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Huddersfield was a world centre for sound system reggae

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In the living room of his small town house in Huddersfield, Yagga Roots picks up a 7” single from the pile of vinyl on his floor, takes a soft cloth in his other hand and wipes it lovingly. “Just this,” he smiles, “just doing this makes me so happy you wouldn’t believe. A record without vinyl is like a meal without salt and pepper, meat without crackling.”

Yagga, real name Henry Lowe, has invited me to his home to talk about a rarely mentioned aspect to the rich history of the West Yorkshire mill town. From the 1960s until the early 1990s, Huddersfield was home to one of the most vibrant and acclaimed reggae sound system scenes in the country. Fans would travel from all over the country to attend events at the legendary Venn Street club, while locals in the know could find parties every night of the week.

Roots reggae music has been part of the town’s soundtrack since the first small community of African-Caribbean immigrants arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, including Yagga’s parents. In the early days there were no clubs or music venues where the new residents could feel at home so, borrowing from the emerging sound system culture in Jamaica, they began to build their own underground culture of shebeens and blues parties. The tunes still form an essential part of Yagga’s daily routine.

“Roots music is diverse. It’s romantic, it’s aggressive, it’s soothing, it’s meaningful,” he explains. “If I’ve had a hard day at work, my boss has got on my nerves, I’ll get home and put a record on and by the time it starts I think this is it, this is what life is about. It’s medicine. Every morning before I go to work I’ll play a different tune while I have a cup of tea and it inspires me for the day, shields me from whatever might happen.”

In Huddersfield, as in Jamaica, the music is only part of the story. Just as important is the PA system on which it is played, traditionally hand-built and engineered and creating a sound as personal as the selection of records. By the mid 1970s, Huddersfield was home to a bustling family of systems, competing with (mostly) friendly rivalry to create the most compelling and powerful sound.

“My first sound system was a 50 watt guitar amp,” Yagga recalls. “I took the speaker out, wired it up to a turntable. It wasn’t in a box or anything, just standing there on blocks because we didn’t know what we were doing, but that was the fun of it. Then we’d rip apart old TVs and take out the speakers and add crossovers to them – they’d carry the tch tch tch sounds – and that’s how the system grew and grew.”

“Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, John Holt – they all came to Huddersfield first.”

Along with dozens of like-minded peers, Yagga was helping to create a legendary Huddersfield scene. “We got the first taste of everything. Any group you wanted to see. There’s a difference between listening to a group on record and seeing them live, and the live bands always came to Huddersfield first. We got Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, John Holt – they all came to Huddersfield first, even before they went to London. It was a Mecca, and now it is a lost thing.”

While the scene of the seventies may be lost, efforts are afoot to make sure that the memories, at least, are preserved. Let’s Go (Yorkshire) has now secured funding from the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a mobile installation containing audio, photography and film archive alongside a sound system, a turntable and a stack of
10 inch dubplate vinyl.

Running the project is Mandeep Samra, a local woman who remembers growing up alongside the culture.

“I’m from a Sikh family and when I was young I wasn’t allowed to go to the sound system parties,” she recalls. “But I would hear all these stories and I was fascinated. And then as I got older I began to meet all these people, and it would turn out they were sound men. The guy who fixed my boiler used to run a sound system. I would have conversations with these people and began to realise this place has such a rich history, and it has not really been documented.”

She is in no doubt about the significance of reggae to the modern history of the town. “It has helped to put Huddersfield on the map. We’ve had huge international reggae stars coming here – it attracted interest outside Huddersfield and I just thought someone has to record this before it is forgotten. It’s about getting it shared, making it accessible.

“Back in the seventies you could go out to a sound system any night, on a Saturday you would be spoiled for choice. Now it’s only really Paul Axis who is keeping the traditional way going on a regular basis.”

Paul “Axis” Huxtable is, perhaps, an unlikely figure to be keeping the flame alive. As a young lad from Preston in the post-punk years, he was playing in an indie band when he began to develop a love for Jamaican music. When the band split, he laid claim to the PA and began to build it into a reggae sound system on which he still plays reggae, ska, roots, rocksteady and early dancehall.

“I’m very busy taking orders to build systems from all over Europe, all over the world.”

“I like traditional equipment, traditional valve amps, the traditional way of presenting the music, and I’ve spent 20 years developing the sound system and my sound.” He’s also spent the time building the skills to create custom sound equipment and now supplies clients from near and far, including the equipment for the Let’s Go (Yorkshire) project.

“I’m kind of riding this wave of enthusiasm at the moment – I’m very busy taking orders to build systems from all over Europe, all over the world. I hire out sound systems to drum ’n’ bass and dubstep promoters, and that’s getting younger people interested in what we do, the old sounds, the old ways of doing things. They’re interested in seeing how it is presented, and that’s great for the scene.”

The Venn Street club was demolished in 1992 to make way for a parking lot, and now the monthly Axis session at Bar 1:22 is Huddersfield’s only regular night. Not all the old hands have given up the cause, however. Earlier this month, Yagga Roots fulfilled a lifelong ambition to pit his own system against those of his heroes, two of the greatest names in the history of the British roots scene, Sir Coxsone and Quaker City. As a teenager, Yagga would seek out these legends, following them around the country every weekend.

“If you wanted to get in free you have to do some work. So we all became box boys. When the van came in we’d jump on, grab the boxes and carry them inside. We weren’t allowed to wire them up – that was another step up the ladder. But once we’d brought them in I would hang around beside the amps and the controls, asking questions: what does that do, what does this do, how do you get it to sound like this? I would follow them all over the country, picking up boxes.

“Some people don’t let you near their equipment. They keep everything a secret. But with Coxsone it was like a family thing. Anyone could see what he was doing. That’s why so many people came through his system, Daddy Freddy, Levi Roots, Blacker Dread – all those great people learned from him.”

“My sound system is 40 years old. Coxsone’s system is 40 or 50 years old.”

Yagga speaks fondly of the first time Coxsone played Huddersfield. “It was 1976/77, he played in Venn Street, I stuck up all the posters around Huddersfield, Sheffield, wherever. It started at four in the afternoon and went on until five in the morning. I’ve been dreaming for 30 years of this day, to see my sound on the same bill as those guys. They’re like the godfathers and I’m their godson. My sound system is 40 years old. Coxsone’s system is 40 or 50 years old. Quaker City has built a brand new system. It’s the same feeling as going to Wembley or making a hundred at Lords or whatever. It’s as good as it gets.”

Professor Paul Ward, head of history at Huddersfield University, researches the culture of Britishness and, when he saw a flyer for the Let’s Go (Yorkshire) project, he could not resist getting involved: “Cultures are made up of lots and lots of currents and strands, and lots of the less obvious currents contribute to the whole – they all add up to the whole.

This project makes sure that when people look at the history of the 20th century Huddersfield, they won’t be able to ignore the role that sound systems have played in the development of the town.”

While Yagga Roots is happy to be contributing to the heritage project, he cannot resist noting the irony. “While the closure of Venn Street was impending, a lot of us tried to get petitions to keep it open, talk to the council, try to get them to see the significance of the place and what it has done.

“This project makes me laugh in a way, because the people funding it weren’t interested at the time. Now they’re trying to claw back something that they’ve chucked.”

Main photo: Paul “Axis” Huxtable. Axis Sound System is at Bar 1:22, 11 May, 8pm-3am, Free. 01484 480252

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