Notting Hill Carnival had no real precedent in the UK, when it began in the mid-1960s. The closest thing post-war Britain had to national cultural events were Mods and Rockers punching the shit out of each other by the seaside and Teddy Boys starting race riots because they didn’t like the influx of black people settling in London.
Unlike carnivals in places like Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Grenada and St Vincent - which are government funded national institutions with carnival associations working year-round to ensure they produce the highest standard of merriment, music and masquerading - Notting Hill Carnival had to be built from scratch against a backdrop of pressure from authorities, racists, police clampdowns, violent crime, and more recently a new scourge of gentrification in the form of recently arrived residents in the boroughs of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea who don’t like the noise or crowds and just love writing to the council to complain about it.
For sound systems like the legendary Channel One - who have been blasting out dub and roots reggae in their same spot on Westbourne Park Road at every Carnival since 1983 - this latest threat to their survival must feel like a step back to the old days. Last year they had to get a public petition with thousands of signees and a crowdfunding page to back off Westminster Council’s attempts to take away their licence and move them to another location. Their bid was successful and Channel One have a permanent licence to perform.
Mikey, Channel One’s selector and sound engineer, thinks it’s an attempt by the borough to get rid of the six remaining systems in Westminster. Kayleb, Channel One’s MC and mic man, even goes so far as to say, “Personally, I can see Carnival finishing in the next few years. Once upon a time it was so big, now it’s condensed into a smaller area with roads locked off so it’s easier for the police to control. Years ago you could wander off anywhere down a little road [and] there’d be a party happening with people dancing. It was a carefree ting. Now they’re trying to push out the independent people and bring in corporate. Sooner or later you’re going to end up with four stages: Sony, Red Bull, Capital Radio, Kiss FM and that’s it.”
Rachel Bevan, Channel One’s manager sees the positive side to the local community, explaining how residents provide power for her artists’ huge speaker system, amplifiers and decks - “Sometimes it trips out their mains when they put a kettle on!”. Mikey also explains how fans and sound system anoraks from all over the world turn up at an ungodly hour just to watch them set up their equipment. “They sit down, take pictures. The way they see it; it’s like an art form.”
Although carnival culture began hundreds of years ago as a European tradition, it became something quite different when it was exported through colonisation to the Caribbean. The pomp and pageantry of Europeans mixed with the revelry and folklore of the African tradition that had been retained by slaves who were taken across the Atlantic. So the introduction of a raucous street party with foreign music and thousands of black and white people mixing came as quite a shock when carnival returned to the UK establishment: many saw it as some sort of challenge to British values that had to be fought against. It has taken decades for Britain to understand carnival, but with the increasing multiculturalism each passing generation brings to London it has now become an institution for people of all backgrounds.
Claudia Jones organised the first ever Caribbean Carnival – largely a beauty pageant with performances from calypsonians like the Mighty Terror – at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959. Jones was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad – the capital of carnival – and moved with her parents to America aged nine where she lived until she was deported in the 1950s because of her Marxist beliefs. She came to Britain, became editor of the West Indian Gazette newspaper and, after the 1958 Notting Hill race riots when Teddy Boys attacked Caribbean homes, she was moved to take action.
Appalled at the state of race relations and convinced of the positive role Caribbean people could bring to Britain, Jones believed that a carnival could convince the public to change their stance. The BBC thought so too and televised the event.
Seven years later, in 1966, the first outdoor street carnival took place. Leaning heavily on the Trinidadian origins of playing mas – the street parade with masqueraders dressed in brightly coloured costumes accompanied by trucks playing calypso and soca music – and steelpan - which was heard for the first time on Britain’s streets after Russell Henderson MBE introduced the beautiful sweet sound of pan, imported directly from the suburbs of Laventille and Belmont in Trinidad’s capital city - the event was a success.
Henderson, who died last week aged 91, came from Belmont, as did Jones, and he moved to the UK as a jazz pianist in the 1950s. The legacy of steelbands he has left in Britain is rich; with children learning to play at youth clubs and in bands all over the country. Steelpan, one of Trinidad’s greatest exports began in one of the poorest neighbourhoods, Laventille, where Sterling Betancourt MBE (who also later migrated to London) invented the instrument through sheer necessity in the 1940s. There was no money among Laventillians for brass or string instruments but there were plenty of discarded oil drums from Trinidad’s booming oil industry. Tuning the upturned lids of the barrels to different notes created a distinctive resonance and a national instrument was born. Each year in Trinidad the national steelband competition takes place on the Savannah stage in the centre of the capital and Notting Hill now has its own Panorama competition on Kensal Road on the Saturday before Carnival.
By 1976 Notting Hill Carnival was attracting upwards of 150,000 people and had developed a distinctive Caribbean feel. Carnival’s musical journey moved from steelpan and calypso in the 1960s through to ska and reggae in the 70s and 80s – encompassing the emergence of dub and bass levels that could shake the whole street. Soul has been ever-present. The 90s saw the emergence of ragga and dancehall and the 2000s brought a more eclectic mix with garage, grime, house and bashment. In 2015 carnival’s music has become more professionally organised with sponsored stages with artists like Major Lazer, David Rodigan, Shy FX and Chase and Status competing in soundclash battles. And there are complete listings for pre and after-parties at clubs all over London.
It’s fair to say things are becoming more regulated, policed and commercialised but compared to carnivals of days gone by, like the riot of 1976 and the teen gang clashes and bottle battles with police as recently as 2008, you have to say a bit of order is probably for the best. But although some regulations are a positive and necessary step forward, there’s a new issue: that they’re affecting the quality of the music and the sound produced.
"At our first Carnival we played with 20 bass speakers," says Channel One’s Mikey. “The most we ever played with is 28. Nowadays you play with 8 or 12. The [noise inspectors] come round with a meter and check your decibel level. You're not meant to go over 101 but they normally tell me "Mikey, you're hovering around 110dB."
Static sound systems are what make Notting Hill Carnival unique. “We’re the only carnival in the world that include static Soundsystems as an artistic arena,” Ricky Belgrave, chairman of the British Association of Static Soundsystems (BASS) says. “There are five elements of carnival [mas, soca floats, calypso performance, steelpan competition and sound systems] and Notting Hill is the only place you’ll see all five.”
At this year’s Notting Hill Carnival there will be 38 systems playing across the sprawling site over two days, including many - like Rapattack, Mastermind and Lord Gelly’s - that have been playing for 30 years or more. For the second year running, however, Norman Jay’s Good Times sound system also won’t be appearing.
“There’s been a redevelopment of their site [on Southern Row, W10] where they had become an institution and their usual spot has been reduced to about half the size and they weren’t happy about representing themselves in that kind of space with a Funktion One system. We’re trying to relocate them to a park on Kensal Road but it’s not looking likely at the moment,” says Belgrave. He also explained why Channel One and other larger systems like Sir Lloyd and Killer Watt have run into trouble with the new regulations imposed by Carnival.
“When you have over 499 people [attending], you need a premises licence and the residents then have a say. There are a new breed of residents in the area and through discussions with the council a number of conditions were put on the licenses which raised the cost. For example: the sound systems have been asked to provide up to 12 security guards costing £200-400 each per day and to create a security corridor or barrier. If you can’t meet the cost you don’t appear at carnival.”
Belgrave also confirmed the go-to system for London’s urban youth, Rampage, won’t be appearing this year after they were let down by their sponsor. Instead, veterans I’Spy will take their spot bringing a different kind of vibe to the usual raucous chaos of Rampage in Ladbroke Grove.
Regardless of regulation, gentrification, and disgruntled new residents, there’s strong hope that the traditions of Carnival will endure as long as they are passed down the generations.
“We didn’t start a sound, we inherited it,” says Mikey of Channel One. “From young I had [speaker] boxes in my house”.
The intergenerational continuity and cultural transfer is best demonstrated on the Lord Gelly’s truck where the 72 year-old Jamaican, Fitzgerald Gelly (aka Farda Gelly), dances and parties with his sons at Carnival every year. Farda Gelly started his own sound system in 1963 after moving to Britain from St Andrew parish near Kingston where he grew up hearing the earliest 1950s sounds, like the legendary Sir Coxsone “Downbeat” Dodd and Duke Reid who were importing American R&B records before the Jamaican recording industry had begun.
"The sound with the deeper bass was the man who ruled the day," says Gelly on the phone from Grenada, where he’s semi-retired, having passed the day-to-day running duties for his soundsystem down to his son Andrew Gelly. "The first time I heard my brother’s sound system in Birmingham it was the heaviest sound I've heard in my life. The bass was shattering windows and I said "you know something, I'm going to build my own sound. Later on, I would call up radio stations and ask them: if any sound out there can remember any time that you turned over Gelly's, please call in because we would like to know."
This year Farda Gelly is scheduled to arrive just two days before Carnival. It’s the first time he has ever allowed his sons to do all the organising.
"In my father’s day there was no industry for West Indians to go out to discos and nightclubs," Andrew says. Instead, through their own creation of “blues parties”, house and street parties, and later Notting Hill Carnival, they brought the sound system tradition to England. Now, with British Underground club culture being threatened by all manner of forces - Form 696, British Rail, bourgeois residents - it’s more important than ever that Notting Hill Carnival survives. It’s brought the sound of Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad and Barbados, merged it with the music of the British underground, and created an entirely new musical culture - and an important yearly event. Despite the battles that need to be fought to keep Notting Hill Carnival going, it’s been imprinted through generations for so long now that it will surely remain a fabric of London life.
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