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From Kingston to Kingston: Sound System RoyalHeartSound by M. R. Smith

Electric generator: check. Two turntables and a microphone: check. As many speaker and power amps as can possibly be assembled: check. A fat stack of the best vinyl, ska, reggae, dub, American R&B: check. Food, drink, somebody respectable to take the money: check. Add the “sound system,” and you have the recipe for a proper street party in Kingston. Jamaica, that is.

But it could just as easily happen here, in Kingston New York, as it turns out that one of the most sought-after “sound systems” in the eastern U.S. resides in the area. RoyalHeartSound has been continuing the sound system tradition by hearkening to its roots in 60s/70s analog sound, before digital, sampling, and synthetics. And in doing so, it has earned the respect of a new generation of reggae artists keen on the old-school style. Not bad for some white folks from Woodstock.

So what exactly is a “Jamaican sound system?” In this context it’s not the equipment, but the people: a crew of DJs, rappers (or “toasters”), singers, and (sometimes) even musicians. Sound systems proliferated in the Kingston ghettos starting in the late 50s, as promoters/DJs threw street parties in order to raise money, spinning the latest in American R&B through custom-built speaker systems. When Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, the sound systems started becoming bigger businesses, with fierce competition between star DJs like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid. As American tastes moved to rock ‘n’ roll, which just didn’t have the right groove, Jamaican artists began developing their own homegrown “R&B” style, which became ska, and later, dub and reggae. Both Dodd and Reid became music producers, the former at his legendary Studio One. From this basic phenomenon, an incredibly rich and original Jamaican musical tradition came into existence, which is still developing and mutating all over the world.

Reggae music found its way into young Leith Rogovin’s Manhattan home—which was full of all styles—and “kind of took over. I grew up around the hip-hop DJ culture back then, but was really looking for something more, and then found a certain sound and vibe that attracted me: a classic reggae sound from the 60s and 70s.” The early 60s were a pretty wild time for newly-independent Jamaica, and it showed in the music and the production style of the times, which was also a period when analog recording technology saw a major boom, and vinyl mastering, well, was mastered. “Old Studio One from the 60s and 70s, bands like The Royals, Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Heptones, Paragon….people who were saying something.” Leith got his collection going, and in the late 80s/early 90s, got out and DJ-ed parties in the boroughs, making a network of contacts before taking a break from it to concentrate on his work (he’s a teacher) and home life, and relocating upstate to Woodstock in ’95.

Growing up on an Indiana farm, Sarah Traeger established herself as the DJ of the house at an early age. “I was really only exposed to what was on the radio, so as I got older and got more into music, I went through a punk rock phase. Then I got into the Grateful Dead, followed them for a couple of years…which is how I ended up in this town, because I had met people from Kingston on Dead tour.” Running up to Woodstock one afternoon with her friends, Sarah decided to settle down there instead, around 1990. Then, a good friend turned her on to his extensive collection of reggae, and she was hooked. Like Leith, she was attracted to the DJ life, and made the same choice of musical genres to present. The two were thrown together during a Woodstock Reggae event on the town green—they had met 15 years previously but hadn’t seen each other since—and quickly decided to join forces to assemble a proper Jamaican sound system, one with their “own flavor” on it. With the addition of saxophonist Otto Control adding a dash of soul and authenticity, RoyalHeartSound debuted at the Bearsville Theater, with special guest Twelfth Tribe of Israel’s Jeremiah at the mic. Both Leith and Sarah knew they had something real that night, and the word has since gotten around in the reggae scene.

What’s getting RoyalHeartSound attention from the sound system community is their commitment to the older, earthier sound and style. Sarah: “We’d start playing, thinking we’re not doing anything so new and fresh, but all the Jamaicans are like: ‘oh, you’re doing it like that? We don’t even do it like that anymore.’ They got rid of their vinyl long ago.” The older dance-tested “riddims” are being re-adopted by some of the newer artists, who are likely getting weary of the machine-generated sound of much of recent reggae, as well as the dancehall and reggaeton sounds. Here it’s all about the vinyl, which just sounds right, especially if you were raised on it. And really, it also just looks better. Leith: “To me, to do it digitally, if you actually look at someone’s face when they’re DJ-ing off a computer, it’s like, their vibe is focused on the computer. Our vibe is, I’m meditating on a whole ‘nother place, I’m on a whole ‘nother range. When we’re in that vibe, it’s a real kind of cleansing place, where everything’s moving and we’re doing our thing.”

The heart of the system is the vinyl collection, and you would think that there was a finite amount of great Jamaican reggae records from the 60s and 70s, but they keep popping up online, often with outrageous price tags. Leith and Sarah scan websites for re-issues, which if mastered well, will sound better than the more pricey originals, which also tend to be more played out. On a typical gig, the DJs loosely plan the overall shape of the show based on the guest artist, and bring their crates, mics, effects, and turntables to the venue, usually utilizing the house sound rig. Once setup and sound check are complete, the DJs start in with what Sarah calls the “easy warm,” a selection of songs designed to set the vibe right. After awhile, Otto and the vocalists fall in. Leith: “Like for example, we did a show with this artist Michigan, from Michigan and Smiley, early 80s. Showcased him with his more popular rhythms, something he has out now. And then we just did our own thing afterwards, he’ll just pick something, and whatever happens, happens.” More often than not, the DJs will have the right vinyl to back the guest artist, unless the “riddim” is just too brand spanking new, and they have to go to the CD.

Both participate in the reverb and delay “dub” effects; usually whoever is closest to the mixer at the time does the honors. There’s a lot of talking between the two during the show, and if there’s a heavyweight artist with them, no time to enjoy the show. Got to stay two steps ahead. And the artists, though sometimes exacting in what they want to hear, are still a real pleasure to work with. Sarah: “These reggae guys whip out the craziest lyrics from the cheesiest songs of my childhood. Like, ‘know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.’ But you can’t believe how good it sounds reggae! They’ll even sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’ and it’ll sound so good. They really have a lot of character.” There’s also a taper culture among sound systems, where shows are recorded and copies exchanged, a la the Grateful Dead. RoyalHeartSound records their shows. On analog tape, of course.

There’s no fortune to be made doing this; both Leith and Sarah have “real jobs.” But they get a real pleasure spinning this great music, and have found themselves a welcome addition to the stateside sound system scene, which naturally tends to be more focused in New York City, at places like the Tire Shop in the Bronx—an actual grimy tire shop with a stage in back. They will be opening Mountain Jam at Hunter Mountain with their old-school “riddims,” with both toaster Jeremiah and singer Willow Wilson joining them, and Otto, of course. Leith and Sarah feel it’s a good opportunity to introduce their sound system to a potentially receptive audience. Sarah: “As a Deadhead, the reason I love this music so much it that it has moved me in a way that other beloved music (styles) have moved me. And I feel like the jam band scene…if they only knew about it, they’d be into it.”



RoyalHeartSound performs at Mountain Jam on Thursday June 2. Go to mountainjam.com for the full schedule.



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