It’s a noisy world now

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

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-enHoop 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.

Isym­pa­thise 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.

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