The last weekend of August has meant one thing and one thing only to Londoners for 36 years, the Notting Hill Carnival. This street party is the largest in Europe and second only to the Rio Carnival in the world. What began as a festival designed to bring cohesion, celebration and hope to the disenfranchised black communities of 1960s London has evolved into a huge multi-cultural arts spectacle. The 1970s and 1980s saw incidents occur that threatened to mar the Carnival reputation forever. During this period the Carnival became synonymous with anger and violence as police and predominantly black youths clashed in the narrow streets, with riots overshadowing the joyous nature of the event. However, such dangers have all but vanished in recent years and the popularity of the Carnival reflects this more than one and a half million people attended Carnival 2000 and previous years have seen in excess of two million crammed onto the three-mile procession route. These days the Carnival attracts people from every social sphere, whites and blacks, old and young. Such is the energetic and friendly nature of the festival that one can see a Calypso Queen coax a policeman into a quick boogie, a far cry from the hostilities of the 1970s.
Long before you see the vibrant colours, the seething crowds and the sparkling costumes you are met by a medley of smells and sounds. From the moment one steps out of the tube station, wafts of jerk chicken and Jamaican patties reach your nose amid a breeze already cluttered with the sounds of whistles, horns and the distant crowds. The bass lines and melodies exploding from the various sound systems littering the carnival area, produce a resonance that permeates the skin, one only realises the extent of this when it is punctuated by the exuberant urges of an MC to “Make some Noise!”. As soon as you turn the corner leading to any part of the procession route one is confronted by the spectacle that is the Notting Hill Carnival. The combination of steelbands, Calypso and Soca floats, Masquerade costumes, static Sound Systems and ethnic cuisine provide a rich tapestry of sounds, images and smells. Although various sources such as magazines and online sites provide maps of the Carnival area, these are only necessary if you are intent on catching a particular artist or stage. For those without an itinerary it is much more enjoyable to be swept along by the crowds and settle at any of the sound systems you take a fancy to along the way.
One of the most popular sound systems is the Radio 1 outdoor stage in Hornimans Pleasance Park. This year the largest outdoor stage saw such artists as MJ Cole, DJ Luck & MC Neat, Common and Shola Ama play to a massive audience on Sunday. Then, on Monday, Tim Westwood took up the Radio 1 mantle as he presented his Rap Show live from the Carnival. Predictably the crowds arrived in their thousands to witness the likes of De La Soul, Mr Vegas, Elephant Man and Spragga Benz & Major Figgas. De La Soul performed several tracks off their new album Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, to the biggest crowds of the day, however it was the much anticipated rendition of the classic “Me, Myself and I” that saw the audience erupt in a chorus of whistles and horn-blowing. For a group that began their careers over fifteen years ago as part of the counter-gangsta “Native Tongues” movement, it was refreshing to see a live performance that still pulsated with energy and enthusiasm. With big-name American artists like Chicago-based Common and the legendary De La Soul, the Carnival has proved its global popularity and serves an important role in providing those that cannot afford to pay extortionate concert fees the opportunity to experience great music performed live by great artists. Despite heavy rain on Sunday and lighter showers the following day, those revellers who turned up to experience the Radio 1 music extravaganza were not perturbed.
Although the Radio 1 stage is the biggest and best known of the sound systems at the Carnival, its presence did not appear to draw too many people away from the other stages. Crowds flocked to the smaller sound systems like Rampage, 4 Play, BIPA Sound, Love TKO, Special FX, Midnight Express, Trouble on Vinyl and many more. One of the highlights of Carnival 2000 was the Aphrodite set at the Trouble on Vinyl stage on Monday. For a man whose style has been criticised as too “friendly” for the notoriously aggressive drum’n'bass scene, his trademark “jump-up” flavour proved to be the perfect soundtrack to the evening. Using deep, heavy bass-lines peppered with hip-hop and ragga samples the “Mighty Aphrodite” created an atmosphere geared solely towards summer partying.
After the set, I was fortunate enough to catch the man himself for a brief interview. When asked how he felt the Carnival had changed over the years it became obvious how important this event is to DJs like Aphrodite: “It is much bigger these days and more multi-cultural. I can’t think of anywhere else where the mission is to party and dance for so many people.” Indeed, this was highlighted further when I asked whether the Carnival was as popular with DJs as events like Homelands: “It’s different, festivals are more organised and geared towards the dance music and sponsorship, etc. Carnival has the feeling of always being spontaneous, it’s great to walk round the corner and find hundreds of people dancing to roots reggae, salsa or garage, enjoying it and then moving on.”
Of the other performers at the Carnival, Aphrodite was particularly impressed with sets by Optical and Ray Keith, and although he said he was interested in a collaboration with other artists he was not forthcoming with any details “We will see…” was the elusive reply. Drum’n'bass is without a doubt a musical phenomenon, but as far as record sales go it remains a British phenomenon. I was interested to discover whether Aphrodite could explain why drum’n'bass has not made the same impact on international markets as on the British: “I think it will, even in England, it is still very underground compared to two-step, trance or house. The international scene takes more time to catch up with the British market, but it is still there and growing all the time. I find my self playing in a large range of countries and you can always get the crowds going.” It would have been a squandered opportunity to interview Aphrodite, one of the pioneers of the drum’n'bass scene, without asking what moment he felt had defined his DJing career or if he thought it was still to come. Unsurprisingly in his reply he mentioned the releases of tracks such as “A-Zone,” “King of the Beats,” “Darkside,” “Bad Ass,” and his gig at Glastonbury. However, he firmly stated that we should expect bigger and better things from him in the future.
Due to the multi-cultural and socially diverse nature of the Carnival itself it is no surprise to see almost every music and dance genre represented somewhere in West London during this weekend. Indeed, with crowds that reach figures in excess of two million it appears not only apt, but essential, that top name artists, from hip-hop to house, from garage to groove, represent their respective genre in a free music festival. As Aphrodite himself says of the Carnival: “Carnival is special as it is so big, with a million and a half people and all. It is amazing to be able to attract passers-by who may not normally enjoy drum’n'bass, they just get swept along by the atmosphere.” The beauty of the Carnival is that you do not have to be a drum’n'bass eficionado to enjoy the Trouble on Vinyl sound system just as you do not have to be a chart lover to enjoy the Radio 1 stage. The truth is that, although all tastes are catered for, there are no boundaries at the Carnival. If you make your way to one stage and decide it isn’t for you, then you can simply move on to another, often finding yourself dancing to the sounds of a system you have never heard of before. It is this kind of free event, where all forms of music are represented and performed to an incredibly diverse mass of people, that ensures such music reaches and intoxicates listeners who would not have otherwise encountered it. This is why the Notting Hill Carnival is so large, this is why it is so popular and this is why it will get bigger.
“It is a big, big street party. No, a massive
street party. Okay, it is an orgy of bass-
lines, with sound systems packed with
// Notes from the Road
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