Zaragoza. 08.00 AM
It’s eight in the morning and at a storing place in Zaragoza four shadows fit more and more stuff in the boot of a Nissan van. It’s barely sunrise when the four of them start their route northwards.
The stars of the scene are Javi, Charly, Pablo and Assane. The first two, Javier Pérez and Carlos Carnicer, are the people in charge of Freedom Vibration, the first sound system created in the Aragon region. They’ve loaded the van with all the material accumulated since the year 2009, when they made up their minds to devote all their free time to build a sound system that would allow them to capture and expand, in the best possible acoustic conditions, the message of roots reggae and dub.
Neither Javi nor Charly were ever able to buy a roots reggae vinyl in Zaragoza. When they met, around 2003, there was only one Jamaican music shop, Sin Fronteras Records, opened by an African guy who’d had a bar before. “Our geographical surroundings didn’t make things very easy for us, quite on the contrary, it made them more difficult”, complains Javi Pérez.
Zaragoza is not Barcelona or Bilbao, where there are always more reggae concerts. But since the early nineties, Aragón organises the world-music festival Pirineos Sur. It was there were Javi saw, when he was fourteen, a concert by Alpha Blondy. He’d see there too Jimmy Cliff and Daddy Mory, leader of French dancehall-reggae combo Raggasonic. He had Bob Marley’s Legend compilation at home, but those were his first physical contacts with the reggae vibration. And from then on, he fell for it. With no older brothers who were fans of reggae or a local scene to join, Internet would be his only source.
Years went by, his fondness for reggae became specialised in dub and seventies roots sound and… “One day I saw a post in a blog saying that in London the most important sound systems met in a place called University of Dub. Without knowing too well what I was going to find there, my attraction towards it was unreal. It was an opportunity to receive that music from the source in which it had been created. In Jamaica, the vehicle to transport reggae is the sound system. Music was produced thinking that it was going to be heard through those systems and that is a fundamental fact in Jamaican music. You only need to hear a Jamaican music session through a sound system to get it “, Javi assures.
In 2005 Javi jumped on a plane, rented a room in a hostel and appeared in one of those monthly sessions of the University of Dub. “There I lived a very strong sensorial experience”, he remembers. The next one to join the University was Charly. He’d just turned eighteen when he received the impact of a real sound system. Both define that experience as a turning point in their lives. The seed was planted, but several years would go by until they started building their own sound system.
Huesca. 09.30 AM
An hour and a half later, Javi, Charly, Pablo and Assane initiate the opposite process: they unload more than half a tone of material from the van and take it to the Palacio de Congresos de Huesca. It’s an important day for Freedom Vibration, because they’re DJing at the Periferias festival. Moving such an amount of material just two people would be impossible. That’s why Javi and Charly have many allies who give them a hand. They’re part of the cultural association Unite Jah People, from which they also manage all the bureaucracy of the twenty sessions they’ve been hired for in the last years.
Until 2012, Javi and Charly didn’t start making their dream they’d been thinking for years come true: building their own sound system. They had already saved some money and gained some knowledge on the subject, and the way to go was very clear: they would take the long route, self-learning and DIY. Both had some experience with manual work due to their jobs. They had even built their first dub siren following a do-it-yourself Internet project step by step. They’re following thing was making a synare. When Javi tells me about it, it sounds almost easy to do: “You only need some electronic diagrams, some basic electronic notions, to be able to weld and get components that you can find in any electronics shops”.
The decision was already made and thought-of: “It’s a long way, it takes a lot of growing and learning at many levels: on a technical level, obviously, because it implies learning to manage certain equipment. But it’s also a path of personal growth. This music has a very powerful message; it’s about trying to expand a vibration with a meaning. We didn’t see any point in just buying a sound system without having a clue about this culture. We don’t want to run before we know how to walk”, he adds. That might be a way for some, but not for them. Because, before anything, a sound system is a learning process.
Setting up the equipment in an open-air enclosed area next to the Palacio de Deportes de Huesca will take another hour and a half. This equipment is quite something. It’s a four-channel sound system with three 18-inch scoops for bass, a 15-mm double box for bass-midrange, two 12-mm exponential boxes for midrange and a compression driver with horn plus tweeters for treble. All that makes up the stack or speakers stack. And on the control table: a crossover, a mixer, several equalisers, a Technics turntable, a CD player, several sirens, different effect units, dozens of connectors and metres, metres, metres and more metres of cable.
Part of this material has been bought through the Internet or second hand to private vendors. “It’s all very low cost: we bought some of the power amplifiers to a guy in Zaragoza who had a mobile disco, the mixer is an old one of mine and the crossover was recycled by someone we know who wanted to dump it. But in the most important parts we haven’t spared any expenses,” he pinpoints. “We bought the cones of the speakers after doing a lot of research and thinking for a long time how we wanted to work the frequencies,” he clarifies.
The most stunning things in the sound system are, of course, the wooden boxes protecting the speakers and projecting sound. They are as well the most delicate element. And this has a history. Any sound system aficionado knows that they can’t be built in any way. 18mm birch plywood cabinets! That’s the material! But it’s not only about spending the money on the wood; the thing is knowing how to cut it. “They’re very precise cuts, with 16 degree or 23 degree angles, and acquiring the machinery to do them was impossible for us. Finding a convincing cut was probably the most crucial part of the process, and what gave us the most problems. It took a while for the carpenter to accept the job. It wasn’t profitable for him, but we had no other choice for such a precise job. We had to cry a little bit, but in the end what he did was great!” he confirms.
Javi and Charly have built, with their own hands, all their scoops and boxes. “We had the wood already cut and all the tools, so we spent some fantastic days building them with all our love. It’s very beautiful to be able to build with your hands so many parts of the sound system as possible, although there will always be things out of reach. Some way or another, all sound systems have elements that have been bought from specific manufacturers and also people who appoint someone else to build their sound system. Maybe it’s not as romantic and you don’t feel so closely related to the equipment, but it’s as respectable an option as any other,” he tells me.
London. 1.30 PM
It’s been four hours and the stack is already set up at the Palacio de Congresos. The music sounds majestic, expanding through all the corners of the place and beyond, but Javi seems uneasy. There’s something wrong. There is a kind of coarse vibration. It seems that the problem comes from the box at the top. Some days ago, Freedom Vibration set up their stuff at a place in the Magdalena neighbourhood, in Zaragoza, and maybe all through the night some particles of sand entered one of the speakers. That would explain the annoying creaking that is driving Javi and Charly crazy.
The sound system is a live animal and each time you set it up there are new surprises and complications. It’s a constant and infinite learning process. “We have to loosen the girths of the stack and open the HF driver,” Javi says. (Loosen the girths! An amazing expression! I’d never used it in a music article. It’s the action of loosening the girths that hold the stack; in the same way you loosen the girths of a horse saddle). Pablo loosens them; Assane holds the speaker and the four of them lower it to the ground. Javi opens it with a screwdriver and with a train ticket he goes over each groove. After this check, they set it up again, take it up to the stack, tighten the girths with the rest of scoops, but the funny sound is still there! The problem didn’t come from the HF driver, then, but they need to detect it and solve it. The other problem is that it’s already 1.30 PM, too late. They have to organise the tasks because someone needs to go to the station to pick up the English guests.
Freedom Vibration understands the sound system as a space for sharing. In this occasion, very literally, because all the money saved to buy materials, all the time invested doing research and building the equipment and all the hours it took them to transport it to Huesca, set it up and checking it all sounds to its best capacity will be put on the hands of the Spanish-British collective The Producers. They have created it, but the ones who will use it are Don Fe, Prince Jamo and the producer from Cantabria Roberto Sánchez. And it’s an honour for Javi and Charly that the The Producers’ music will be heard in Huesca through their own sound. All the years invested in this equipment become, thus, a reason to get in touch with musicians and, of course, the ideal excuse for hundreds and hundreds of roots reggae and dub fans to meet this evening in Huesca.
Years ago, Javi and Charly had to travel to Catalunya or Euskadi to hear the sound of Leones Humildes from Barcelona or of Dread Drive from Donosti. They also went to the south of France. And in all these places they took note of the most interesting features of each equipment, detected how each of them balanced the sounds, discussed whether they preferred having a powerful or a warn sound. And, when possible, they talked to the owners of the sounds after the session, asked them doubts and kept on accumulating data. Without that transmission of information, the culture of the sound system would have disappeared decades ago.
Jamaica. 7.00 PM
At seven is already dark and Huesca is freezing cold. The music starts. People’s faces start relaxing. Few of them look at the table in which the selectors and operators manipulate the music. The stack will be the centre of attention for most of the night, presiding the space as a sacred monolith. Each line of speakers spit different sounds, each channel tells part of the story and they all together rise as a sort of mythological animal in the mp3 era: the dinosaur of all past and future sound systems.
Just a clarification, in case it’s needed: a sound system is not just a bunch of guys DJing Jamaican music. That would be just that: a bunch of guys DJing Jamaican music. A sound system always requires equipment especially created for the purpose of reproducing that type of music; equipment that, besides, will be placed on the floor, by the audience, so that it can perceive the vibrations all through their bodies. And, of course, there’s a whole ritual when it comes to reproducing the music. They work with only one turntable, never mix one song with the next, and leave silences between songs that are used to introduce each topic with the microphone, and the music is manipulated live with frequency cuts, delays and effects to create a unique experience.
The audience, mainly from Zaragoza, but also from Huesca and surrounding areas, takes photographs of the stack, take photographs of themselves with the stack on the background, gets closer to the scoops to perceive the vibration all they can and dance before it as if water was down pouring on their faces. A sound system is the closest thing to a hydro massage session. Some get close to the sound monolith as if it had healing properties. And it does: apart from keeping you warm, it makes your neck pain go away. On the other hand, deaf people can enjoy it too due to the power of a bass that tickle your body and mess your hair up. Literally.
A man puts a smoking paper next to the midrange-bass box to watch how the vibration sends it flying away; I mean the paper. A woman comes up with a more interesting test: she crouches in front of the bass scoop and asks a friend to touch her back. The vibration runs through her body and is transmitted to the hands of her friend. Groups of up to five people sit at the acoustic shadow of the boxes to feel their whole bodies vibrating. Not many times a year we have the opportunity of receiving the purely physical impact of music in our bodies. And some of them would stay there for twenty or forty hours, vibrating.
The sound of Freedom Vibration manages 4,500 watts of power. But its not something they brag about. “You can buy a mega powerful equipment and hurt people with it. Besides, a system with too many watts can sound not too powerful and wrong, and another one with less might sound better,” clarifies Javi. During these years of slow progress, Javi and Charly have discovered the kind of character they wanted their system to have. They wanted a balanced, warm, clean system; not aggressive, but powerful. “Sometimes people mistake quality and quantity. The subwoofer is a fundamental part of sound system culture, but not the only one. It’s important that the voices sound clear, because that’s where the message in the music resides,” highlights Javi. “We want to give the best definition when it comes to music details to be able to highlight them without masking them. I wish we could get closer and closer to that,” he sighs, once again, all modest and cautious.
Hours go by really quickly and the control table is chock-a-block. Javi, Charly, Pablo… They have already given the control to The Producers. Prince Jamo delightfully projects his sweet and high-pitched voice over the music. Big Don Fe has found a spot in a corner to play the flute over the tracks that Roberto Sánchez presents and mixes live. Some of them are brand new. And it’s a honour that these brand new productions sound for the first through the Freedom Vibration equipment. Javi and Charly, as hosts, go out time and time again to say hello to friends, check that everything sounds as good as it should and learn a bit more about sound systems, and now thanks to their own sound system.
The rest of the way
Freedom Vibration started as a sound system with only two scoops, two midrange boxes and one treble box. It worked like that for a year until they put the money saved from DJing in bars to give it its current dimension. From then on they have DJed in Zaragoza, Huesca and several nearby towns. AThey still haven’t done it outside Aragón, so they’re wish to have a stack with four scoops, two 15 boxes and 3 of midrange-treble can wait. “We don’t need a 20,000 watt sound system with eight scoops to play music in front of 200 people. Our philosophy is to grow according to our real needs. The day we’re able to fill a club with 400 people we’d like to have double of what we have now”. That’s what they mean when they talk about growing little by little and respecting tradition.
What they would love to have ASAP is a preamp, the neurological centre in which all sounds are processed and centralised. “This is what any soundman wants, but we still haven’t got enough money for it”, sighs Javi. For now they make do with five devices that make up all its functions: a mixer, a crossover, and several equalizers… The preamp is a very specific sound system artefact, so it can only be made to order by some of its very few manufacturers: Jah Tubbys, Mostec, Jo Red… “You contact with them and tell them what frequencies you want, how many mic inputs you need… It’s 100% customised”. Working without a preamp during all these years has enabled them to learn how theirs should be. And shows such as this one in Huesca will give them an opportunity to become better known and maybe play outside Aragón and, finally, buy their preamp.
At the Palacio de Congresos, the iron bars of the first floor railing have joined the vibration. Everything vibrates. And after more than three hours immersed in a sound system, music stays impregnated in your eardrums for days. But it doesn’t hurt. It’s a mild and pleasant sound souvenir. Some of the music stays impregnated in the scoops and the cables, because a sound is like a pot: it preserves the heat and keeps part of the flavour of anything you have ever cooked in it. And, of course, it’s contagious. “Five years ago there were almost no roots reggae and dub sound systems in Spain. Now there must be more than fifty”, Javi calculates. The main reason for this blooming is the Rototom festival, which abandoned Italy in 2010 to settle in Benicàssim.
Each sound system is a history. And each has its history. Leones Humildes, from Barcelona, built the first roots reggae sound system in Spain after a trip to the Notting Hill carnivals. Jah Ras, from the Canaries, founded his sound system in his native Tenerife after learning for years in Euskadi clubs. The colossal Green Light pumps up the bass for The Bus sessions at sala Razzmatazz, although it wasn’t built in Barcelona, but Paris. On the contrary, the Rebelmadiaq one will be 100% DIY, as ven the plywood is being cut at the cooperative Can Batlló carpenter’s shop. They are all trying to do the same: capturing and expanding the vibration.