing.