Corey Kilgannon wrote an excellent article and Tyler Hicks (whose work is sampled above) captured amazing images of the bicycle sound systems build in Queens, NY by young immigrants from Trinidad and Guyana.
Unwieldy, costly, and loud, these home-fashioned portable sound systems recalled for me the vivid descriptions of the Jamaican sound systems of the 1950s in Dick Hebdige's Cut 'N' Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. The men building the bikes in Queens play "Caribbean beats," according to Mr. Kilgannon, but the early Jamaican sound systems were devoted to American RnB music brought over from the United States.
As the years passed, the demand for black American RnB in Jamaica grew stronger. But there were no local groups who could play the music competently. So large mobile discotheques called "sound systems" were set up to supply the need. The sound systems played imported RnB records at large dances which were held in hired halls or out in the open in the slum yards. The music had to be heavily amplified at these venues if it was to convey the right sense of conviction. And if people were to dance they had to hear the bass, which carried the important "shuffle" rhythm. So the systems got bigger, louder and "heavier" (Hebdige, 1987).
The systems grew so large, loud, and bass-heavy, in fact, that Junior Lincoln, a Jamaican record producer, remarked, "You've never heard anything so heavy in all your life" (Hebdige, 1987). The early sound systems were built and run with money making in mind, drawing huge paying crowds. But as reggae music developed as a Jamaican sound, the sound system returned as a potent means of expression. Hebdige explained,
The sound system provides an opportunity for the grassroots people to talk back, to respond, to choose what they like and don't like. At the blues dances, the people can dictate the dj's choice of sounds. And each sound system has its own toasting heroes who can express the feelings of the crowd (1987).
It is very interesting to me that these men in Queens are blaring their Caribbean beats, interspersed with some American favorites: they are using the sound system as a means of cultural pride and identity rather than playing on it the music of the colonialists, like the Jamaicans of the early 1950s. It would appear that the sound system that reggae developed in the mid-1970s and which allowed for expression of a cultural form of music has carried on in this path and continued to develop as a means of expressing one's heritage through music, in this case songs from Trinidad, Guyana, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.