Sound System Culture: A New Book Reveals Huddersfield’s Hidden Reggae History

As part of our Sell Off series, discover the tiny UK town that was home to a thriving sound system scene in the post-war years.

August 25, 2014
  • Earth Rocker sound system inside Cleopatra’s (later named Silver Sands), Venn Street, Huddersfield, late 1970s. Clockwise from left: Papa Burky (Stephen Burke, operator/selector), Ducky Ranks (Donald Senior, MC), Yellowman (Robert Daley, crew member), Hunter (Brian Chester, crew member), Pumpkin (Errol Allison, crew member) and Greaves (Andy Greaves, MC). One of the biggest and most respected sound systems in the north of England, Earth Rocker was formed in 1975 by Stephen Burke, who was born in Huddersfield to Jamaican parents. The main selector and operator for the sound, Burke is a cabinet maker by trade, and continues to build boxes for sound systems across the UK and Europe to this day. According to writer Noel Hawks, who used to work at Dub Vendor record shop in South London: “One of our top mail-order customers ran a sound in Huddersfield. We used to send him up a box of pre-release singles COD nearly every week. He was so regular I can still recall his address, including the postcode, over thirty years later.” That customer was Stephen Burke. Photo courtesy Stephen Burke

  • Heritage HiFi speaker boxes, custom-built by Paul Axis (Huddersfield) for Mandeep Samra's touring exhibition that accompanies the book, photographed at Liverpool International Carnival, Princes Park, 27 July 2013. Heritage HiFi is made up entirely of locally manufactured equipment: Vintage Fane 18” bass speakers, 15” mids, compression driver and bullet tweeters, driven by Matamp amplifiers and mixer, all made in West Yorkshire. As part of the exhibition, snippets of the oral histories recorded for the project were transferred onto dub plate, allowing people to listen to and interact with the stories through a turntable and Heritage HiFi. Photo by Elliot Baxter

  • A teenage Michael Moore, who would go on to found Jah Lion sound system, is reunited with his younger brother Anthony after arriving in Deighton, Huddersfield from Jamaica, 4 February 1967. "I was fourteen years old when I left Kingston to meet my family in Huddersfield. I travelled alone in my two-piece suit and tie and felt hat. In those days dressing up was the thing. When I arrived I was excited to be reunited with my mother and brother who I'd not seen for four years. I was also sad to have left Jamaica, and to find myself in a strange, cold place." – Michael Moore AKA Bones, Jah Lion sound system, Huddersfield. Photo courtesy Michael Moore

  • Flyer advertising a Siffa (Birmingham) v Jah Shaka (London) sound clash at the Cleo's nightclub, Venn Street, Huddersfield, at that time the main venue for the West Indian community in the north of England (later renamed Silver Sands). Also on the bill are local sounds Earth Rocker and Venn Street resident, King Iman. Courtesy Howard Belafonte

  • Hans Alfred “Mat” Mathias (1923–89), May 1966. After being evacuated from Berlin to the UK as a teenager in 1939, Mathias ended up settling in Huddersfield, where he established the brand Matamp which became famous worldwide for its high quality and unique-sounding valve amplifiers. Mathias built amps for many of the local sound systems, as well as bands including Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. Photo courtesy Joel Wheeler, Matamp USA

  • King Maestro sound system, North of England Cup Clash winners, 1989. From left: General Screechy (deejay), Horace Dreadlocks (Horace Brown, deejay), Principal Charles (Charles Brown, singer), Fatta Ranks (Nevil Johnson, transport), Donovan Senior (manager) and Diamond Finger (Andrew Johnson, selector). Based in Springdale, Huddersfield, the sound started out as Mount Zion in 1980, before the name was changed to King Maestro in 1987. They went on to win many clashes, including a famous victory against one of Jamaica’s top sounds, Killamanjaro, at Venn Street in 1991. Photo courtesy the Huddersfield Daily Examiner

  • Flyer for a Frankie Paul show, with support from London-based sound system Sir Coxsone Outernational, at Silver Sands, Venn Street, Huddersfield, 5 April 1986. Courtesy Howard Belafonte

  • Armagideon sound system, Huddersfield, 1982. Clockwise from left: MC Robbie Rue (Richard Robinson), MC Admaral (Stephen McMahon), MC T Dread (Terry Cole), Dbo General (Danny Brown, operator) and Daddy Lee (Howard Belafonte, selector). Founded in 1978 under the name Youthman, Armagideon sound system was a well known Huddersfield sound that played all over the UK during the 1980s and ’90s. In a profoundly racist era, crew member Howard Belafonte AKA Daddy Lee recalls: “The sound system and Rasta gave us a sense of pride and kept us focused.” Photo courtesy Howard Belafonte

  • Black people who settled in Britain after World War Two found themselves in a cold, damp and often hostile environment and sound system dances offered a place for the community to come together and socialise. Here a young woman points to racist graffiti on the doorway of the Martin Luther King Foundation, a training centre for black people in Balham, South London, 1974. Photo by Neil Kenlock

  • Collage by Maya Mitten. Courtesy the artist

    1 / 1

    Today the UK's Notting Hill Carnival will be winding its way through the streets of west London for day two of the annual celebrations, five decades on from the very first event in 1964. A celebration of Afro-Caribbean culture in the UK capital, at its heart is music—steel pan bands, Carnival parties and dozens of sound systems set up in the cordoned-off streets. The UK's love of sound systems has its roots in the late '40s when hundreds of people from Jamaica and across the West Indies were invited to move to Britain and help reinvigorate the country following World War II. It was thanks to that first generation of Caribbean settlers that some truly unlikely places went on to become thriving centers of sound system culture—like Huddersfield, a small town in the north of England. In the slideshow above, Al Newman of One Love Books shares a series of fascinating photos from his new title Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield's Sound Systems and explains below how the book came to be.

    Al Newman: "The Sound System Culture book was conceived by Huddersfield-based historian Mandy Samra as part of a larger heritage project that also included a film and touring exhibition, documenting the rich history of reggae sound systems in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

    I was first contacted by Mandy a little under a year ago, just before the exhibition began touring, when she approached me to design the book after seeing one of my previous books, Clarks in Jamaica. I loved the subject and the little-known history of the Huddersfield sounds and ended up getting much more involved in the research and editing, working with Yorkshire soundman Paul Axis' text, and eventually publishing the book through my company, One Love Books.

    In this excerpt from the book, Mandy explains how the project came about: "While never an insider of the sound system scene, I've always had an interest in sound systems and around five years ago I first had the idea for this project, but did not know where to begin. One day I was talking with my boiler man, Michael Royal, who revealed that he had been a sound operator for Duke Warrior, a Huddersfield-based sound system that had been active during the 1970s. Two people, who on the surface shared little in common, found a connecting thread in their interest in sound systems."

    We are now looking to expand the project into other UK cities, eventually building up a history of sound systems throughout the whole of the UK."

    Sound System Culture: Celebrating Huddersfield's Sound Systems is available now from One Love Books.

    From The Collection:

    Sell Off
    Sound System Culture: A New Book Reveals Huddersfield’s Hidden Reggae History