Sound System Culture of Notting Hill Carnival – Speaker to Speaker

Sound System Culture of Notting Hill Carnival – Speaker to Speaker

Itzel Rodriguez takes in sound system culture going speaker to speaker at Notting Hill Carnival – one of the largest Black culture parades in the world reaching over 2.5 million people in the streets of London.

Sound system culture at Notting Hill Carnival
Sound system culture at Notting Hill Carnival

Sound-checking the kit

“I try to visit every year because I’m a faithful follower of sound system culture and of course, festivals”.

I find it beautiful in many ways, there’s a great community spirit, bright colors and art everywhere, wonderful costumes and the floats are gorgeous – people come from all over the world. They have an incredible gastronomic tradition and it’s in London, a great city, not too far from Bristol.

We got there early on Sunday to make it to Solution Sound for Steve Rice’s set (downbeat melody / Passion FM) he’s a legendary Bristol DJ that I’ve been following since I first landed in Bristol.

He plays reggae, ska, rocksteady, dub, salsa, soul, boogaloo, and a few other delightful rhythms. It was blistering sunshine, the place was cooking. Before Steve’s set took a walk around the area to see some sound systems still stringing up or sound-checking their kit. 

Stacks on stacks makes up sound system culture

I am fascinated by this. I like starring at speaker stacks in all their glory,

Standing in front to feel the bass, following the rhythm from the scoops all the way to the tops. I like their designs and the unique way they get placed to create an atmosphere.

We stop at a few sounds, one of them called Channel One is my absolute favorite.

I never stay for long because the crowds are so big it often becomes difficult to breathe, but I like being there for the opening. Before heading back to Solution, we got some food and Caribbean food is one of the reasons I smile every day. 

Steve’s set was a treat. The man was in his element, happy crowd, hips swinging. It was nothing but a display of how much passion a man can have for music. At 3 o’clock we held a 72-second silence for the victims of the Grenfell fire, it was very emotional.

After his set, we said goodbye and headed to Portobello Road to see Gladdy Wax, the official Trojan Records stage. Gladdy Wax (aka Mr. Vinyl Fingers) has been running his sound for more than 40 years, he’s one of the UK’s most respected selectors. 

Glady Wax
Glady Wax

Navigating Carnival

Navigating carnival is a mission, there are thousands trying to get to places, the crowds were getting thicker and slower.

I saw Gladdy struggling in the crowds, I stopped to talk to him quickly then I said with all confidence ‘I’ll take you to your sound’. One thing I’m really good at is getting to the front of any stage,

I just manage, so I led him as if I was in charge of his schedule, within five minutes he was back at his turntables, I was at the front, enjoying the show, until close. 

We had a local hostel booked for the night. It was hot, people were loud, someone had set an alarm for 5 AM, it went on, and on, and on. I highly recommend staying locally, but I don’t recommend shared dorms if you want any rest. 

After breakfast we left with one mindset – get to Aba Shanti-I. But before that, I couldn’t skip King Tubby’s, I visit every year, they are bang and I go out of my way to enjoy a wee dance anytime, they are proper roots, proud and strong, every second there is worth it despite the heat.

PA System fueling the sound
PA System fueling the sound

Holy heat

It was such a hot day (about 32 C) even I was struggling.

I saw a church with a couple of nuns standing outside, I asked them if they could fill my bottle of water, got chatting to them, and got invited in, I would never decline a genuine invite so I went in, it was fresh inside, they had flags from many countries, tinsel hanging down the columns, they said they dress it up for the carnival. I was allowed to use their toilet, refresh, chill. Got gifted a little Virgin Mary medal, which I was happy to wear. It reminded me of Mexico.

On our way to Aba Shanti-I, we stopped at Gladdy Wax for a bit because let’s face it, you can’t just pass.

Gladdy saw me, said my name loudly saluting me, I felt so special and welcomed. We stayed there for a few tunes, I got given a free cocktail by Sapling Spirits and off we went. 

The worst part for me is leaving, not only is it a sad moment, it is dealing with thousands of people trying to leave at the same time.

About a million people go to this festival. Imagine that. It took me about 3 hours to make it to the coach station, but I got there with the help of a little lovely Italian, Giampiero, who was more than happy to guide me all the way calming down my Mexican nerves. 

Overall Carnival is a massive celebration of diversity, sound system culture, and strong Afro Caribbean tradition. I can’t help it but feel eternally grateful for it.

Words and images courtesy of Itzel Rodriguez