Tuesday, August 04, 2009

sound around town

One of the most obvious and dramatic aspects of living in Kingston is the prevalence of music. You hear it everywhere in the city, all hours of the day and night. It's present in in your ears because nearly every business, car, and bus station has the radio on, guys selling stuff on the sidewalk have a boombox or stereo, the church next door is having a service or the revivalists are circling under a tree and singing..

But its presence is felt visually and in your bones and belly, because huge towers of speakers loom over many landscapes. They line Hellshire beach, kicking off with 70s soul and R&B and occasional rocksteady around 11am on Sunday, and hotting up to dancehall and newer R&B by the afternoon and evening. And, even more dramatically, they stand tall in the poorest neighborhoods, like Waterhouse, home of the incredible Terry Lynn, as well as the recent Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser, King Jammy's studio, and of course hundreds more people, living in cement brick houses, zinc-paneled shacks, and everything in between. (Check this great sports illustrated article, cached here, about Fraser and Waterhouse.) You're walking down the street, and up ahead you see this:


waiting for the sun to set, the soundman to set up the CD players, the local shops to roll up their windows to sell drinks and snacks and the drum chicken guys, peanut and candy vendors with huge boat-shaped stacks of treats balanced on their heads


and other freelance folks to roll up and start selling. By midnight the scene will buzz with dancing, flossing, flirting, drinking, eating and smoking, as folks come out of their houses. The more famous dances like Boasy Tuesday are famous outside their neighborhoods, but if you drive around any night of the week by 11pm or midnight, you're liable to come across a street dance within half a mile or so of anyplace you start in central or downtown Kingston.

So this day in January, right after I first arrived in Kingston from Oakland, I was walking through Waterhouse taking pictures of my friend Maddy's interview (for The World) with Terry Lynn, when I got some great shots of the speaker towers:


It's striking, when you are walking or driving through the city, and these tarp-wrapped vast & trunkless legs of speakers straddle roads and gullies, promising earthshaking bass weekly, free of charge. Nobody troubles the speakers, seemingly, except the threat of rain and dust which is, I guess, why the tarps wrap them in the day. They do cause the mighty some concern, if not despair - as street dances are constantly under challenge from noise complaints (the police now actually enforcing noise complaints, a change in recent years), and also the source of moral panic since the dirtiest lyrics and dancing are generated by and aimed at these venues.

Street dances are not spontaneous or uncontrolled, of course. Neighborhoods have powers-that-be, whether it is legal or extralegal, who must be supporting or even profiting from the dances. If it isn't Members of Parliament (which class allegiance/horror of poor people music can work against) then who steps up? My favorite euphemism is "area leader" or "community leader" which refers to the local don or head gangster --- but which does often genuinely mean community leader as well since the local gang may be the most organized institution in the neighborhood and one that doesn't shy away from associating with the music and practices that upper classes often bemoan as morally degenerate. I'm not sure who pays for the speakers though, that's one question I need to ask -who owns them, and what does ownership mean, in this context? I don't think the towers are always standing around all week - but these were up at noon when we walked by, so who puts them up, when, and if they are taken down, where do they go?

*Full set of photos from that interview up here, courtsey of Mad B (also check out her amazing shots from Colombia where she is now working. Note her vastly superior photography skills as well).


  1. As I recall, I was told that Boasy Tuesdays was funded by one of the local corner shops, who set up the drinks table and paid for the visiting selectas. Great post.

  2. Yes, much like the original Trojan soundsystem at Duke Reid's liquor store! Music to buy drinks to, musicians get paid through the sales of non-musical items..