What’s shaking at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival? The streets, no doubt; thanks to its legendary collection of sound systems. Geoff Cowart talks to veteran selector Gladdy Wax about his three decades in the game. Plus, our guide to the impressive array of parties before and after the carnival
The Notting Hill Carnival is rightly regarded as an institution in London. It’s the largest street party in Europe and second largest carnival in the world trailing only Rio de Janeiro. Over the coming Bank Holiday weekend it will once again come alive to the sound of steel bands, samba drums and the legendary sound systems that make it bounce. Yes, some local residents run for the hills to avoid the crowds, but music lovers from across the UK will be running for Notting Hill.
The Carnival’s biggest attraction has almost always been its sound systems. Yet, when the carnival first hit the streets in 1966 they were merely the unofficial sideshows courtesy of early Ladbroke Grove selectors “Duke Vin” and “Count Suckle”. And the rest is history.
Meanwhile,1966 was the same year that future carnival legend Gladdy Wax immigrated from Jamaica to Birmingham at the age of 14. Gladdy(or Gladwin as his mum calls him) grew up on the Midlands sound system scene with his brothers as part of Leisure Sound. Soon after, he was recruited to the city’s mightiest sound; Quaker City. He later swapped Brum for London to pursue his singing career, cutting records with fellow UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell.
Not content with making music he also ran the superb “Wax Unlimited” record shop in Stoke Newington for more than a decade. But it’s always been the majestic and clear tone of his vintage sound system that’s set him apart from the crowd. Now aged 68, he’s been dropping tunes at the party for 31 long years, and he’s still not lost the hunger.
“I’m still motivated by the music,” he says. “This year I’m bringing more power as I’ve got some new equipment up my sleeve. I always try and improve my set.” While he always has time to tinker with his sound system, he’s always operated it the traditional Jamaican way; fully analogue, powered by valve amps and spinning only vinyl. In fact, out of the 40-odd sound systems at the Carnival Gladdy is now one of the very last selectors to play only records at the Carnival.
“Everything’s changed,” he says with a shrug; just not Gladdy. The Tottenham reggae lover explains his love of wax by saying: “I play records because I want to hear the music proper. It’s the tone. It’s far more pleasing. I can hear the difference in the analogue recordings. If I had to play CDs I wouldn’t bother…”
For the first few years he performed on a float. But today his current spot located at 304-306 Portobello Road has become a true Carnival destination. And you can always spot Gladdy by his trademark white gloves. It’s a throwback to his music distributor days when he would visit the pressing plants and watch as the crews would carefully handle the freshly pressed wax with gloved hands.
“Initially it was about protecting the vinyl. Treating the records with care and respect. But then I thought it looked good, so I kept wearing them,” he says with a laugh.
And once again this year, Gladdy’s gloves won’t come off until he’s rocked the block.
Other Carnival highlights
Carnival may only last two days, but there is a week’s worth of events around the festival. Here’s our pick of the best events:
The Notting Hills Arts Club returns with a long hot weekend of Carnival fun. Running from Thursday (August 22) to Monday it stages a free night; every night. www.nottinghillartsclub.com
Don’t miss reggae legend and boaster extraodinaire Yellowman performing at the Jazz Café on Friday (August 23). The dancehall superstar singer has beaten jaw cancer and will be sure to perform a triumphant set joined by “The Sagittarius Band” and “Peppery”. Tickets from £30. 7pm. www.thejazzcafelondon.com
The UK National Steelband Panorama competition rolls into town on Saturday (August 24) as defending champions “Mangrove” take on all comers in Emslie Horniman’s “Pleasance Park”. Gates 6pm. Music 7pm. Tickets £10 (£3 ages 16-5/free under 5). www.nhcarnival.org/panorama
Once the party winds up in Notting Hill, the “Carnival Quencher” will transfer the energy over to the Scala in Kings Cross. Presented by “Release Riddim”, doors open at 10pm with a 6am curfew. Tickets from £11. www.scala.co.uk
Over at the legendary Fabric nightclub in Faringdon they’ll devote Room 3 to reggae on Sunday (August 25) with special guests “Gardna” (album launch), “Uncle Dugs” (ragga jungle set),and the “Real Roots Crew”. It’s hosted by MC Navigator and MC Ardimann between 11pm and 6am. Tickets from £5. www.fabriclondon.com
One of the carnival’s hottest after parties returns to Embankment club Heaven on Sunday (August 25). The “Sun Balient” night features a live set of carnival anthems from Saint Lucia’s MOTTO, a carnival room with “Soca, Bouyon” and “Dennery”, as well as a Jamaican sound system room. 11pm-6am. Tickets £15. www.heaven-live.co.uk
There are also great carnival parties at Ministry of Sound: “Egg”, “Aquum”, the “Brixton Jamm” and the “Vauxhall Street Food Garden”.