Europe's biggest street festival is a sight to behold: the array of static soundsystems to hear all different varieties of Carribean music, Latin music, UK Garage, hip-hop and beyond is immense. The quality and smell of the street food cooking adds to the spectacular ambiance. This year we strove to find the best soundsystems and get a broad picture of what's on offer for music fans. With line-up times hardly explained due to crowd control, it was not always an easy task, but here in this guide below you'll find some of the finest offerings.
A is for reggae legend Aba Shanti-I and his crew. This London-based sound system is one of the longest serving crews on the carnival map. The way they battled the wet conditions on Sunday was a sight to behold, with blasting, sun-soaked brass and lazy stepping rhythms almost convincing us that we were on some Caribbean island.
B is for Seani B. This man knows how to get a crowd going. He had the unenviable task of being good enough to rabble-rouse a Spragga Benz audience. Benz is one of the greatest Jamaican MC's in the world today. Yet the 1Xtra DJ managed it with aplomb and was confident and well-rehearsed, spitting seamlessly along to high bpm rhythms. "Hands up if you got some new phone numbers today," he gushed, adding a healthy bit of cheekiness to get people sparked up.
C is for Capoeira. Part of the Carnival's fun is all about stumbling across the unexpected. Witness, for instance, the display of Capoeira in a square off Portobello Road, overlooked by Westway. The ancient Brazilian street dance – not unlike a South American version of Japanese martial arts – was accompanied by a soundtrack generated by a mini orchestra of strange instruments that looked like gourds with sticks and strings attached and made an eerie clonking noise. We know what you're thinking, but we're pretty sure we didn't just imagine it.
D is for Drink. Due to the pissing rain on the Sunday, skinning up a fat one wasn’t that easy so weed smokers were outnumbered by those brandishing bottles of spirit, with rum and brandy, being the most common. The amount of drink being sold out of off licenses and non-licensed front rooms meant you couldn’t move for it.
E is for Emphasis. Given it's now a much more cosmoplian event than than it once was, the orgnaisers have tried to keep a handle on it losing its original identity of the Trinidad Carnival in Port-of-Spain, upong wwhich it is based. The number of soca, dub, reggae sounds were most prominent whilst keeping in touch, of course, with a wide range of styles from all over the world.
F is for Family. Daddy Vego There were moving scenes at the People's Sound system on All Saints Road, one of the few systems actually connected to a permanent local site, namely the reggae record shop of the same name. Since the passing of the shop's owner Daddy Vego, a true original spirit of carnival, the running of the system has passed to his son Dexter. Among those passing by to pay tribute with a session were Jamaican MC Bushman and members of the equally veteran Coxsone Sound System.
G is for Grenfell. The second Carnival held since the Grenfell disaster, felt very compassionate. There were moments of silence held, green for Grenfell draped all over, and plenty of graffiti comemorating the victims.
H is for house music. It's not the obvious sound to play at Carnival, being neither connected to Jamaica or black communities in the UK, but the party-fueling sound of the 4//4 kick drum still drew big crowds wherever it was played. The KCC crew were the most reliable bet for this.
I is for inclusive. The magic of Carnival is anyone can go and have a good time. Class barriers are shot down. You don’t need any money and you get a world class line-up, up there with any of the expensive paid for ones: Stefflon Don, Major Lazer and Giggs all showed up.
J is for Jerk Chicken. Getting a plate of good grub is essential part of Carnival. Gigwise went for a grand portion of Jerk Chicken, jerk sauce, mango mayo, rice and peas with plantain, red cabbage, and tomatoes – the best we’d ever tasted. The options were plentiful with many other Caribbean staples available wherever you looked, so we washed it down with a pina colada in a coconut.
K is for Knowledge. Stopping and talking to people here at Carnival brings out so much to the area that you may miss on a regular day. We had some great chats around People's Sound about Daddy Vego, found out he was the first person to put reggae music into clubs in North West London. We learned about what it took to put together the Rampage stage with Triple T. Talking and asking you reel off the infectious, charismatic people involved who truly love music.
L is for Latin. Another strange sight we stumble across is the superlative Latin Rave stage, where couples are in full salsa dancing flow, a weird but wonderful contrast to the skanking going on elsewhere.
M is for Mangrove. Mangrove soundsystem were fortunate to have a line-up that could fill a decent sized club on their float. The most anticipated of the day was Heatwave, who played an enthralling set of up-tempo Trinidadian soca music. We climbed on board and got a close-up sight of the impressive feather and sequin costumes that were on board and following its tail. It’s a whole different buzz getting on board a float - recommend it if you haven’t been involved before.
N is for Needless road blocks. Any trip to carnival is, alas, bound to involve getting very close to where you want to be, only to be told you need to turn around and go back the way you came. There may be well thought out safety logic behind these decisions, but the sight of police blocking access to so many key routes is one that inevitably brings frustration. Get used to it, though, it's probably not changing any time soon.
O is for Outrageously Exclusive The real reggae trainspotters are headed half way up Ladbroke Grove where, in a street tucked just off the path of the rout of the main parade of floats, Saxon Sound System are in wonderfully deafening, rib-shaking effect. Their speciality is big reggae and dancehall tracks with the vocals re-recorded by the artists – we're talking everyone from Buju Banton to Sugar Minott – so that the lyrics include big ups to Saxon Sound. Impressive dedication to the cause of dubplate exclusivity for sure.
P is for Political. We weren’t short of subversive political activism: a Brexshit graffiti as a toilet cubicle door; socialist campaigners rallying to hold those accountable for Grenfell disaster; and a reminder of Theresa May’s the Windrush scandal which all very important part of Carnival. After all, Carnival is meant as much as gathering of resistance. It’s evolved to the cosmopolitan gathering it is today from a seed planted in 1959 – its first ever year – by activist/Carnival founder Claudia Jones to have a Caribbean style carnival in the hope of easing racial tensions in the capital. And keeping it as place to fight for a better, more just world is vital.
Q is for Quadrophonic sound. The best soundsystems envelope you in sound. Channel One – the dub and reggae legends who’ve been doing Carnival since ’83 – pulled their trademark 4.0 soundsystem out in full on Monday. Sunday didn’t allow a full unravelling because of the rain and the handmade, antique-look of the speaker stack doesn’t look like it endures a good soaking. Anyhoo, with Monday in full swing, standing in the middle of the crisp speakers Mikey Dread played some classic reggae and dub on his turntable was a highlight. Watching the people whose house they set up in front of be so involved in the party and leave their door open for people to come in and out reiterated how community driven Carnival is.
R is for Rampage. There are many impressive sights on the carnival trail, but the sight of Rampage's massive 55k rig taking up residence in a street that's usually home to hooray Henries and Henriettas, must be up there near the top. They embody the spirit of Carnival, with a little bit of everything being the key to success. That and the loudest, clearest sound you'll hear anywhere on the site. Their playlist included everything from Q Project's monstrous, apocalyptic jungle classic 'Champion Sound', to Aretha Franklin's 'Respect' which heralds the conclusion of the three minutes' silence for the victims of Grenfell on Monday afternoon. Respect indeed.
S is for Secret Sets. “Is that Diplo? It can’t be. Let’s see where he’s going anyway.” We followed someone we thought is Diplo through the crowd as they eventually meandered into an outdoor stage on Powis Square where Giggs was performing a blistering grime set. Stefflon Don followed then Diplo with Major Lazer, who are massive all over the Caribbean as they’ve a real good palette for tropical rhythms. Thinking of going to a big festival you have to pay for the big names next year? Well, be lucky enough at Carnival and you can see some heroes.
T is for Trolley. No nonsense here: just stick it in a trolley with a load of ice and serve the thirsty.
U is for UKG. Officially, according to our man Treble T at the Rampage stage, the UK garage revival has peaked, but clearly the word hasn't yet reached the streets of West London, because everywhere we turn we bump into the nose-tweaking sub bass and slinky, skippy rhythms of UKG. Seduction City's system bring the proverbial house down by plucking old skool anthem and Craig David's debut hit single 'Rewind' out of their box. Sunday, meanwhile, kicked off in style with All Saints Road filling up and easing into the day to the smooth sound of MJ Cole's 'Sincere'.
V is for very fucking good. It’s hard to argue with, it’s great. We get some people are not down for going because of the crowds, if that sounds like you, trick is to get there early, like 10am, and watch everyone still setting up and until mid-afternoon you’ll be able to get to any soundsystem you want. It does tend to get much busier late afternoon so pick a spot if you arrive late and go between fewer places.
W is for wet. Really, really wet. Paid three quid for a plastic poncho wet.
X is for 1Xtra. It's no co-incidence that the DJs from one of the event's biggest sound systems, Rampage, were picked as 1Xtra's first on air selectors. The station has been directly influenced by their non-partisan mix of hip-hop, R&B, garage, grime and other underground sounds. In turn, their presence on the FM dial – or whatever the equivalent of that on a digital radio is – has helped to catapult the event's new generation of stars like Giggs and Mist to household name status.
Y is Youth. Sunday is kids day with the parades all starring talented dancers. It's essential to get people involved so early to continue the level of craft that is pulled off for the next generation. But it's also essential in building confidence in young people. We asked Alexandra Burke, the festival's first amabssador, if going from a young age helped her become confident: "I feel it's defnitely helped me talk to people because you've got no choice ut to greet people and that's nice because most of the time in London people are shy to look up from their phones and greet people. The joy of Carnival is meeting people, I might not know anyone but I would talk to every single person and that's what Carnival is about."
Z is for Zion. As in '”Iron like a lion in Zion”. The spirit of Bob Marley, who not only walked these streets on a regular basis but is also rumoured to have fathered a few unknown children in the area too, cropped up more often than in the past. 'Redemption Song' is heard ringing out from the Channel One speakers as things start to take shape on Monday morning. Bob, we like to think, would also have appreciated the irony of his 1980 classic 'Get Up Stand Up', imploring us to stand up for our rights, playing loudly not far from the police officers trying out their special new stop and search powers.