Music and Sound Systems at Notting Hill Carnival

The Parade

Entertainment includes the extravagantly colourful Notting Hill Carnival parade, filled with feathered costumed dancers moving to the sounds of steel bands, hip-hop beats, reggae favourites and modern dance hits, all blasting out through the streets courtesy of some serious sound systems.

The Notting Hill Carnival has since evolved into an event that reflects the best of a diverse range of music.

Here is a little intro to some of the music that has traditionally been found at Notting Hill Carnival.


Calypso comes from Trinidad: victims of the slave trade used to sing calypso, which can be traced back to West African Kaiso, as a means of communication and to mock their slave masters. These songs, usually led by one individual called a Griot, helped to unite the slaves. Calypso singing competitions, held annually at Carnival time, grew in popularity after the abolition of slavery by the British in the 1830s. The Griot later became known as the Chantuelle and today as the Calypsonian.


Soca is said to have been created in 1963 (see 1963 in music) by Ras Shorty I. Shorty added Indian instruments to calypso andexperimented with fusions of calypso and the other Indian inspired music  for nearly 10 years before releasing “the soul of calypso” –  soca music.

Like calypso, soca was used for both social commentary and humor. It often has some sexual connotations, both through the lyrics and the dancing associated with it. These taboo undertones helped to attract people to soca in times of harsher sexual repression. With typically loud, fast drum beats leading the vocals,Soca has since evolved into a blend of musical styles.

Steel Pan

The first instruments developed in the evolution of steel pan were Tamboo-Bamboos, tuneable sticks made of bamboo wood. These were hit onto the ground and with other sticks in order to produce sound. Tamboo-Bamboo bands also included percussion of a gin bottle and spoon. By the mid-1930s, bits of metal percussion were being used in the Tamboo-Bamboo bands, the first probably being either the automobile brake hub “iron” or the biscuit drum “boom”. It wasn’t until Festival of Britain in 1951 that the Steel Pan we see most commonly now appeared. With a fantastic range of pitches, it is the most summery and melodic drum around, well worthy of its place as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.


Samba is borrowed from Notting Hill Carnival’s big sister – the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Mixing percussion and strings, it is full of movement and emotion.


The Sound Systems

While the parade is the heart of the Notting Hill Carnival, most of the fun is found at the 40+ sound systems dotted around the Notting Hill Carnival area. They provide the perfect setting for thousands of people to take the rare opportunity to dance in the street. You will find everything from jazz, reggae, garage, Hip Hop, swing and blues to some aggressive drum ‘n’ bass.

It is well worth reading through what the sound systems at Notting Hill Carnival offer and making a note of which you want to check out as you will never have time to experience them all.

Download our free Notting Hill Carnival App now for a full list of sound systems on an interactive map to show you exactly where to find them.