Calypso, soca, steelpan and the masquerade (mas) bands have been key elements of the Notting Hill carnival since it began in 1966. It wasn’t until 1973 that carnival architect Leslie Palmer officially invited stationary sound systems – first brought to the UK from Jamaica – to join the celebrations. and the event took on its noted street-party feel. Palmer wanted to attract a larger, younger crowd, because back then funding was directly linked to turnout. Still, Palmer probably wouldn’t have imagined that, almost 50 years later, carnival would feature more than 30 sound systems.
Some have cult status, while others bring out new British talent to perform on the mic. Exiting Westbourne Park station, revellers are welcomed to Leamington Road Villas by the bass line of the Sir Lloyd sound system, which has been a carnival fixture for 40 years. Dedicated to classic carnival sounds that reach back four decades, Sir Lloyd attracts an eclectic mix of people. On a road nearby, Benji B’s colourful Deviation attracts a slightly younger crowd.
Further into the carnival on Portobello Road is Gladdy Wax Roadshow, a reggae sound system that has been around even longer than Sir Lloyd’s. A don of the London reggae scene, Gladwin Wright’s system was a spinoff from Wax Unlimited record shop in Stoke Newington, which he ran for 14 years. The clouds of smoke floating up from the nearby barbecues, along with the older men skanking in the street with joints in hand to an impressive collection of reggae, seem to push Portobello Road back in time.
Virgo International brings things closer to the present day: with its Vybz Kartel-heavy playlist, it proves to be one of the best spots away from the main parade to catch a whine as strangers find themselves pressed together thanks to the vast crowds.
The cool corner of carnival is arguably around Colville Square and Colville Terrace, home to some of the best-dressed young carnival-goers. Not technically a sound system, the Inklusive Sound stage at Powis Square has a youthful edge, offering a solid serving of new afro bashment and dancehall, while around the corner Rampage is locked in one street with a similarly adventurous energy: artists including the godfather of grime, Wiley, along with Party Hard rapper Donae’o and dancehall singer Kranium grace the stage, inciting mosh pits as temperatures hit the 30s.
People’s Sound, meanwhile, lives up to its name by giving the people what they want: ska pumps out of the speakers, slowing the movement of the sweating bodies. They still get people doing the electric slide, which is nothing short of a miracle given the heat – not to mention a fitting metaphor for Notting Hill carnival and the sound systems that are still a vision of unity 50-plus years on.