Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques and Ways of Knowing

Julian Henriques
New York: Continuum, 2011.
ISBN: 978-1-4411-0151-8 (hardcover), 978-1-4411-4429-4 (paperback)
RRP: US$90.00 (hardcover), US$29.95 (paperback)

Dennis Howard

University of the West Indies (Jamaica)

Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sounds Systems, Performance Techniques and Ways of Knowing by Julian Henriques offers a fresh and illuminating exploration of Jamaican auditory culture through the reggae sound system, making a significant contribution to an aspect of Caribbean and Jamaican culture that is in dire need of interrogation and epistemological grounding. The book’s originality stems from Henriques’ formulation of thinking through sound: “this can only be expressed through corporeal practices of thought, rather than the more commonplace discursive line of thought” (xviiii). This approach, coupled with what he calls “sonic dominance”, allows Henriques to distance himself from the established and growing literature on Jamaican music culture. Henriques explains “sonic dominance” as a total immersion of its participants in the phenomenon known as the reggae sound system, with its vibration frequencies connecting with every fibre of the participants’ beings. Sonic Bodies, according to the author, is the incarnation of the sound system crew, the audience, the innate knowledge and the pulsating response to the bass culture of Jamaica. Relying on a bricolage approach, Henriques employs his theoretical model, “thinking through sound”, fusing it with disparate disciplines such as Greek philosophy, geometry and grammar, sound theory and postcolonial theory in his exploration of the sound system. These theoretical considerations are operationalized through “a dynamic model for both raising questions about the world as distinct from the way the trope of the visual image is often used to settle them” (xviii).

The book is divided into five distinct sections. “Preamble: Thinking Through Sound” introduces the concepts of sonic dominance, sonic bodies and thinking through sound. Thinking through sound is offered as an alternative to normative behaviour of thinking through images, hence Henriques attempts to position the auditory senses at the forefront of theoretical interrogations. The study is located within the realms of the discipline of cultural studies with its multidisciplinary approaches. A brief literature review acknowledges noted work that informs the book, and some biographical information about the author is also gleaned here.

“Introduction: Practising and Theorising Sounding” begins with Chapter One that exposes the traditions of orality, music practice and sonic architecture that establish the bass culture of Jamaica. The proposition of thinking through sound is elaborated on, and Henriques then outlines the notion that all sonic bodies are configured in these vibrations of bass culture. He proposes that these vibrations can be categorised into three distinctive wavebands. Firstly, they are material, a by-product of the sound system itself and the equipment and its phonography; secondly, there is the corporeal waveband encompassing the crew’s performance and the crowd response; and the final waveband relates to the sociocultural—the interaction, behaviour, traditions, style and cultural practices within the dancehall environ. It describes the feeling and understanding of participants of the dancehall scene. The “vibes” are a way of making sense of the sociological and philosophical underpinnings of the dancehall while in a sense valorising the ordinary but deeply rooted activities and traditions of urban dwellers in Kingston’s inner city and suburban enclaves. Other theoretical approaches are considered in relation to this “vibrational waveband model”. Henriques manages with skilful facility to engage in a serious theoretical discourse on the reggae sound system and its attendant socio-political, cultural, technological, postcolonial and musicological trajectories.

Chapter Two extends the reader’s understanding of the vibrations of the waveband as periodic movements that are only facilitated through three elements. The elements prioritized by Henriques are: the medium for dissemination; the instrument for making the noise; and the techniques for using the instrument. A critical feature of this “propagation model” is that the three elements are triangulated, that is, “they are present together at the same time” (39). Elaborating on the elements, Henriques continues his theoretical foundation and proposes that the media of soundings is split between the “material vibrations of a speaker cone” (xxxiii), as well as the sociocultural realities of the music scene and space. The instrument of sounding would include the sound system equipment embedded in the material waveband and the mortal embodiment of the sound system players situated in the sociocultural waveband. The techniques of sounding located in the sociocultural waveband include “the crew’s kinetic skilled performance skills, such as the selector’s dextrous skills on the turntables” (xxxiii).

“Part One: The Audio Engineer and the Material Waveband” commences with Chapter Three, in which the important but hitherto ignored role of the engineer of the reggae sound system takes centre stage. Considerations are made for the pre-performance rituals of what Henriques calls “compensation”. This is explained as the process for fine-tuning and adjusting the auditory dimensions of the sound system, which is a critical imperative in the sound world. This iterative exercise is achieved through the three procedures of manipulating the electronic components to achieve that ideal sound quality; then monitoring the subsequent sonic output; and finally evaluating the “auditory qualities” of “balance”, “weight” and “attack”, which is vernacular technical-speak utilised in the sound world. The final exercise of evaluation invariably leads to compensation, as the phonographic output is never constant. This trait explains the recursive nature of this performance trope. Henriques gets to the heart of a phenomenon with this exposition and it is clear that his extensive fieldwork achieves thick descriptive quality with Geertzian precision.

Chapter Four establishes a historiography of sound system development through the prism of engineering and the tradition of apprenticeship. This technical journey starts with Headly Jones, the creator of the modern day sound system. The engineer is then given a unique position of being everywhere and nowhere in the context of all three wavebands of sounding. A trajectory is also laid out for the journey of a skilled engineer, from apprenticeship to master craftsman status. Henriques again expands the possibilities by engaging in a theoretical and methodological juxtaposition of ideas from a variety of scholarship (Stern, Chavannes, Gates, Levin) which he dubs “sonic engineering”.

“Part Two: The Selector and the Corporeal Waveband” starts with Chapter Five, titled “Juggling”. The selector as a skilled technician and performer is interrogated: “This includes building the vibes or intensities of the session, and ‘steering’ the crowd along the procession of the night” (xxxiv). The skilled performance techniques of the selector are outlined in detail, which continues the thick descriptive trajectory of the book. Techniques such as “bass drop”, “the touch”, “mixing” or “juggling”, and “pull ups” are offered as unique skill sets of these re-performance specialists within the three vibrational wavebands of sounding. In Chapter Six the selector’s skill is juxtaposed with Jamaican studio techniques to examine these processes in a broader context of auditory techniques and their role in the sound world. Additionally, a comparative analysis of the two concludes that “to the extent that there are parallels between the selector’s and engineer’s performance, it is taken as evidence for the common characteristics of the different wavebands of sounding that the propagation model describes” (171).

“Part Three: The MC and Sociocultural Waveband” contains the last three chapters and the epilogue “Dubwise”. The role of the MC is elaborated in Chapter Seven. Utilising several performance styles, lyrical techniques and personal traits, the MC encapsulates a “distinctive sociocultural waveband to the sounding of the session” (xxxv). Chapter Eight, “Rhetoric and the Logic of Practice”, is the most epistemologically challenging portion of the book. Here, Henriques laboriously enunciates a theoretical model, steeped in Greek philosophy, of the MC and his trope of voicing. This formulation is further complicated by the introduction of Bourdieu’s “logic of practice” and the esoteric Pythagorean concept of harmonics by Hans Kasyser. Henriques’ arguments and postulations are both infuriatingly dense and at the same time absolutely stimulating. Depending on your position, one wonder if this was necessary at all or an essential and engaging treatise. In Chapter Nine, the “sonic logos” is introduced, which is articulated in a manner that leaves the reader trying to unravel this complex set of thoughts. “Dubwise” is an attempt to address some of the weaknesses inherent in the inquiry and summarises the journey of thinking through sound with sonic bodies within an environment of sonic dominance.

What are the main contributions of the volume to auditory scholarship? Sonic Bodies manages to achieve Henriques’ intentions of departing from the established literature and presents a theoretically fresh approach to the study of Jamaican sound system culture. In so doing, he demonstrates a critical link to not only the theory-to-praxis trajectory but also privileges an alternative epistemology, which shuns language notation and representation. However, it is done at times in what would be best described as an extremely cumbersome and unnecessary detailed language style that leaves the reader intermittently frustrated. Sonic Bodies manages to elevate the conversation about the Jamaican sound system culture from its usual sociocultural and political orientations to an auditory exploration of sound culture and theory. One of the end results of this novel approach is it poses a challenge to a reliance on visual cues of word, images and discourse, which is commonplace. While the bass culture of Jamaican society, the skilled technique and performance of MC/ selector, and the sonic architecture of the Jamaican dancehall are all effectively explored, Henriques fails to link his wavebands to any serious sociocultural notions of reception and production within the context of Jamaican music production aesthetics. Despite this, Henriques demonstrates an extensive understanding of the literature of auditory theory, cultural studies and philosophy which is very enriching for a variety of disciplines, and has added an outstanding cross-/multi-disciplinary work that will be used by scholars from varying disciplinary and theoretical orientations.