This essay examines the political economy of Caribbean cultural capital and the formation of reggae in Jamaica in the 1950s. Through study of the Afro-Asian intimacies and tensions embedded in the sound of preindependence Jamaica, the essay traces the birth of the “sound-system” to the networks of local small-retail grocery shops, ubiquitous across Jamaica, that were owned and operated by Jamaican Chinese shopkeepers and examines how they formed material infrastructures. In charting the hardwiring of speakers and how the sociality of the shop housed the production of a new sound, the essay argues that sonic innovation was derived from Afro-Jamaican servicepeople who returned from World War II with military technological expertise, which they applied to sound engineering, and from entrepreneurial guilds of Jamaican merchants and shopkeepers of Chinese, Afro-Chinese, and Indo-Chinese descent, who helped form the conditions of possibility for the production and global distribution of reggae. Thus the networks of Jamaican Chinese diasporic capital and talent, producing and performing, helped to engineer the electrical flows of reggae to rural areas and urban dancehall parties.
Bigger than the Sound: The Jamaican Chinese Infrastructures of Reggae
Tao Leigh Goffe is an assistant professor of literary theory and cultural history at Cornell University. Her interdisciplinary research examines the entanglement of black capital and Chinese debt. Her praxis is invested in unfolding the relationality between ecology, infrastructure, and the senses through deejaying and sound design. Her essays have been published in Women and Performance, the Boston Review, and the Amerasia Journal. She is a founding coeditor of the Journal of Indentureship and Its Legacies.
Tao Leigh Goffe; Bigger than the Sound: The Jamaican Chinese Infrastructures of Reggae. Small Axe 1 November 2020; 24 (3 (63)): 97–127. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-8749806
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