Heavy Congress: Convergence of Sound System Tribes 

Certain SST, reggae sound systems in particular, have spread all over the world by means of physical migration, material resonance or mere imitation. In doing so, they often undergo a process of adaptation – showing how these techno-cultural apparatuses can themselves be repurposed in order to fit specific cultural, social and economic contexts that are sometimes rather distant from those that generated them in the first instance. The comparatively young SST scene of Australia is one example of this. A varied range of sound systems pertaining to different genealogies have sprung up across the country, mostly in recent years. The practitioners involved with this steady expansion acknowledge themselves as part of a rising continuum of recorded music-based sub-cultures that challenge the live music hegemony over Melbourne’s lively popular music scene. SST friend and collaborator Moses Iten reports on the Heavy Congress gathering which saw the rising Melbourne’s sound systems scene making its debut into one of the city’s most prestigious music venues. 

by Moses Iten

This blog post is a review of Heavy Congress, a session which proposed bringing together ten Melbourne-based sound systems, an unprecedented event in scale and ambition for Australia, where until very recently only a handful sound systems existed. The participating sound systems represented sounds from reggae and dub to drum‘n’bass, champeta, tekno and other dance music in which the bass frequency is emphasized. Bringing together in one session this diversity of music makes Heavy Congress and its host city Melbourne a particularly interesting place from which to compare various sonic street technologies in practice.   

Melbourne is a rapidly growing city of five million people which local media and government bodies have frequently declared as the world capital of live music.[1] In a recently published book studying the phenomenon of Melbourne as a global music city, immigration and multiculturalism are argued as central to the broader processes of cultural change which have contributed to the booming local music industry. [2] Melbourne’s music industry however is also criticised in this study as “Indigenous people, immigrants, women, members of the LGBTQ communities and poorer people still remain far too often marginalized and excluded from the opportunities of the city, including its music, entertainment and nightlife”. [3] It has to be noted this study focused on the idea of ‘live’ music which largely excludes sound system culture alongside DJ and electronic dance music more broadly. The hegemony of ‘live’ music “as the privileged mode of performance in rock and popular music” has been critiqued in studies of sound system cultures for decades by renowned sound system scholars such as Simon Jones, advocating for a comparative study of “parallel” sound system practices. [4]

Meanwhile in Melbourne sonic street technologies have proliferated, with dozens of sound systems being built locally since the early 2000s. Frequently the operators of these sound systems aim to represent particular music styles and their communities which may otherwise be marginalized in Melbourne. Locally sound systems have received almost no media attention and are privately funded, independent of the music industry or state cultural institutions. [5] Nevertheless sound system sessions with audiences of several hundred regularly sell out, including tickets for Heavy Congress which sold out within hours of being announced.   

The idea of bringing all these sound systems together for an event was inspired by a poster called Field Guide to the Sound Systems of Melbourne put together by the owners/operators of the Colombian style El Gran Mono picó hanging at Northside, a popular local record store and informal community hub for DJs, as narrated in this previous blog. But two days before Heavy Congress was set to take place on 5 June 2021, it had to be cancelled due to another Covid-19 lockdown. Melbourne had gone from being “the live music capital of the world” to “the most locked down city in the world”. [6] 

Fortunately, the organisers vowed the event would happen and it finally did a year later, on 4 June 2022. During the months of uncertainty, many sound system operators kept busy refining their rigs and expanding in size. Anticipation for Heavy Congress was high again. Online presale tickets had sold out within a few hours and to make sure to get one of the six hundred tickets offered on the door, there were huge lines going around the block as people got to the venue early. The venue had changed from being inside the city of Melbourne’s Town Hall to the prestigious Forum, which calls itself Australia’s premier events space with a capacity of two-thousand people. There was also time for Monkey Marc (of the participating DiY Solar-Powered HiFi sound system) to produce a ‘Heavy Congress’ track and be pressed on a 7” as part of the merchandise for the event.   

Heavy Congress (Rising: Singles Club)

No matter what the hype about this hugely anticipated session, in the end it all comes down to the quality of the session, the convergence on the dancefloor. Entering a space designed for concerts on a stage, with the middle of the hall taken up by plush private booths and a gradual rise with a set of stairs like at a cinema, this is unfamiliar territory for a sound system session. But the size and quantity of the sound systems demanded an unconventional setup. Five sound systems had been set up right by the entrance doors at the top of the hall, with the operators, selectors, DJs, MCs and dancers placed behind their rigs, facing a dancefloor in front of them.  The other five sound systems were placed immediately in front of the curtained off stage at the other end of the hall, with their operators facing their rigs across the dancefloor. The way these sound systems are causing this rupture is significant: this is a claiming of a space.  We’re not on the street or in a warehouse, but this prestigious ‘live’ music venue—which in Melbourne generally means rock bands—is being repurposed.   

I continue to familiarise myself with the space and venture upstairs where there is a cinema screening a continuous loop of interview profiles of some of the participating sound system crews, produced by photographer Francesco Vincenzi. In the cinema foyer, merchandise from each of the sound systems is being sold from a long line of tables. There I introduce myself to Chris Scouse, operator of Virus Sound System, whom I’d only met online. To my surprise he starts speaking to me in Spanish. Scouse had spent some months and years travelling throughout Spain and Latin America, a journey which had begun in travelling with the sound systems of various ‘techno-tribes’ playing acid house, proto-jungle and more in the late 1980s UK. [78] Eventually Scouse settled in Melbourne in the early 2000s where he proceeded to build Virus Sound System in order to create a space where ‘free tekno’ could be represented. [8]   

 Virus Sound System Interview, Melbourne

The floor beneath us starts to shake and it has to be Heartical HiPowa, the heaviest sound system at Heavy Congress, punching through the ceiling.  Like Scouse from Virus, Derek Marr aka Stryka D the owner/operator of Heartical HiPowa also hailed from Liverpool in the UK and arrived some twenty years ago in Melbourne, where he began building his sound system. Stryka D became well-known locally as host of Break The Chain, a radio program which broadcast dub and reggae for over 12 years on the influential community radio station PBS FM. Several of the newer sound systems at Heavy Congress admit to having been inspired to build their own rigs after having experienced Heartical HiPowa in session. 

Heartical Hi-Powa Interview – Heavy Congress

I go back downstairs to go and feel the full frequency range of SubTemple Sound in session, with a packed dancefloor dancing to drum ‘n bass.  It’s all over very fast and as they finish, Jamaican emigré Stick Mareebo—official host DJ (or MC) of the event—is on the microphone, bigging up their sound and announcing the next one. Each of the ten sound systems has been assigned two twenty-minute sets.  The crowd looks around the room, shifting its position to face the next sound coming up. The initial disorientation of multiple points around the room to focus on becomes complete as each new sound system changes the musical aesthetic. Multiple senses are readjusted with each shift, coming in and out of sonic focus with the materiality of each sound system manifested through the selection of music it was built to communicate.   

The majority of the sound systems here are representing dub and reggae music and the affiliated massive, however there is no disruption to the vibe by any of the various sound systems performing different musical genres representing other scenes. I see a local techno selector dancing to dub in front of the Heartical Hi-Powa rig, reggae heads dancing champeta and everyone with hands in the air to drum n bass. The dub selectors of Solidarity Sound System invite a speaker on Aboriginal politics and militant hip hop MC Izzy. El Gran Mono features MC Kaiman Jimenez playing an Indigenous flute through heavy delays to a champeta rhythm whilst a trio of dancers associated with the sound are performing in midst of the crowd. [10]   

El Gran Mono – Heavy Congress 2022

Everyone is dancing to everything. The female selectors of General Feelings Sound System—owned and operated by Lucreccia Quintanilla who recently completed a PhD embracing sonic street technologies—select dembow riddims and other bass experimentations not easily defined and their aim to not “prescribe to a single sound” can be seen as a deliberate act of manifesting diversity on the dancefloor. [10] At Heavy Congress there are multiple genres and scenes at play yet a single massive is celebrating on the dancefloor. 

In order to analyse sound system performance, Julian Henriques developed ‘sounding’ as a model of triangulation in which there is an interplay of sociocultural, material and corporeal elements or ‘wavebands’. [11] In short, the bodies (that is the ‘corporeal’) of each sound system crew have built and perform a particular ‘material’ sound system to perform music corresponding with a particular ‘sociocultural’ space.  The diverse sound systems congregating in the same space at Heavy Congress allow for easy comparison of representatives from “parallel” sound system cultures, revealing there is far more in common than there are differences.  The initial disorientation and disruption disintegrate as we submit to the bass, its weight welcomed by all the tribes converging on the dancefloor. 

Heavy Congress Official Teaser

References

[1] On a per-capita basis live music in Melbourne apparently outranks New York and London, according to a citation in Homan, Shane, Seamus O’Hanlon, Catherine Strong and John Tebbutt. 2022. Music City Melbourne: Urban Culture, History and Policy. New York, London and Dublin: Bloomsbury Academic.  Music City Melbourne: Urban Culture, History and Policy, p. 1.

[2] Op. cit, p. 20-24.  This book was based on an Australian Research Council project called ‘Interrogating the music city: the cultural economy of pop and rock in Melbourne’. 

[3] Op. cit, p. 38. 

[4] On the privileging of ‘live’ music, see Jones, Simon. 1995. ‘Rocking the House: Sound System Cultures and the Politics of Space’ in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Vol 7. 1-24. . On “parallel” sound system cultures, see Jones, Simon. 2019. ‘Editorial’ in Riffs: A Popular Music Studies Journal. Vol.2, Issue 2. 6-9. 

[5] Melbourne has a strong culture of community radio produced and presented by volunteers, some of which provide strong support for sound system culture.  Most notably The Good, The Dub and The Global hosted by Kate Welsman aka SystaBB on 3RRR FM. 

[6] See the press release issued by the State Government of Victoria in 2018 entitled ‘Melbourne Live Music Capital OfThe World’. Regarding being the “most locked down city in the world”, see https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/22/update-2-melbourne-reopens-as-worlds-most-locked-down-city-eases-pandemic-restrictions 

[7] For a history of late 1980s activist sound systems in the UK see St John, Graham. 2009. Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures. London: Equinox Publishing. Graham St John described techno-tribes as “micro-communities whose principal motivation (and often only manifestation) is to ‘be together’ at the party, in the zone, the vibe” (2009: 101).  

[8] See Graham St John’s book Technomad (2009) 

[9] To hear one of the sets performed at Heavy Congress by El Gran Mono, go to https://youtu.be/1Vz2bxFLea0  

[10] See http://lucreccia-quintanilla.squarespace.com/general-feelings-soundsystem 

[11] Henriques, Julian. 2011. Sonic Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques and Ways of Knowing. London and New York: Continuum. 

 

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