Going to Notting Hill Carnival nowadays, you'd be forgiven for overlooking the origins of the 4 day event. Distracted instead by the sea of empty laughing gas canisters, vomit, streams from people pissing on front lawns, grown men dancing around with spliffs like its the last day of school, disturbing amounts of brawls, and extortionate Jamaican patties, usually served to you by a student from Putney. Yeah, there are still chinks of light breaking through Carnival's rigid modern shell, like the vibrant march of Calypsonians, or the cherry picked programme at Rough But Sweet; but each year it gets harder to see past the shit drugs and pick pocketing.
With 2016's Carnival now facing paid ticketing (for the first time ever), increased security and the possiblity of scrapping the traditional Monday finale, it's a good time look back on just why this event is still one of the UK's most important cultural landmarks. Brought overseas by the Caribbean masses immigrating during the 1950s and 60s, the UK quickly became a second home for soundsystem culture. Nowhere outside Jamaica has it been so prevalent, and no city other than London has been so instrumental in shaping its development. At the very heart of that story was Basil Jarvis.
DJ, original soundman, founder and owner of the Black Patch soundsystem and a forefather of Notting Hill Carnival from the very first beat, Jarvis has been spinning smooth soca sounds and rich velvety roots ever since he first moved to West London from the Caribbean. Bass has oozed like honey into the crowds of fans that have surrounded his soundsystem at the iconic Mangrove for nearly five decades strong.
In January, Jarvis will be performing several 2 hour sets, veering from bluebeat, at an exhibition titled Sound System Culture: London, which will open at the Tabernacle in West London, combining rare images and archive film footage alongside a custom built, vintage-style Heritage sound system. We caught up with him to mine him for his maddest stories from fifty years of Carnival, from underground blues parties to police riots, and his own view on where modern day Carnival has gone wrong.
Noisey: Hi Basil! What was the vibe like at your first Carnival?
Basil: My first Carnival was the first Carnival! I moved here from the Caribbean 50 years ago and have been living in Ladbroke Grove for most of that time. I’ve never missed one. If I can recall the first Carnival though, there was a horse and cart thing, and a young lady dressed up like a fairy, you know like the one you’d have at the top of the Christmas tree. I had borrowed a soundsystem because I didn’t have my own yet. In those early days you didn’t have these floats and things – people were just legging it! You know in the early days the steelband was around the boy's neck. Now you’ve got pans on stands and the stands got wheels.
I heard that before Carnival, you used to hit up a lot of the underground blues parties that were taking place in the city in the 50s. Were you DJing at those as well?
Yeah I was going to house parties and blues parties. Caribbean people weren’t welcome in the clubs in 1950s and 60s so we had to move the party elsewhere. The blues parties were homely you know, there were no fights. It was from going to the blues parties that I actually got into DJing. In those days I was mainly playing what they call ‘mash potato the blue beat label’, but it depended on the audience that turned up. If you were playing for Jamaicans you were playing stuff like “When I Call Your Name" by Stranger Cole and Patsy Todd, and the Wailers. If the audience was Trini or Barbadian then you were playing the odd one or two reggae, but then you’d mostly be playing ska, rocksteady and calypso.
You were getting shut down a lot too right?
The police would normally come in during the night and take all the drinks away. Then when they gone with the drink, the party would restart again, and the people would restock.
What was your very first sound system like?
My first sound sytem was like a Christmas tree, pretty with lots of lights. Built by hand, but not by me. In the early days you had sound systems that were decorated with lights flashing on and off and some going around like a rainbow. Bubbling like giant jukeboxes, flowing with different colours on either side.
Was there a lot of competition back then?
Sound system was brought into Carnival late 70s early 80s by a chap named Lesley Palmer who was then working for Island Records. There was lots of competition at the beginning, yes. To have the best one and one that stood out. You had all the sound systems positioned at different points and you had judges coming round looking and judging the presentation of the sound. And the audience of course; you know, if they were enjoying themselves and whatnot. In terms of the design, the sound sytems people built then were strong, incredible things.
How did you put your sets together and what’s your record collection like now?
Enormous. When I was doing Carnival I would bring probably about 100 albums. In the early days I was playing mainly calypsos but then when sound systems came on a kind of a mass level into Carnival, I started playing and mixing depending on the type of audience.
Most of my stuff came from the Caribbean you see. If you’re a sound that’s playing calypso or soca you’d have to get your stuff straight from the Caribbean or America. You would depend on friends who’d normally leave England yearly and went to Trinidad for Carnival to bring you back some material, or if you’re in contact with record shops and record marts in Trinidad then you’d send postal orders with a list. I had to buy all my music and albums based purely on the name of the artist in the early days, because I wouldn't know the title of the tunes being played in the Caribbean and America.
What about the atmosphere of Carnival today?
Today it is not the people's Carnival, it’s the police's Carnival. The funding is gone because the arts council hasn’t got no money to give anyone cos they’ve been cutting. And you’ve got all these rules you never had: restrictions and rules on decibels and environmental health. People who will come in and shut you down or confiscate your equipment for playing too loud or too late. Some of the pitches cost £1000 and the people, you know, they might not make that in the weekend! So you have a lot of the original traders and stalls who have left.
Some people are talking for Carnival to cease! I mean they’re talking about taking it to Hyde Park! But Carnival is not a festival, it’s a procession. When people have to be in at 2pm and out by 5pm, that's not Carnival. All these folks, they haven’t a clue really. They don’t even know the history of it.
Speaking of the police, it’s no secret there’s been tension at Carnival over the years...
In the early days there was no real time limit, we played til morning. Then at a certain time you would use your discretion. You’d come off the road and if there’s a base to go in, then you go in that base. And if there's not then you pack up until the next day. Each masquerade band had their own stewards, their own security, and there were no problems as such those days. Nowadays the police are saying they won’t be able to afford to police Carnival anymore, but there’s no need for the number of police present.
Were you playing Carnival in 1976 when the riots with the police took place?
That year I had my equipment smashed to pieces by the police. I was playing at the Mangrove, police stormed in for no reason and smashed my sound system to bits. I never got a penny for it. You know, those days you weren’t insured. One guy had something like 18 stitches in a head wound, from a police truncheon. One girl had her arm broken. It was terrible.
People were fairly angry. You know, that police presence was too much. They decided to tease and that’s how things started. After the riots in 76, Carnival wasn’t the same. You had different communities split, and people dividing into various factions against each other. Today I can’t even tell you who’s in charge or how many commitees they’ve got, or even where the Carnival office is.
What about the sound systems today? There’s got to still be some people holding it down, and keeping sound system culture alive...
Well yes. You’ve got some kids who still carry on, their father’s (you could say) legacy. You still have great people like Sir Coxsone, Peoples Sound, Java High Power, and you’ve got a couple from east London. But quite a few of the original people have passed on, you know? Duke Vin he’s gone, Count Steve, a sound system from Shepherd's Bush, he passed away earlier this year. Quite a few of the old folks just aren’t around anymore.
Across five decades of Notting Hill Carnival, what year looking back, stands out among those?
In the early days Carnival was homely, it was like a big family. It was coming from people's heart. I mean in the early days no funding was given. So people did it from the heart, for the love of it. Then the funding business came into it and then it went upmarket, more commercial, la la la. Since then we been watching Carnival going further and further down the drain.
Music wise, personally speaking, I think the 60s and the 70s. For me the ska and the rocksteady was the best music that Jamaica produced. I mean when the reggae came about it was mainly Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, and Dennis Brown. Don’t forget the Wailers they were coming from ska into rocksteady into reggae. But if you go back to the early 60s, you have people like Eric ‘Monty’ Morris, Derrick Harriott, Lloyd Charmers, Bob Andy, Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis. To me, they were the real artists.
Sound System Culture: London opens January 5th at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill. Find out more here.
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