The annual Notting Hill Carnival is a truly iconic event in the UK’s musical and cultural calendar. It’s led by members of the British Caribbean community and is the world’s largest carnival aside from Rio, attracting an estimated 2.5 million attendees annually.
Throughout the carnival you can hear everything from steel drum bands to reggae, grime and drum & bass blasting through sound systems small and large. It’s a totally unique showcase of the direct influence of the Caribbean in UK music.
The History of Notting Hill Carnival
The carnival has its roots in response to racist campaigns and attacks in the late 50s against the local West Indian population (most of whom had arrived during the Windrush period).
Trinidadian activist Claudia Jones (founder of the West Indian Gazette) organised a small Caribbean celebration in 1959, as a show of solidarity and strength for the community.
These events inspired similar indoor events by Edric and Pearl Connor during the early 60s, which in turn resulted in further celebrations a few years later. Through the introduction of a procession and the use of the steel drum, these early iterations started to resemble the carnival we know today.
The carnival grew each year, becoming more organised in format, attracting sponsorship and featuring a wider array of artists.
In the 1970s, the introduction of sound systems, along with the traditional Caribbean floats created a bridge between traditional West Indian music and more modern sounds; something that is key to the Carnival’s character today, as traditional sounds are heard alongside more contemporary electronic music and novel interpretations of traditional styles. All these diverse styles are conjoined by the common thread of Caribbean traditional music and sound system culture.
Throughout the decades, the event’s increased capacity and cultural significance elevated it even further into the attention of the music mainstream – a number of US artists such as Jay Z and Destiny’s Child even made it down for special, one off performances in the 90s.
The Carnival has historically struggled to obtain legitimate traditional media attention compared to other cultural events and as such it’s often been marred by negative media reports.
Due to the sheer number of attendees, the actual crime rates of Notting Hill Carnival when compared to other music events like Glastonbury have been found to be fairly comparable on a per person basis. Given that the event hosts over two and a half million people per year, it is generally regarded as one of the safest carnivals in the world.
Unfortunately due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 editions of the event have been cancelled, leaving a void in the the UK’s musical and cultural calendar.
One glance at Instagram over the bank holiday weekend and the heartfelt odes and tributes to another missed carnival across the UK’s music sphere will be numerous. Hopefully the event will be able to go ahead in 2022 as the pandemic recedes.
Music Styles of the Carnival
Here is an overview of a selection of key carnival music styles and some of their showcase tracks.
Steel Pans and Traditional Music
A huge part of Carnival is the merging of traditional, live sounds (namely the steel drum bands) with their modern counterparts.
Dub and Reggae
Dub and reggae sound systems such as King Tubby’s are a staple of carnival – where the spirit of the master lives on. You’ll typically hear echoes of the vocal classics “No, No, No”, “Murderer” and various “Sleng Teng” iterations throughout the various static sound systems, as well as numerous low end dub stompers thumping through the event.
Soca is probably most associated with carnival. With deep roots in Calypso, it’s a style that is poignantly Caribbean. The lightning fast, swinging rhythms are present throughout the event, accompanied by vibrant costumed dancers.
The rough and ready descendant of reggae and dub, systems such as Nasty Love will typically be pumping out the dancehall heaters from favourites such as Vybz Kartel, Mavado and Popcaan to revellers all day long.
Alongside the more joyous carnival tracks, now and again the Jungle tracks will turn up for tea, ripping through the festivities with warping basslines and frantic amen breaks.
Despite the apparent differences in energy, the core elements of Jungle music are distinctly Caribbean. Jungle has been one of the largest influential musical movements of the last 25 years and nothing makes its place and context in modern music more apparent than the backdrop of carnival.
Funk & Soul
Sound systems such as Deviation showcase a more modern carnival style and if one tune were to show this cultural crossroads between the carnival spirit and modern electronic music it would be Seasons.
If you’ve witnessed it live for yourself, it’s hard to hear the main horn riff without hearing a crowd chanting along as the percussion tumbles around the rolling subs.
You will also witness a more soulful side to the carnival around the edges of Ladbroke Grove and its surrounding areas. Norman Jay’s legendary Good Times sound system is now retired, but you’ll still find plenty of cool tunes in the air over the weekend.
Notting Hill Carnival Sets
Here is a small selection of carnival sets from over the years. More recently with the involvement of third parties, recordings of carnival sets have become much more abundant and accessible.
However there are still plenty of old archive gems available, which just require a bit more digging. Here are a few selections to stick on this bank holiday weekend as we look forward to the following year:
Saxon Studio 1994
Aba Shanti-I 2017
Channel One Sound System 2018
Seani B w/ Triniboi Joocie – 1Xtra Notting Hill Carnival Afterparty 2020
For further information on Notting Hill Carnival, please take a look at the following resources:
The Notting Hill Carnival Official Website
A History of Notting Hill Carnival
The Street Party That Revolutionised Britain – BBC
Main photo credit: Robert Sharp