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Say Watt

Say Watt

Say Watt

By on - Photos by David Katz - Comment

The exhibition in Paris continues until 25 August, so don’t miss it—Say Watt is well worth a visit

Say Watt flyerSound system culture is an integral part of the Jamaican experience. As has been well documented, since the 1940s, the sound system has been the site at which most Jamaicans are exposed to new music, and the exclusivity necessary to run a successful set has since inspired all kinds of musical activity all over the world. Housed for two months in the excellent Parisian museum space that is La Gaite Lyrique, and spearheaded by noted reggae scribe Seb Carayol, Say Watt is an ambitious exhibition that aims to capture some of the power and the glory of the sound system experience, relating it to various global locations that have been impacted by the form’s original Jamaican innovation.

Close to the trendy Marais area, in the very heart of the city, La Gaite Lyrique is a likeable space, and Carayol has done an admirable job in filling two floors of it with Say Watt. Upon entering the space, visitors find themselves in a custom room with speakers embedded in the walls and ceiling, to provide a sense-surround sound experience. Unfortunately, there’s no reggae in the room, just some quietly rumbling, down-tempo sub-dub sounds, but it is certainly impressive all the same.

Heading into the main hall, across from the balcony, slide images were projected onto a wide wall, showcasing sound system culture in various parts of the world. Among the most impressive were the massive sets from Colombia, humungous entities that even dwarf some of their Jamaican counterparts. There were some scenes from the Notting Hill Carnival, too, as well as ancient cassette players and transistor radios from Kenya, and the mobile in-car sound systems favoured by Trinidadians of East Indian descent. All very mesmerising, causing most viewers to linger long, to make sure we’d taken it all in.

On the other side of the space on this ground floor were some grainy vintage hip-hop posters from New York. Kool Herc with Patti Duke for a Thanksgiving session in 1980 was great to see, as were flyers for Afrika Bambaata’s Soul Sonic Force. A smattering of mid-‘80s Jamaican flyers on supporting pillars helped remind where it all came from.

Heading downstairs, there were all kinds of delights to enjoy. Vintage Jamaican speaker boxes for sound systems such as King Tubby’s HomeTown Hi-Fi and a set called Active were mighty evocative, as was the exhibition space devoted to the cartoon artwork of Limonious (who knew that he illustrated hotel work manuals, and even voiced a tune himself, in addition to designing album covers?). And one of Say Watt’s most enjoyable spaces was the ‘Igloo’, a tiny round hut made entirely of ancient speaker boxes, with microphones hanging from the ceiling, wired up to a dubby delay unit—really fun to sit in there in hear your words reverberate around you. A wall of fantastic Jamaican dancehall pics from Beth Lesser was another highlight.

Say Watt

Behind a door, scenes from Babylon played on a loop, reminding of the centrality of sound system culture in Britain, and its traditional antipathy to the police. There was also a strange replica sound system, made in Mexico from recycled material, and a sound system mounted on a bicycle.

Say Watt has hosted a series of concerts, lectures and workshops, with Honest Jon’s, Unity, Blackboard Jungle, Heartical, and other noteworthy UK & French sound systems making guest appearances (Soul Stereo will do a free set there on 11 Aug), though I did not manage to attend any of those, so can’t really comment. A friend suggested that the Jamaican content could have been more prominent, but my feeling is that this is a valiant attempt to highlight the artistry of sound system, and its growing importance around the world.

The exhibition continues until 25 August, so don’t miss it—Say Watt is well worth a visit.

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