Nuns and sound systems: A voyage into Jamaica's dancehall culture

Picture a group of Jamaican teenage boys standing around a pair of speaker towers, taking turns DJ'ing and singing. Off to the side stands the person who supplied the decks—a diminutive woman in her 60s, wearing a nun's habit.

Sister Ignatius Davies was known as the Mother Teresa of reggae. For generations, she was the head of Alpha Boys, a school for boys at risk, established in central Kingston by the Catholic Church in the 19th century.

Under her guidance, a stream of brilliant musicians emerged from the school, many of them becoming foundational figures in the distinctive genres that have made Jamaican culture famous—rocksteady, ska, reggae and contemporary dancehall.

It's a quintessential Jamaican story—poverty and virtuosity combining to produce idiosyncratic cultural icons and local legends.

Sister Ignatius is just one of the many unexpected stories that Matt Baker and I discovered when we linked up in Kingston in January this year to explore the culture around sound systems and contemporary dancehall music.

We learned about Sister Ignatius's Saturday afternoon sound systems from Yellowman, who we interviewed at his house in the hills of Kingston.

Between shooting hoops in his Lakers jersey and recording shout-outs, Yellowman described the thorough musical apprenticeship that Alpha Boys receive in the latest styles of Jamaica's continually evolving music scene.

The genius of Sister Ignatius, who died in 2003, was to embrace rather than moralise about the culture of Jamaica's streets. She validated the place that her boys came from and gave them real skills with which to earn a living.

These days it's not so much about reggae, but dancehall, the music that plays day and night on the streets of Kingston.

As well as empowering the people of the poorest districts, dancehall creates a local economy. Every night of the week, there are multiple dancehall parties around the city, starting at around midnight, peaking at 4:00am and disbanding at dawn. Thousands of Kingstonians make their living in this cultural ecosystem, and across the city the bass rumbles from dozens of speaker towers pulsing through the night.

We asked Shakespeare, a professional dancer and celebrity of the scene, how much sunlight he sees a day.

'How much sunlight? Like maybe two hours. Two hours of sunlight I see a day, because dancehall is all about my lifestyle, and dancehall, that's how I pay my rent, that's how I pay my bills.'

He's partying, but also working long shifts, supplemented with dance lessons for tourists at 'Dance Jamaica'.

Dancehall expert Sonja Niaah told us dancehall parties happen in just about every conceivable location, most frequently yards, streets and car parks, but 'never sites given by the state for entertainment on the part of the people'.

It would be inaccurate, though, to say that the scene is unregulated—permits must be secured and the noise abatement act allows police to shut parties down, sometimes seemingly at random.

Miss Norma, the promoter of the city's longest running night, Raetown Old Tunes, has recently had to shift from the streets of her community to the car park of Sabina Park cricket ground.

At 3:00am on a Sunday, classic reggae tunes and Tina Turner waft with a cloud of ganja smoke over the spot where Steve Waugh scored a double century in 1995, wresting the Frank Worrell Trophy from the West Indies for the first time in a generation.

We learned about the intricate ways in which the local economy regulates itself and caters for its patrons.

Witty Henry is the promoter of Uptown Mondayz, a night that has run for 13 years in a shopping centre carpark in the centre of the city.

The week before we spoke to him he had arranged for doctors to come to his party to do health checks for party-goers.

'Dancehall people, by the time they wake, the day is over. So we bring the doctor to the dancehall, all for free!' he explains.

His security guard, Vivica, explains that if a patron comes with a gun she doesn't let him in, but she doesn't exactly send him away either.

'I know he's a bad man if he has a gun without a licence, so I'm not going to ball it out, because he'll come back and kill me,' she says.

Many parties take place in areas with high levels of violence, and yet the scene as a whole is relatively safe.

Annie Paul, an influential commentator on Jamaican culture, told us how the drug lord Dudus Coke had been instrumental in setting up Passa Passa, the first downtown parties to draw patrons from the wealthier uptown because he guaranteed its security.

Coke was famously extradited to the United States following a violent confrontation between his gang and police forces in his community in Tivoli Garden in 2010.

'This is a space where the people who are the bottom of society are totally comfortable,' said Paul. 'They're in charge, they rule and there's a certain sanctity, you know. It's like a sanctuary for them.'

At the centre of dancehall, of course, is the music, which is recorded in studios around the city. The music is not just played at the dancehall parties, but also workshopped and shaped at them.

Beenie Man, one of the genre's greatest lyricists, explains the importance of dancehall in the development of new music.

'That is what dancehall is still today. It's the only platform for the music. Notice you have inside the party, they have segments that they play new songs. All those songs are unmixed or unmastered. They just get a little balance in the studio, and come to the dance. So it's the first platform for new music.'

Beenie Man is an international dancehall star, but to lock down the interview with him, we didn't need to go through a publicist: we simply walked up to him at Tuesday's big party, Boasy Tuesday, where he was quietly having a drink by himself. He wasn't performing, and there wasn't a minder in sight.

The global image of dancehall might often be one of 'daggering', machismo and drugs, but we learned that, on the ground, the stars rub shoulders with their audience in carparks—and nuns supply the equipment.