The Unifying Power Of The Sound System

Ahead of this weekend's Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest street party in Europe, we speak to Linett Kamala, one of its directors, about the immense sonic and cultural power of the Jamaican sound system.

Linett Kamala is a true force of nature. At the age of 15, she became one of the first female DJs to play at Notting Hill Carnival, and has gone on to advocate for sound system culture within the education system and cultural institutions.

A graduate of the University of Arts London, she’s a visual artist and educator, who works with young people via her Lin Kam Art enterprise. Lin Kam Art utilises festival arts for wellbeing and education, while also nurturing the next generation of sound boys and girls through its Sound System Futures Programme, which provides a pathway into events such as the Notting Hill Carnival, where Linett is a director. Taking place since 1966, Notting Hill Carnival, now the biggest street party in Europe, is an annual celebration of Afro Caribbean music and culture. In June 2023, she curated a Jamaican sound system event at the British Museum, shaking the building’s foundations to the core.

Linett’s musical heritage is deeply connected to her Jamaican roots. She grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, at a time when Black people were marginalised and sound systems provided safety and much needed communal support. Sound systems were a cultural phenomenon imported directly from their motherland, allowing the community to stay connected with one another and their musical heritage.

Every facet of the system was crucial. There were the technical aspects. Building the speaker boxes. Wiring the equipment together. Buying imported records. Selecting the music. And, crucially, finding a location for the blues parties (house parties) that hopefully wouldn’t get shut down by the police. The holistic nature of the sound system epitomised the notion of unity; people coming together to dance and celebrate life, finding hope at a time when oppression and discrimination were widespread.

Sound systems encouraged creativity, and their impact on music culture worldwide has been extensive. It’s widely accepted that sound systems were foundational in the birth of hip-hop and rave culture, especially jungle, in the UK. The template we have all become familiar with—big speakers, turntables, DJs, MCs/hosts—was formalised through Jamaican sound systems.

Ahead of 2023, we spoke to Linett about the universal power of the sound system.

I wanted to start by asking you about your history with sound systems, because I saw the picture of you DJing at Carnival when you were 15, which I thought was incredible.

In terms of my history, my heritage, both my parents are Jamaican. Sound system culture comes from Jamaica. I was born in northwest London, in Harlesden, which was the epicentre of reggae music. It was all around me, there were a lot of people involved in music and sound systems. Growing up in that time, in the 1970s and ‘80s, in the UK sound system culture was very much about identity.

I got involved via a friend whose older brother was connected with a sound system and I asked, “Can I DJ? Can I be a part of the system?”. My entry point was DJing, it wasn’t until later on when I started to understand that sound systems are more of a collective. It wasn’t about just entertaining the crowds, it was also about the setup and having to carry crates of records and helping to carry the speakers stacks and the barriers for the crowd and things like that. I wasn’t hugely involved, or even interested in the technical side, to be really honest. Back then it was quite difficult for females, so I was breaking barriers even just being around.

How did you get into the DJing side of things? In that era it would have been quite unusual for a young lady to even be doing that kind of thing. 

It was 100% due to what’s now become known as hip-hop culture. Later on, I found out that there is actually a very strong link with hip-hop and sound systems with Kool Herc introducing sound system culture to the Bronx. It all started to join up later on in life.

I was a teenager in South Kilburn, I was surrounded by hip-hop and graffiti. You were either doing graffiti, or you were trying to be a human beatbox, or breakdancing. I was really drawn to the music. My father was a musician. I was used to handling records from primary school age, putting them on the turntable and all of that. So it just felt like a natural thing for me, out of those different disciplines, to gravitate towards the role of DJ.

There weren’t any role models as such initially doing that, all older females I saw would have been MCs. It wasn’t until I saw Spiderella with Salt ‘N’ Pepa later on, but I’d already been DJing for a while before I was aware of her.

The big part for me was actually getting records. So we’d go into the record shop on Saturday mornings. We’d go and listen to the latest imports that were brought over and back then there’d only be a few at a time. I was always a bit of a rebel when it came to gender. Even being at school at the time, I introduced wearing trousers to the school uniform for girls because the boys would throw snow up our skirts and I’d be like, “Why should we have to wear skirts in the winter?” I guess looking back it was just trying to have a more even playing field as a female.

What are some of your earliest memories of Carnival?

I would have been around four or five years old. I remember being taken there by my father, carried on his shoulders and seeing what, to me as a small child, looked like a sea of millions of people. From a very young age I was seeing lots of people, hearing lots of music, the smells, the sounds and colourful costumes, and just lots of joy.

Then, like a lot of people, I had the rite of passage where, as a teenager, you get to go to Carnival by yourself without your parents. I think I might have been about 12 or so and the place we would always head to would be Mastermind sound system. They had two locations: they used to be on Ladbroke Grove, near the train station, there used to be a little space there. A Sainsbury’s has been built there since, but there used to be an empty space. We’d all go and dance to Mastermind, which was the young people’s sound at the time in the ‘80s. They also moved to an area called The Cage, which was along Acklam Road. Again, that doesn’t exist on the Carnival footprint anymore but it was under the Westway and we’d all dance there.

What are some of your most memorable Carnival moments?

The things that stand out for me are mainly shaped by some of the songs I heard. I will always remember being under The Cage when we first heard “The Show” by Doug E Fresh and The Get Fresh Crew. We’d never heard anything like that before, that was like a “human beatbox,” as it was known. This, combined with the bass and the rapping and the way we just all connected as young people. There’s a little riff with a cartoon character from the time—Inspector Gadget—and we just all thought it was amazing. That song had about 10 rewinds, it got pulled up so many times it was just electrifying. That was with Mastermind.

I also remember when a song came out called “Slam” by Onyx. That was a hip-hop tune that sounded a bit like rock and that was the first time people started doing mosh pits in Carnival. I don’t think you could really do that now, but that was quite memorable. Just hearing that music for the first time like that. This was 1996, I think.

Another year that’s a standout for me is 2018, which was when it rained. I know that sounds really funny, but it rained the whole Carnival weekend. Most of those who turned up say it was one of the best Carnivals ever. Everyone who was there that year was not going to be deterred by the weather, and we just had the best time. That was another really special year in terms of people’s commitment to enjoy the Carnival vibes regardless of the British weather. We had slightly less numbers, but that’s what made it really special as well. People got to move around a lot more and the sheer enthusiasm of everyone who turned up was so special.

How long would you say you’ve had the understanding of sound systems that you have now?

I’m really learning more every day. I know that might sound surprising, but even that whole thing about sound systems—it’s a term that has now changed, right? Because you’ve got groups of DJs, for example, two or three DJs, who hire speakers and they have amplified sound and they can call themselves a sound system. People have arguments about this, and they’ll talk about amps, and this and that. It’s like anything, people become a little bit specialist and elitist.

It’s about a collective that comes together, and there’s usually a theme around the type of music they play, there’s a lot of commonality with that. At the end of the day, the music is amplified. That’s the key thing about the sound quality. In the modern day it’s very different to how it was decades ago. I think there should be space for that. I don’t think the traditional side of it will ever go away, hand-built speaker boxes, amps and vinyl. But I’ve always been interested in innovation. 

Right now, for instance, I’m looking at bringing together a collective of women because I feel we do need to have that intervention in 2023. It’s still very much male dominated and doesn’t have the variety that reflects society. It’s interesting to me as to why that might be, especially being one of the few women still involved in doing it, still getting excited and passionate about it. So that’s why I’m going to be launching the Original Sounds Collective, it’s in partnership with Guinness.

Why is that the case, that there’s so few women? There are different reasons for it. Women have not always been welcomed, you have to prove yourself more than the men and all of this stuff. Then life kicks in as well, for lots of females they tend to be the carers. I guess that’s why things end up being put to the side for a lot of them, and some maybe come back into it a bit later.

I would say to anyone, if you’ve got the passion, just keep going with it and don’t be afraid to try and start learning more behind the scenes. I’m not ashamed to say I’m 53 now, and I don’t know as much as I should when it comes to the whole technical side.

What are the essential components of a sound system?

First and foremost, a commonality, and that can change. For example, I’m in a different space now. The sound that I’ve been with for 37 years, I left it last year for a number of reasons, but mainly because I want to grow and be respected as a woman in sound system culture.

So for me one of the essential components of a sound system is, and I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s supposed to be about universal love. I also think there’s something to be appreciated about the effort and skill it takes to hand build wooden speaker boxes. To me they’re works of art and nothing can match the warm vibrational sound they give. One great example of this is the Felt Sound System built from scratch by Mark Feltham.

Innovation should still be a big part of sound systems. I now DJ with USB. I’ve put another string to my bow, another element. Nothing sounds better than vinyl. Of course, we know this. But there should be space for different things. We should keep that fun element alive, all that ego stuff needs to go. There’s always a little bit of that because of the competition element. Back in Jamaica, for example, it’s very much about your crew, your supporters.

And you train and mentor young people into sound systems as well?

Yeah, what I’ve started to do is take a whole education approach, so I’m bringing it into schools now. Particularly with the anniversary of Windrush. I say sound system culture is a gift from the Windrush generation. So not just in schools, but in cultural spaces. We brought sound systems into the British Museum as part of the U.K. wide Windrush 75 celebrations.

Two huge things were on in London that evening, there was Beyoncé, and there was us. In the end it was our event that everyone was talking about. People were coming out of Tottenham Court Road station and they could hear it, and were making their way down. So that was great. Bringing sound system into spaces, educationally, I think is the way to go. Also giving credit and due respect to the origins. I insisted that the event was called the Jamaican Sound System Culture, because there’s no harm in saying where it originated. Its impact and its influence is global.

When you’re working with young people, or you’re going into educational establishments or cultural spaces, when you talk about sound system culture, what are some of your key touch points in terms of the roots? What is it that distinguishes sound system culture from club culture, for example?

It’s about bringing the amplification. There’s something about that, because traditionally it was outdoors, it was in yards, and traditionally it would have been for the people. It was accessible. It was never exclusive. The other thing is, it’s about engagement. It’s a two-way thing. I think that’s where it’s moved away, with the superstar DJ thing, which I find really weird, to be honest. It’s so solitary and focused on one person, who is elevated. 

The interaction of the crowd is a huge part of sound system culture, sometimes it’s not just with a tune, there’s an oral tradition in our heritage. There are customs in our culture that are very much rooted in words and language. You can go right back to the disruption that we’ve had with the enslavement of African people, and them mixing with indigenous Caribbean people. You had all these people that were brought together and somehow we created an identity out of that. So language, the English language, is important and we put our own spin on that.

Someone who never got their true respect was Smiley Culture, who is an absolute icon of creativity. What he did with language was iconic and he came through sound systems. It’s not this silent thing, it’s call and response back. The MCs… I still use the mic. It doesn’t matter how small or big the crowd is, whether it’s a couple hundred or thousands of people, you can still have that personal connection, you feel connected. 

We will talk about things that are going on in society. Sometimes it’s jokey and sometimes it’s serious. The music as well can speak to different aspects of society. Sometimes it can be quite political, sometimes it’s to take you away from that for a while, to give you a bit of relief. It plays many roles, which is why I think it still has that appeal for so many people universally.

The bass makes a difference as well. Professor Julian Henriques spoke about this in his Sonic Womb research project. They say that the first beat you hear is the heartbeat of your mother when in the womb. So there’s something universal we connect with. When you’re getting that deep sub bass, that’s something that people feel with sound systems. That’s why they say bass culture, that’s a big part of sound system. If I’m not hearing or feeling that bass, it’s not that.

A sound system it’s about us. We’re together experiencing our energies bouncing off each other. You’re hearing the sound, and then we connect as humans through it.

If I came to you, and I was like, “Linett, I’ve got this idea, I’ve got a few mates and we want to start a sound but we don’t really know where to get started”, what would be some guiding principles to get things rolling?

I would say, “What is your philosophy? What is it you’re trying to do? To better humanity? What is it you want to bring?” Stick to the core, the roots of it. Because, if you say, “Oh, I want to make money,” or whatever, to me you’ve already moved away from what it’s about. So get your philosophy right first, and that might lead the way in terms of the music that you choose. As I say, there isn’t one set style of music. It doesn’t have to be reggae music, it might be drum & bass, or even techno.

So then, in terms of your hardware, think about and research how you’re gonna get that. Look at templates for building speakers, seek out support from those whose skills and knowledge are highly regarded within the culture, get some people to help carry your stacks, a driver with a van. Then get out there.

What’s your identity right now, how would you define yourself and what brings you together? It shouldn’t just be one person. Keeping up the tradition and it’s got to be positive vibes. That’s the number one thing, I would say. It’s got to be positive.

In light of positivity, his name has already come up, the mighty Jah Shaka, God rest his soul. That was a real moment when we witnessed his passing. I feel emotional even talking about it because the outpouring of grief but also love and reverence was universal. I wanted to touch on the importance of sound systems and the culture connected to Jah Shaka and the love and the joy that he brought, and the transcendence, just through selecting, and the message that he was bringing, which was consistently rooted in positivity, love, respect and community. Why is it important that sound systems still exist in today’s culture and society? 

I think it’s important because of that universal message. It ties us together as humans. It’s a very challenging time. Just being human is tough right now. So it’s more important than ever that we can find a way to gather, to have a commonality, and some positivity. Even if it’s for that one moment, it’s almost like providing a service. To me, sound system is medicine. When it’s done with those core ingredients, if it’s not got those ingredients in it, it’s not going to be good medicine, it’s not going to be healing.

That’s why we need to hang on to it, because there’s so many elements in life right now that are pulling us away from that. The technology that’s made things you can just listen to personally not socially. Or the social media platforms that just elevate one individual. Or sexism or racism. These things tear us apart. That’s why we need to try and be the very best that we can be as humans.

That’s what I’m doing with Lin Kam Art. It’s early days. I haven’t got there yet, to be honest, it’s like trying to gather like-minded people in that respect. For the events which I’ve produced for Lin Kam Art you won’t find things like jerk chicken there. Because to me as a vegan, that’s not peace. Everything, even down to what we consume, while we’re listening to the music has to be the about love. That’s the levels that I’m trying to get to, where it’s love in the deepest sense.

There’s something so empowering about gathering together and being reminded, through a collective, unified experience with music, that we’re all essentially the same. Obviously, we’re all very individual as well. But when you’re on a dance floor, or when you’re in front of a sound system, you do get to a point you’re just one with each other.

Yeah, with each other and the music. Going back to the philosophy and the consciousness, I guess that’s the key word—conscious—because if you’re playing very negative music with cursing, that kind of music, sometimes it gets a bit off balance. I always have tried to say, you play right. We don’t play those raw versions, we don’t play that type of music, we don’t use that type of negative language on the mic to the crowd. I don’t think that negativity speaks to the true philosophy of sound system culture and that’s how things can get a bit out of sync.

That’s why for me, starting afresh, where we can maybe go back to the core. I’ve moved away from where I was, because it’s not just about the hype of the latest music, there’s got to be a bit of consciousness. I think that’s to be expected of everyone that’s around that—you embody the sound system philosophy through your actions, as well as your words and your deeds. It’s a kind of guidance for people. I’m not a religious person, but people say to me, “You’re the most religious, spiritual person I’ve ever met.” Being peaceful, loving, that’s inside us. The majority of human beings know deep down.

This is all such a counteraction to the messaging and the dominance of the systems that we live in—the political system, economic system etc. There’s a real strength in having sound systems and everything that’s associated with them. By coming together, enjoying music, celebrating each other, rooted in love, we’re counteracting, we’re working against the systems that are trying to oppress us and to divide.

Exactly. That’s my next challenge with Carnival and the sound systems there, to try and push forward with that, going back to the values because things kind of moved away a lot from them. I’m still going to be looking to give that opportunity to the next generation of those that haven’t had a chance. I’m also looking to champion females. Get some visibility to us. I definitely want to talk a lot more about the visibility of females within sound system culture this year.

Last year was more focused on the next gen. But we need more representation in 2023. Some of the women are there, but they’re in the background and I get it because you end up becoming a target. I’ve got challenges with respect to that, since I’ve put myself forward.

What has sound system culture done for you on a personal and professional level?

A lot of it comes through the music for me, because I was a teenager in the ‘80s. The sound system brought through a particular way of being and thinking which for me, was hip-hop. That whole peace-loving thing, I very much embedded that. Just hearing certain conscious things in the music, which made me want to go and read up myself and learn for myself, which has helped to shape an identity. It made me feel connected to my roots, my culture, Jamaican heritage, and proud of it.

It’s put me in touch with a lot of different people, just connecting to other beautiful human beings. I really appreciate that. It’s given me confidence as well. I’m just grateful to have a platform to be able to just talk in this way and to share and to help others and pay homage to those that paved the way for us.

And how about the impact Carnival has had on you?

Personally, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m of Jamaican heritage, both my parents are from Jamaica. My mother settled in the Ladbroke Grove area when she first came over to London as a teenager, in the late 1950s. So it’s always been something that I’ve seen as part of my identity, my heritage, my culture, particularly sound systems as well. It was just great knowing that, once a year, there was this place that was local and you’d see everyone, family and friends. Seeing how it’s become this iconic event for British culture has been really beautiful to see.

Professionally, I’ve introduced Carnival at the University of the Arts on the performance program. I’ve introduced it to both the MA program and the BA program, which is performance design and practice at Central Saint Martins. I’ve introduced performance through carnival art, which is something that hadn’t been done before. I’ve really tried to elevate, from an academic point of view, the artform and to connect with other academics, who are introducing this artform to students around the world. I lecture in carnival arts. I’m also going to be working on launching a program that is celebrating and developing females in sound system culture as well. That’s something that I’m passionate about, and that I’m also doing on a professional level, as well as being an artist.

Each year I do some sort of art project at Carnival. Last year, I did a mural, which was to honour and to shine more of a spotlight on the founder of Notting Hill Carnival, Rhaune Laslett. I did that on Kensington Park Road outside of a gallery. That was really well received. Another example of that was in 2017, the year of the Grenfell tragedy. I was part of the group of artists who painted pieces around the Carnival footprint. This was to honour those who lost their lives in Grenfell.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the significance of Carnival? It’s been around since the mid-’60s, and has grown into an international phenomenon. What does it mean to today’s world?

It started off as a multicultural event back in 1966 with Rhaune Laslett. It was a children’s fair with all nationalities, Caribbean, Irish, Polish, African, people from all parts of the world were involved in that. Then she started to work more with Trinidadian musicians, like Russell Henderson and so on, which is when its Caribbean roots started to come through. Seeing what it’s become now, I’m very proud to be part of that. It’s a great example to humanity about what we can do as people, positively. It really highlights the benefits to our wellbeing of coming together in carnival culture. For people who might not be familiar with Caribbean culture and some of the elements of it, it’s a spectacular showcase for that.

We have really groundbreaking, talented creatives who help make up the Carnival experience at Notting Hill. I could mention so many names, whether it’s Carl Gabriel, who’s been one of the founders in terms of the mas costumes and the structures that he builds. He’s helped so many designers with the construction of their costumes.

Then the iconic sound systems, like Mastermind, Saxon, Channel One and the incredible Aba Shanti-I. They’re also part of the experience that have gone on to become something that’s world-class, a real feature. People travel from around the world. It brings a huge amount into the economy. I think it’s estimated to bring in at least 100 million pounds over that period. It’s an incredible event that is still free, just to mention that as well. It’s not ticketed.

Its roots come from a tragic beginning, a racist murder of a Black man, Kelso Cochrane, and here we are, all these years later, together, triumphantly, all nationalities in unity. So it’s a real force for good and positivity. It’s had an incredible impact and has such a legacy. People love it. Everyone feels very passionate about it and it will always remain on the streets of Notting Hill. That’s why it’s called the Notting Hill Carnival.

Text: Marcus Barnes

Linett photos: Kingsley Davis