London’s Black History Can be Told Through Notting Hill Carnival’s Sound Systems
The more you speak to sound system operators about Notting Hill Carnival, the more the unanimity of their voices is striking. All emphasise the difficulties of being part of this gigantic event in a highly regulated era. “It cost an absolute bomb to get here” says Lady Banton of Seduction City; “it’s not free, it costs us a fortune!”
“It’s a lot of preparation when it comes to the paperwork and health and safety, all these things that we have to make sure we consider,” explains Mikey Dread of Channel One. “Long time ago you just come and string up your sound, but nowadays you’ve got to know where every cable is going, where the power is coming, all these things we have to consider.”
But equally, every single one of them emphasise the same two reasons that they wouldn’t miss Carnival for anything. First is the simple but potent in-the-moment thrill of seeing so many people connecting around music – as Lady Banton puts it:
“That moment where crowds are just heavy and they’re all enjoying themselves and you just cannot believe you have all those people moving!”
Second, and every bit as important, is the history. Being one of the board directors for Notting Hill carnival, and one of the first women to ever DJ at carnival at the age of 15 back in 1985, Linett Kamala of Disya Jeneration Sound is quick to remind of the roots in protest. The forerunners to Carnival were prompted in part by the murder of the Antiguan-born Kelso Cochrane in 1959.
Linett emphasises the importance of remembering the heroic efforts of individuals, from Rhaune Laslett, local community activist and organiser of the Notting Hill Fayre or Festival in 1965, that evolved into the Notting Hill Carnival through people like Ishmahil Blagrove Jr – whose writing, filmmaking and advocacy have “really gone out to tell the true story, to document our history” – to the thousands of volunteers dedicated to keeping Carnival alive and running smoothly each year.
For everyone, the sense of embodied history is strong – it is, after all, the greatest showcase for celebrating Black lives and culture in the UK – and this manifests in personal moments. Cecil Rennie of King Tubby’s sound remembers way back before Leslie Palmer first brought Jamaican-style sound systems to Carnival in 1973:
“Back then it was mostly steel bands dominating… but now it’s not Carnival without sound systems.”
He has seen his life marked out in Carnivals – 2022 will sadly be the first year he appears without his King Tubby’s partner Paul Campbell, who passed away during lockdown, but more positively he is now supported by his own kids, who’ve grown up around the sound. “They are now are supporters,” he says. “They give me the encouragement to carry on.”
These musical generational shifts are represented in music. By the 80s Rapattack sound was showcasing hip hop and rare groove, and in 1993 Alistair from Rappattack’s nephew Mike Anthony branched out to form Rampage – now the biggest sound of all, with upwards of 18,000 people gathering around it. Rampage DJ Treble Tee reminisces about all the sounds that have risen and fallen since, from jungle through garage, grime, UK funk, Afrobeats and on.
Tee can mark out musical history – like the movement from garage into grime – in Carnival moments. When Ms Dynamite performed “Boooo”, he says:
“She was super duper on fire and the crowd went absolutely bonkers, when the bass came on you could feel the crowd shaking and they bent the metal barriers.” Likewise, just the DJ playing Lethal Bizzle’s “Pow” had the crowd “ripping out trees and heads were falling off!”
And the shifts continue now: in fact watching how Carnival changes year on year is THE key to understanding how the UK’s innovative melting pot works. Linett and Tee predict the South African groove of amapiano will be everywhere this year, and both Tee and Lady Banton note the popularity of the salsa sound emblematic of London’s growing Latin population. But as new sounds rise and fall, the eternal dub and roots of King Tubby's and Channel One, the dancehall of Seduction City, and of course the steel pans, all still remain as staples. As Tee puts it: “eventually [amapiano’s] super popularity will fade and it will become another one of our genres, like R&B, hip hop, afrobeats, dancehall”. Culturally, too, new shifts happen all the time, as when teams like Disya Jeneration work to showcase underrepresented groups, or Seduction City – the only all-female sound system – showcase how dancehall’s energy can remain intact without homophobic or otherwise discriminatory lyrics.
It's not just the music, of course. A million individual happenings, odd and wonderful, make up Carnival. Cecil Rennie, for example, remembers when King Tubby’s used to set up outside a church, and one year “Cardinal Hume came out and blessed the sound! Just a quick prayer and splash of holy water – but that’s why King Tubby’s is a blessing for Carnival…” And Linett singles out the soaking wet carnival of 2018 as a key memory:
“Everyone said that was one of the best carnivals ever because when it rained non- stop, nothing stopped the true carnivalists from having fun, not even the British weather."
But the music remains the core, the heartbeat of Carnival, the thing that preserves and embodies all the history, protest and culture. And every one of the sounds we speak to, for all the hard work, is audibly overjoyed that they’ll be back. All are busy planning special musical moments: cutting exclusive dubplates, talking to potential guests. Linett’s new Sound System Futures Programme has the support of the British Association Sound Systems - BASS - and will provide an opportunity for nine young DJs to perform at Carnival across one of six static sound systems, while Seduction City are sticking to their policy of giving young women DJs a platform. Others may have some big name guests – though nobody will name names. Mikey Dread alludes to Julian Marley and Luciano perhaps being in the UK at the right time, but, he says – providing a beautiful summation of carnival spirit – “you never know who is going to come along, who’s going to pass through, if they do they do… it’s basically an in the vibe moment!