Heavy Congress at Melbourne Town Hall
In Jamaica a “sound system” is much more than a car’s speakers or a home hi-fi setup. Beginning in the ’40s and ’50s, local DJs began loading trucks with speakers, amps, turntables and a generator, allowing them to throw street parties wherever they pleased. Sound systems and their tight-knit crews quickly proliferated across the island nation, vying for fame and glory. Later the culture spread to the US and the UK, leading to the development of hip-hop, jungle and grime.
A sound system is more than a travelling collection of loudspeakers. It’s a musical group armed with exclusive vinyl dub plates. It’s a purpose-built instrument wielded by its MC, who uses it to “toast” over those dub tracks. It’s a tribe, an in-group, an aesthetic – much like football teams in other countries, with their rabid supporter bases. At “sound clashes”, rival sound systems purposely set up next to one another and attempt to drown out, outplay and out-hype their neighbour(s), drawing crowds in the thousands.
This is the culture that Stick Mareebo grew up in. His sister’s boyfriend actually owned a sound system named Black Joy.
“I used to test the system and set it up before the real DJs turned up,” says the now-Melbourne-based DJ. “That also gave me an opportunity to sing on the mic and toast before the crowd arrived. That’s where I cut my teeth.”
Mareebo, with producer Jason Maling and Northside Records owner Chris Gill, has assembled 11 local sound systems for Heavy Congress, a free showcase at Rising. The trio has focused on musical and aesthetic diversity (most crews decorate their speakers somehow). There’ll be house, techno, dub, reggae, jungle and plenty more. “It’s not just Jamaican music,” Mareebo says.
Some systems will rely solely on DJs, but others will bring singers, dancers and bands. Mareebo is particularly excited about the debut of Housewife’s Choice, the only all-women sound system in the country. Another system, Virus, plays techno and is famous within the scene for “Roozooka”– a giant steel kangaroo that shoots flames and plays sound through a bazooka-like tube. The sculpture is sadly too large to fit indoors at Melbourne Town Hall, where Heavy Congress is being held, but Virus will be bringing everything else.
Jamaican JJ Roberts built Australia’s first sound system, Soulmaker, in 1972 and subsequently toured the country. But according to Mareebo, the culture didn’t really take off here until 2002, “when some other expats came out from the UK and realised that the culture wasn’t thriving here”. So they started Heartical Hi Powa, which Mareebo says is still the biggest sound system in Australia – which he would. He’s representing it on the mic at Heavy Congress, and talking up your own system is all part of the game.
The event is a rare chance to hear several leading sound systems in the one place. Although Mareebo estimates there are “20-something in Victoria” and “about 55 across the country”, they tend to play secret, out-of-the-way locations at short notice, sans permits. Australia’s attitude to public amplified music is sadly less laissez-faire than Jamaica’s.
The original plan was to host a sound clash, but that’s been scrapped following the isolating, divisive events of 2020.
“We’re all gonna take it in turn to play, to unite the community,” Mareebo says. “What we’re really looking forward to doing is inviting some new people to [experience] sound systems – the way they look, the way they sound and the culture behind them.”
Heavy Congress is free but attendees must register for a ticket.