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Sound of real reggae

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

By Prasanta Phukon

The love for the reggae culture and the sound system tradition prompted two Delhi-based artistes, Taru Dalmia and Samara Chopra, to develop Bass Foundation Roots (BFR) sound system. The musician couple go around the country to promote the Jamaican form of music and recently drove all the way to Shillong to enthrall music lovers here.

Reggae session in Shillong. (Photo by LU)

Dalmia, aka Delhi Sultanate, and Chopra, aka Begum X, are inspired by reggae and the Afro-Caribbean music tradition. “Many people don’t realise that a lot of modern music conventions go back to reggae. Let’s say rapping started with Jamaican guys getting on their microphone, what we call toasting. The idea of DJing first started with the sound system culture in Jamaica. The idea of remixes started with reggae... so there are so many things that we take for granted in today’s music culture that originated in the ghettos in Kingston (Jamaica)… so the ‘Roots’ (in BFR),” says Dalmia.

The Handmade Sound System by BFR. (Photo courtesy BFR)

BFR was formed in New Delhi in 2016 by a crowd-funding campaign. They raised $20,000 with which they bought the best quality equipment, like the top of the line amplifiers.

The sound system is a humongous structure made of plywood with a special speaker design. It is a five-way speaker system with a sub bass, mid bass and horns like five frequency ranges. The five stakes of speakers are arranged in a pyramid. The drivers for the sound system are from German company Fendt, the compression drivers by BMS and other components are from different companies.

There are two such sound systems in India. According to Dalmia, the sub-bass is “very important” in a sound system. In reggae, the idea is to have a powerful sound system to create vibration and feel the music. “It is not necessarily loud and does not hurt your ears. But it is intense and so you feel it in your body and it makes you want to move,” he adds.

The musicians, who were lead singers in the band Scavenger, play reggae music in vinyl as the “sound is warm”.

The vinyl records have all the songs on one side and the instrumental on the other.

“A reggae sound system session is very different from a conventional concert where there is a stage and the PA (public address) system faces the audience,” says Dalmia.

In a reggae sound system, the PA system faces the sound system and is at the same level with the audience, he explains. The duo’s reggae session goes on for five hours during which the audience experiences real reggae sound.

“Sound system culture has been around for a very long time. It is the foundation of Hip Hop and the modern music festival culture goes back to sound system sessions. But it is a new thing in India. It is very big in Japan where there are 300 sound systems. Our sound system is different from those in night clubs because the vibration which comes out from our system affects the mood in a different way. It is kind of a bass massage for the body,” says Chopra.

In Shillong, there is a small crew known as Small Axe Sound System and it is building a sound system. Dalmia points out that there are several benefits of owning a sound system.

“A musician does not have to depend on a venue, promoter etc. We organise our sessions in community and outdoor spaces,” he says.

In reggae sound system, there are regular records called ‘Forty Fives’ and Dalmia and Chopra have them in vinyl. Their music is not available online. They have the dubplates from the recording which are used for reggae instrumental tracks. “The audience can hear our tracks during live sessions,” informs Chopra. Dalmia seconds her saying that’s the way reggae should be enjoyed and not on headphones.

The musicians do release songs as single artistes. Dalmia as Delhi Sultanate is going to release his song at the Azadi Records in Delhi by the end of this year. The song that he has done with a group called Siday Mooth is on lynching. His next number will be on Bhagat Singh.

The couple refuse to call themselves a band because “a band has live musicians but we have a customised sound system” made by Taru. Wherever the duo go, they collaborate with local singers and musicians. In Shillong, they were accompanied by Lunaratic and Big Ri of Khasi Bloodz.

Dalmia and Chopra have come to Shillong with Scavenger on several occasions and had performed at NH7. But this is their third visit to the hill city with the BFR sound system. Last time, they performed at NEHU.

The reggae musicians say they enjoy coming to Shillong. They also reveal the real reason for their love for the place. After they built the sound system and launched it in New Delhi, they started getting photographs of wall graffiti in Shillong showing their sound system with lines from their songs.

“We were pleased to know that someone in Shillong is supporting us and we promised ourselves that we would come here,” says Chopra, who is also a yoga instructor.

In India, reggae music has been growing significantly in the last three years. “There is a big festival every year called the Goa Sun Splash. In Shillong, there are people who are building a sound system and there is someone building a sound system in Hyderabad, so reggae is coming to India,” Dalmia, who does a radio programe Dubplates and Forty Fives on Boxout FM, sounds excited.

The duo’s reggae sessions are thought-provoking in many ways. Wherever they go, they put up a stall selling books and merchandise. They have a wide collection of books about African Music, liberation and current issues in India.

Dalmia got into Hip Hop in the early nineties and discovered reggae at the age of 15. Chopra started singing when she was in high school and started performing reggae in 2009 for Scavenger when one of the band members, StefanK, approached her. Dalmia and StefanK were instrumental in teaching her more about genres like ska, dove and rock steady.

A custom made Force Traveller van by BFR. By this van they tour the country with their handmade sound system.(Photo courtesy BFR)

“We have a lot of room for improvement and we have not reached our peak yet because if that is so, then there won’t be a point to continue (making music). Everything is a learning curve for us and in Shillong too, we are learning a lot. We can come with more planning next time,” says Chopra.

The duo will perform in the Magnetic Fields Festival in Delhi in December. They will also drive to Goa with their sound system for the Sun Splash fest. An annual event at Dharavi in Mumbai is always on their itinerary.

BFR advises newcomers to do their homework, study the great artistes and singers. If they are thinking of making music their career, then they have to first think about a separate source of income “because if you want to earn from what you love, you have to make a lot of compromises and sometimes it will take the joy out of it”.

BFR merchandise and books in the Reggae session in Shillong. (Photo by LU)

BFR wants Shillongites to remember that a lot of care, effort and love go into making reggae music. “It takes a lot of effort driving from Delhi to several places and setting up everything from the scratch,” says Chopra.

They do several shows for free but they have started doing shows with entry fees to recover cost. However, they try to keep the ticket price as low as Rs 150 so that many people can come.

“I want people to come, enjoy and dance to reggae music and also spread the message of reggae music, which is love, unity, togetherness, justice and righteousness, and for the people to have the sense of how this is relevant in the times we live in,” she adds.

The duo have an important message for social media users who act and react on digital platform. “Learn to think critically and build a strong network of solidarity and support around you. Don’t get too addicted to social media and don’t measure yourself by comparing with others. Stop to look at individual relationships.”

A glimpse of the Reggae session in Shillong. (Video by LU)

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