“Carnival – it’s a kaleidoscope that bombards the senses,” expresses Don Letts. “Whether it be your rum and jerk chicken, and the girls on the floats in their scanty gear, or the culture clash of sounds all fighting for space, it can satisfy your every desire.”
The filmmaker, radio host, musician and DJ knows this better than most. London born and bred, Letts has been frequenting Notting Hill Carnival for the past 40 years. A child of Windrush, his father was one of the first to arrive in Britain from Jamaica in the post-war years, and Letts carried his culture with him. He DJed at legendary club The Roxy in the 1970s, turning the punks onto reggae and dub music, and went on to work with icons like The Clash and Bob Marley on documentaries and music videos.
Carnival is a testament of the power of culture to unite
For Letts, Carnival's 50-year history is a political and a social one, where communities have come together to celebrate in the face of adversity and tense racial climates. It's also, as he explains, a cultural one. "It’s basically charted the evolution of black music in this country," he says. From its origins in Trinidadian and Tobagan calypso music to the vast spectrum of sounds that make up the present day, here he explores the development Carnival's rich musical tapestry.
1960s: Carnival and the calypso sound
"The first actual carnival wasn’t even in the street – it was in St Pancras Town Hall, Kings Cross. It was the brainwave of Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian lady who was responsible for the first West Indian newspaper [the West Indian Gazette]. There was a lot of racial riots in the wake of Windrush in the '50s. We had teddy boys attacking the black communities in Ladbroke Grove, and it ended with the death of a man called Kelso Cochrane. So, to heal the fractured community, she came up with the idea of doing a carnival. It was held in January to mirror the time they have one in Trinidad. But London in January – not the smartest time to walk out in skimpy clothes...
"It moved around over the next few years, but didn’t get to Notting Hill until the mid-‘60s. It was a mash up of her idea and another local activist called Rhaune Laslett who wanted to bring the community together through a street event, in what was a very racially tense climate. It was just a few hundred people – the local Polish, Moroccans, Europeans, everybody was invited. The whole thing started to move when a man called Russ Henderson, a steel pan player, was invited to this local street party and he decides to go for a walkabout while playing, and it kind of grew from that."
"What people don’t realise is that, when the carnival started, it wasn’t this big sound system thing initially. It was the music from the smaller Caribbean islands like Barbados and Trinidad that was carrying the swing – calypso style."
1970s: The Jamaican sound systems take over
"I started going in the early ‘70s, and by then the Jamaican sound systems had kind of culturally hijacked the event! It was all about the bass, man. They used to have gigs at Meanwhile Gardens. I remember the original hardcore Aswad playing tunes like Warrior Charge at midnight, and the bass echoing around West London. It was a trip."
All of a sudden Carnival was about us and our experience
"For my parents, when Carnival first started it was a reminder of home, and a place they might ideally go back to. But by the time we came to Carnival in the ‘70s it was a very different affair. It was more a statement of how we felt about being black in Britain today. All of a sudden, Carnival was about us and our experience. And it became a lot more politicised. We had the rise of the National Front, there was a lot of police pressure, we had this thing called 'sus' [a police stop and search law]. This was reflected in the music of the early to mid '70s – it was a lot more militant. The tunes, I could go on for days... Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, Warrior Charge, Two Sevens Clash by Culture..."
1980s: Norman Jay brings the funk and soul
"You’ve got to give big respect to people like Norman Jay. Initially, Carnival was a calypso and soca thing, then reggae takes over and that becomes the dominant sound. Then, Norman Jay comes in on the scene with Good Times Sound System, and he’s bringing a bit of funk and soul which, back in the day, was a brave move! People used to throw things at him! But he pioneered the way for all the other stuff to follow in his wake: Rampage, Rapattack, all those sound systems came after. It was Norman Jay who really started to widen the musical palette of what Carnival could be about.
"It used to go on until it finished [in the early hours of the morning], but Carnival has faced opposition from all different kinds of forces. In the '80s we had street gangs – steamers – and really, they didn’t come and shut the Carnival early because everyone was having a party and a great time. It was to do with people’s safety. But luckily that stuff got cleaned up between the community. We weren’t going to have that. We have fought too long and hard for people to come and ruin it."
Late-'80s and 1990s: Soul II Soul, jungle and drum'n'bass
"Carnival is a great place for discovering what’s hot and what’s not, and in the late ‘80s, Jazzie B entered the arena with Soul II Soul. That, for me, was when being black and British meant something. Before that we were sort of looking to America, but we’re not really American. Then we’re looking to Jamaica and we’re of Jamaican heritage, but we’re not Jamaican. We’re this new thing, this weird kind of duality which had existed before, but it took a long time for that to coalesce and come together. For me, that happened with Soul II Soul. Big respect to Jazzie B."
"Each generation needs its own soundtrack, and in the '90s a new sound came into the mix: jungle, aka drum'n'bass. By then, Carnival had changed from a predominantly black affair to an all-inclusive party. But it was in danger of becoming a victim of its own success, and inevitable questions of restrictions and relocation provided more obstacles for it to overcome."
2000s to the present day: The musical tribes unite
For me, the thing that carries the swing is bass
"Back in the day there used to be like three to four hundred sound systems, now there’s like 50. The soundtrack has changed – in the 21st century, all tribes are represented. They even have techno at the end of the bloody event, which I tell you – techno at a carnival, it don’t work. For me, the thing that carries the swing is bass. I’ll go to the peripheral edges and find an old school sound – like Aba Shanti-I – and hold that spot. But underpinning it all, you’ve still got calypso and soca. If you didn’t have them, then it really wouldn’t be Carnival."
"The political history of Carnival is lost nowadays. I think people forget that, yes, you can jump about to music, but it can also open up ideas and raise points for discussion. That’s what music is about – information, inspiration and communication through culture. And that’s what Carnival is – it’s a testament of the power of culture to unite."
Red Bull Sound System and Red Bull x Mangrove Truck will back at Notting Hill Carnival this year. For more information and to check out the line ups, head to redbull.com/london.
Listen to Don Letts' podcast, Reggae 45, on iTunes