NATIONAL MERRI MUSIC DAY | October 25
October 25 celebrates National Merri Music Day to honor an innovative sound system and a music concept that began post World War II in Jamaica.
On National Merri Music Day, we are celebrating the Merritone Sound System as the oldest sound system on the planet. Merritone is the only sound system founded in the original sound system era of the 1940s and 1950s that is still in operation. As the last sound standing, Merritone Music encourages music lovers around the globe to learn about the historical movement that has influenced musical genres in Jamaica and the world.
What is a Sound System?
A sound system of the late 1940s and 50s is a public address apparatus with turntables attached to it for sound reinforcement and the amplification of music. Today, sound systems are still a big part of the Jamaica musical scene with many famous selectors, aka DJs.
The original sound systems were born out of a need to bring music and entertainment to Jamaica’s working class. Before the sound systems, musical entertainment in Jamaica came from live bands. The cost associated with these events limited attendees to upper class Jamaicans and tourists. Thus, with the introduction of the sound system, contemporary music was brought to the masses. Sound systems played at house parties, lawns, and dancehalls.
How old is Merritone Music? Originating over 55 years ago, Merritone Music turns 72 years old in 2022. Merritone sound system hails from Morant Bay, which is the capital of the parish of St. Thomas in southeastern Jamaica. Merritone’s founder, Val Blake loved Latin music and dances, such as cha cha cha, waltz, and slow love songs, which gave this sound system its distinctly identifiable music formula.
Merritone Music is credited for directly influencing the rise of ska, reggae, rock steady, and the present-day dancehall music culture. In fact, unlike live music where a single or a few genres of music are played, Merritone offers a variety of Jamaican mento, calypso, American R&B, and country during a session or party.
Many musicians and producers sought out Merritone Music to play their records, such as Bob Marley and producers Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Winston ‘Niney’ Holness, and Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, to name a few. Often, they would play songs not found on the radio. In fact, they were famous for making B-side records instant hits. This was one of the main reasons local artists flocked to Merritone Music performances. If they could get their song played at a Merritone session, it was going to be a hit. Their influence made local artists highly successful.
MERRI SOUNDING MUSIC
- Learn the complete history of the Merritone Sound System.
- Attend Merritone Sound System sessions.
- Research Jamaican culture and history.
- Make plans to attend a future Merritone Reunion.
- Share and post your Merritone Music stories using #NationalMerriMusicDay.
National Day Calendar gives credit to Monique Blake of Merritone Music Inc. as the founder of National Merri Music Day. The day honors her grandfather Val Blake’s birthday, October 25th. Val died in 1956, leaving behind four sons, Trevor, Winston, Tyrone, and Monte. His 2 oldest sons, Trevor, and Winston took charge of the sound system after his death.
Trevor would eventually migrate to the U.S leaving Winston and his 2 younger brothers to continue Merritone. The Blake brothers stood out as the only sound that would feature a family of DJs. While all brothers played, Winston and Monte are the two most recognized selectors. Winston was instrumental in making the Merritone sound a Jamaican national treasure and a global phenomenon.
National Merritone Music Memories
Winston Blake was born on November 19, 1940, to Ruthlyn and Winston St. Valentine “Val” Blake. Ruthlyn died shortly after the birth of Monte, the youngest Merritone brother. Val was left to care for his 4 sons. As a Public Works accountant and a part time Philips Electronics salesman, he searched for additional ways to support his family.
Trevor and Winston attended school in Kingston. One day after school, while waiting at a bus stop, they heard music pumping from Mr. Chin’s Sky Rocket Sound System. They came home and urged their father to start a sound system as a means to generate extra income. In the beginning, Val resisted because sound systems were not considered socially acceptable for the middle class. Eventually, he gave in and Merritone Music was born. The sound system went on to break down the stigma of sound systems and brought music to both working and middle class people, national and international politicians, Jamaican prime ministers, world renowned musicians, and music lovers from around the world.
Facts and Tidbits
Merritone Music is the last ‘sound’ standing. It is the only sound system that began in the original sound system era of the 1940s and 1950s that continues to play today. In addition, it is the only sound system to play on all modern musical formats, including shellac 78 RPM, vinyl records, 8 track, cassette, CDs, and digital music.
As many firsts in sound system, music, and Jamaican history, Merritone Music stands out as a historic presence. Always using music to unite the people of the world, Merritone has been breaking down social barriers since its creation. In the 1960s the Merritone brothers played at the University of West Indies, exposing students from middle-class families to a sound system. In the 1970s, Merritone became the first sound system to play at a world class hotel, the Sheraton in New Kingston.
Winston sought to showcase Jamaican talent and started the Merritone VIP Talent Exposure. This show discovered some of Jamaica’s most prominent singers including the following:
- Cynthia ‘Songbird’ Schloss
- Beresford Hammond
- The Tamlins
- Jacob Miller
- Ruddy Thomas
- The Mighty Diamonds.
Merritone Music began playing in New York in the late 60s, but it was not until the 70s that international tours became a mainstay. They played in US cities like Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, New York, as well as Toronto and London where Merritone fans moved to during the Great Migration. It was the first Jamaican based sound system to play internationally.
In 1972, Winston opened the Turntable Club. It became the home of Merritone Music for the next 29 years. It was the site of the first live recording session at a night club in Jamaica featuring Dennis Brown. Entertainers like Marvin Gaye, Keith Richards, Johnny Nash, Bob Marley, and Jimmy Cliff frequented the club.
Turntable Club is Jamaica’s longest running nightclub. In fact, in honor of its contribution to Jamaica’s musical culture, Turntable Club was designated a National Heritage site in 2018 by the Government of Jamaica.
Awards & Commendations
1997: The Government of Jamaica awarded Winston Blake with the Order of Distinction (OD), the highest civilian recognition, in honor of his contributions to Jamaican music.
2000: St Thomas Municipal Council renamed Bay Mount (the original Merritone Music home site) to Blake Hill in recognition of Merritone Music’s 50th anniversary.
2000: Reggae Canada honored Winston Blake with the Icons Award.
2008: The United States House of Representatives 11th Congressional district honored Winston Blake for his contribution to Brooklyn, NY and its citizens.
2008: University of West Indies, Mona School of Business held a Symposium on Merritone Sound System as one of Jamaica’s longest running family-owned businesses.
2012: Nassau County New York honored Winston Blake for his dedicated service to the community.
2015: International Reggae Day honors Merritone Music with a Pioneer Sound Award
2017: JARIA (Jamaica Reggae Industry Association) posthumously honors Winston Blake for exceptional contribution to the reggae industry.