Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | October 25, 2009
Home : Entertainment
Guinness insists on greatness within its rules
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Rebel T's Mad Ras addressing the crowd during the Guinness Sounds of Greatness competition last year. Rebel T won the inaugural competition last November. - File

The sound system is the bedrock of indigenous Jamaican popular music culture, playing music made in Jamaica long before radio stations decided to give ska and its successors a spin. Tom The Great Sebastian, Sir Coxsone's Downbeat, Duke Reid's Trojan and Prince Buster's Voice of the People were among the many assemblages of speakers, amplifiers, disc jockeys and an indefinable spirit which played tunes at the various lawns, initially in Kingston, and then across the island.

And from the very beginning, competition among sound systems was key as they battled for the top spot in head-to-head encounters called clashes.

Fast-forward to the late 1980s and clashes are still a hallmark of sound system culture, although the names have changed. Now it is Bodyguard, Silverhawk, Kilamanjaro, Inner City, Bass Odyssey and Jam Rock who are duking it out, after the heyday of Black Scorpio and King Jammys earlier in the decade.

However, by the early 1990s, the clashes had declined tremendously and 'juggling', pioneered by Stone Love with the focus on mixing records cleanly and maintaining a party spirit, is the order of the day. A few clash sounds keep going in sporadic battles, often the trailing end of long-time feuds, Bass Odyssey and Black Kat a notable long-standing grudge, and from early in this decade the 'Death Before Dishonour' clash at Pier One in Montego Bay sees the two, plus Tony Matterhorn, David Rodigan, ex-Kilamanjaro selector Ricky Trooper and Japanese kingpins, Mighty Crown, among those going toe to toe before huge crowds.


Kim Lee

Last year saw a systematic attempt to revive sound system clash culture in the Guinness Sounds of Greatness competition, won by Rebel T with selector Mad Ras leading the charge as they defeated the battle-hardened Bodyguard in the finals.

This year's renewal of the contest started on Saturday, October 17, in the large open space behind Ken's Wildflower in Portmore, St Catherine. A fair-sized and very enthusiastic crowd eventually watched (despite intermittent rain) Black Widow turn back King Mello and the relatively new Bredda Hype trounce veteran clash sound Black Scorpio.

The night was not without a hiccup, though, as there were boos from the crowd when it was announced that Bredda Hype would lose points as they had played a song with a curse word in it - a clear violation of the rules in a contest that is being recorded for television. Outside of the competition, curse words and even the most vicious of insults which would be cause for physical confrontation outside the sound clash arena are accepted (though not all selectors take this route) and, from some persons, even expected.

Responding to The Sunday Gleaner through brand PR Manager Kim Lee, the Guinness Sounds of Greatness competition organisers said, "Guinness has always had a place in the dancehall. It would only be fitting to stage a competition that would bring out the greatness of the foundations of dancehall music and culture."

The competition's format is a highly truncated version of the pre-Death Before Dishonour sound system clashes. There are three rounds: a 'juggling' or party round of 15 minutes each, then a 'tune fi tune' exchange of commercially released records, and finally the 'dub-fi-dub' segment of alternating specials. The sound system which takes two or more rounds wins, judges DJ Smurf and Squeeze accounting for 30 per cent of the vote at the opening clashes and the crowd determining 70 per cent.

The competition has attracted more entrants this year, a panel of judges whittling down the submissions to 16.

While they would not specify how much money is being put into the contest, Guinness said, "We have invested a significant amount of funds in our bid to ensure that our sound systems, television viewers, fans and Jamaica as a whole are able to reach for greatness." And as to the importance of dancehall involvement to Guinness' success, the drink being the long-time dark brew of dancehall choice, the organisers said, "While dancehall plays an intricate part in the past and future of Guinness, we continue to ensure that our product is part of many other drinking occasions as well. Guinness is about celebrating life and dancehall is also about celebration. The synergies between them create amazing results."

Those "amazing results", though, must be within the stated guidelines and which all the competing sound systems have agreed to. Guinness said, "Part of the rules is to abide by the laws of Jamaica and to observe the Diageo Marketing Code. We are also shooting for television, so it is even more critical each competitor to ensure that their sets are in line with the Broadcasting Commission guidelines and are suitable to be aired on national TV. We are exposing these sound systems to a wider audience and want to ensure that the same vibes they are creating on the ground is seen and shared by the viewing audience."

music that discriminates

However, when host Elva read the rules to the crowd outside Ken's Wildflower before the battles began, the part about not playing music that discriminates against any person or group had a single vocalised interpretation by a crowd member, who deduced it to sexual orientation. The Sunday Gleaner asked if music about homosexuals was a primary concern of the company and what are the groups the company had in mind when this rule was being made. Guinness replied, "We do not discriminate against anyone nor promote illegal activities. Our code is about respecting all races, genders, religions and people."

And when The Sunday Gleaner asked if there was a relationship between the contest's rules and Red Stripe's withdrawal of sponsorship from live events last year, the response was, "All Red Stripe brands have implemented a responsible marketing strategy. However, the Broadcasting Commission guidelines have facilitated our re-entry by ensuring that programmes for national broadcast are conducted in a responsible manner."

Chances are, though, that the Commission would not approve of Bounty Killer's Lodge, played by one sound system, the lyrics going in part:

"Fi mi gun no join lodge an' it no join church
Disrespect me smaddy mus lie dung a dirt"

Guinness said, "We do not promote violence in any form. We ensure that the selectors and judges are aware of this as well. There are situations where a piece of a song is played like in this case and we take measures to remind our selector and patrons that this is not what we are expecting from our competitors. We do deduct points for playing music that contravenes the code."

And when The Sunday Gleaner asked if it was possible to transfer the sound clash to free-to-air within the rules without losing its impact, Guinness responded:

"We firmly believe that this competition will showcase the creativity of Jamaica's sound systems. Abiding by the free to air rules will ensure that each competitor will have the opportunity to reach a wider audience through television, without losing their impact."

Guinness Sounds of Greatness continued last night in Junction, St Elizabeth. On Saturday Xclusive took on Black Blunt, while City Rock tackled Sound Trooper.

The grand finals will be held on December 19.

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