The matter of music being played at a volume that triggers public clamour is again in the news, and clearly needs attention from the powers that be, but whoever sets about to tackle this issue needs to be aware that it is not simply a case of “turn down the volume” as has been suggested and this is not just of a case of some “inconsiderate people” as has also been mentioned.
In the first place, there is a cultural tradition in play here: Caribbean people, generally, like their music playing with vigour and with the bass and drums prominent – we are a dancing people, we start from young and we maintain it even in the senior years; we like the music, as I’ve heard it put, “to hit we in we chest”; it is so, trust me, all across the region. The other piece that must be noted has nothing to do with our music but with the way we design our structures in the region. In our tropical countries, with heat and humidity, we have buildings with copious windows, and wide ones, too, and such features as the louvered Demerara shutters, ostensibly allowing breeze to pass but also allowing sound to enter in the process. More importantly, one does not see here the virtually closed-tight constructions of temperate countries that are employed to keep out the cold winds. Here, we want the breezes to pass through, and the sounds follow. The matter of noise entering the house is not something I recall noticing as youngster growing up in West Dem. Yes, you would hear it occasionally from the Indian wedding, or the wake in the village, but those were isolated examples breaking the quiet in Vreed-en-Hoop or Hague. It may have been quite loud, in fact; I was much younger then and didn’t notice. To make the point another way: we have always been an outside/inside people, hearing the country bus passing outside, or the bird chirping in the window, or the donkey braying in the distance, or the shrimp seller conch shell calling you to buy.
Our aversion to loud music is not something that has appeared on the horizon recently; it has always been there, but the vigor is certainly more noticeable in recent years for a number of reasons. One is the increase in efficiency of modern audio reproduction equipment with, in particular, a significant advancement in the manufacture of the speakers able to handle the bass frequencies that are integral to music playing at high volume. Fifty years ago, the bass bins or woofer cabinets that we now commonly see in outdoor sound systems and bands had not been invented, so bands could not properly play at high volume…the low frequencies of the music would distort and musicians dealt with distortion in systems back then by simply turning down the volume which explains the irritation that today’s listeners feel towards loud music; it was not around much then.
We find another factor in this issue by noticing that the Caribbean, generally, is not known for lavish auditoriums or concert halls where musical or artistic productions are staged for the general public. We have these open spaces, and we can escape the high temperatures by going outdoors for our fetes, weddings, celebrations, etc. While this works for the smaller groups, it poses audio problems for the large events where getting the folks way at the back to hear properly means more substantial equipment. The bass frequencies we love so much can move through obstructions more easily than the high ones, and we now have the greater amplifier power to move the speaker cones, hence the volume and the push of the music is increased. (Which, by the way, explains why when loud music is being played outdoors one can hear what the bottom end is doing – bass guitar and kick drum – halfway down Main Street when the band is way up by Courts.) So, open air is another factor; it helps brings the noise to us.
Another factor in the “too much noise” question is the evolution in the style of the music gaining popular attention in recent years. With the increased emphasis on “party music” or “feting,” the lower frequencies are more important; songs are written with melodies emphasising rhythm; it’s worth noting that this development has been a clear influence on the phrasing of bass players and even singers who play and vocalise emphasising “riddim,” to use the Jamaican term. Any time you add more rhythm or intensity to a music, it inevitably ramps up the volume.
Patronage is also a factor. Today’s crowd is not like the party goers of years ago, involved with the two-step and the more restrained meringue and rumba of Latin music. Today, the intention is to “get on bad” or “wuk up,” as the Bajans say, and that again means sedate is out the window; intensity and bounce is the chief priority.
I sympathise with Calvin Bernard in comments about Village Day in his native BV and his querying whether “anyone came to alert us even though I live on the stretch of road that activities are taking place on…and I also wonder what time the noise will stop,” but this is another of those alterations in life the way we used to know it. The lack of purpose-built entertainment premises today; the change in today’s music where drums and bass are prominent to propel dancing; the improvement in audio capability with modem equipment, more powerful, and with music providers equipped with a stand-by generator if blackout comes, all speak to the volumes remaining high. The people charged with trying to fix this problem have a difficult task. Certainly some common sense should prevail – perhaps more prevalent use of noise meters by the police, and even prosecution when requests to “turn it down” are simply ignored – but in many ways, from our cultural choices, and the places and manner of our celebrations, our lives are not going to be as quiet as they once were. As in all things, some moderation, and some consideration for others, would be nice.