The Roots of Sound Systems

Read through the history of Sound Systems and their significance to Notting Hill Carnival.

Sound SystemNotting Hill Carnival

What are Sound Systems?

Sound Systems are customised super-amplified mobile systems which are used at the heart of street parties, and have been an integral part of Notting Hill Carnival since 1973. Operated by a talented team of MCs and DJs, they bring the party wherever they go!

Notting Hill Carnival, Disya Jeneration (2020/2020) by Notting Hill Carnival LtdNotting Hill Carnival

Watch Disya Jeneration's set from Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas. Disya Jeneration has been performing at Notting Hill Carnival since 1985, and you can find them performing old-school and new-school party classics on the corner of Westbourne Park Road and Powis Terrace.

People Sound Record Shop (2021-04-26/2021-04-26) by Naomi FitzsimmonsNotting Hill Carnival

What do Sound Systems Sound Like?

Taking their influence from the likes of Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae, Sound Systems now incorporate a range of music, including the likes of Dub, House, Jungle, Techno, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Disco, Samba, Blues, Latin, Dancehall, R&B, and Hip Hop. 

Sound SystemNotting Hill Carnival

Sound Systems are known for their heavy bass signature which draws in crowds. The configuration of speakers and amplifiers act to immerse audiences in each System's unique sound, and they attempt to out-do neighbouring Sound Systems.

Setting up the Sound System (1983/1983) by Peter AndersonNotting Hill Carnival

The Origins of Sound Systems

Sound Systems were established in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1950's, and they form an integral part of Jamaican culture and history. 

Sound System (1981/1981) by BBCNotting Hill Carnival

Early Sound Systems were created by Jamaicans who were moving back and forth from the USA in the 1940's and 50's. They were influenced by the R&B bands playing through PA systems at New York block parties and they made the idea their own by generating homemade rudimentary Sound Systems.

Channel One Sound System by Angela OgunfojuriNotting Hill Carnival

At this time, Jamaican radio stations were modelled off of BBC radio, which refused to play certain genres of music. This prompted Jamaican DJs and Sound Systems to play the music that the people wanted. They loaded vans with generators, speakers, amplifiers and turntables and transported new music to street parties.

Duke Vin by Giles MoberlyNotting Hill Carnival

Early Sound Systems

Tom Wong founded the first commercially successful Sound System, Tom the Great Sebastian, and influenced many future artists. He popularised Dancehall music by playing Rhythm and Blues music. Other early Sound Systems included Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster and Duke Vin (pictured).

Festus and Coxsone Sound System by Jean Bernard SohlezNotting Hill Carnival

The Development of Sound Systems

In the beginning, DJs tended to play American Rhythm and Blues on rough homemade Systems, before shifting into more local sounds. By the late 1950’s, Sound Systems had become much more sophisticated and highly powered, and were popularising genres such as Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae.

Notting Hill Carnival Sound System (1994/1994) by Peter MarshallNotting Hill Carnival

How were Sound Systems Introduced to the U.K.?

Sound Systems arrived in Britain with the first wave of Jamaican immigration during the Windrush years of the 1950s and 1960s. For many of these Jamaicans, they found British pubs and clubs to be hostile environments, while British radio stations refused to play Jamaican music. 

Channel One Sound SystemNotting Hill Carnival

As a result, the popularisation of Sound Systems, as in Jamaica, largely occurred in underground circuits through makeshift Dancehalls and word-of-mouth parties as Jamaicans began to carve out their own social spaces in the U.K..

Leslie Palmer MBENotting Hill Carnival

Leslie Palmer, Notting Hill Carnival organiser 1973-1975

Sound Systems were introduced to Notting Hill Carnival by Leslie Palmer.

Notting Hill Carnival was very Trinidad and Tobago-inclined, with the strongest musical presence being steel pan. Palmer recognised that the people wanted a “Jamaican Sound”, and invited Sound Systems to perform at Carnival. 

Notting Hill Carnival 1979, Sound System on Portobello Road under the Westway (1979/1979) by Adrian BootNotting Hill Carnival

How have Sound Systems Shaped Notting Hill Carnival?

Sound Systems have shaped Notting Hill Carnival immeasurably since their introduction in the mid-1970s. Their development and proliferation culminated in 36 official Sound Systems performing at Notting Hill Carnival 2019, playing a range of musical styles and genres. 

Here watch a video of Sound System Aba Shanti-I from Notting Hill Carnival 1998. 
A resident of Notting Hill Carnival since 1993, you can find them where East Row meets Southern Row at the next Carnival, blasting Roots Reggae and Dub.

Channel One Sound SystemNotting Hill Carnival

Sound Systems who return to Notting Hill Carnival year after year are stationed in same space on the road, making it easier for dedicated fans to find them. Channel One, a Reggae based Sound System, is a prime example of this, as they have been stationed in the same place at NHC since 1979.

You can find Channel One at future Carnival’s where Leamington Road Villas meets Westbourne Park Road.

Notting Hill Carnival, Channel One (2020/2020) by Notting Hill Carnival LtdNotting Hill Carnival

Watch Channel One's set from Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas. With their roots in Reggae, Channel One have been bringing their sound to Notting Hill Carnival since 1979.
For more sets from Access All Areas, head to our YouTube page at Notting Hill Carnival Ltd

Disya Jeneration sound system by Babycakes RomeroNotting Hill Carnival

The Significance of Sound Systems to Notting Hill Carnival

The variety and history of Sound Systems has rendered them one of Carnival's ‘five key arts’, with legions of dedicated supporters attending Carnival to watch them perform.

Next time you're at Carnival, make sure to pass by a Sound System and catch ah vibe with the crowd!

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