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Notting Hill Carnival 2012
Notting Hill Carnival 2012Photography by Ben Day

Speaking to Notting Hill Carnival’s first all-female sound system

Marilyn Dennis of the Mellotone sound system talks 80s street parties, black British culture, and making a female-led sound

Music is the beating heart of Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest street festival. Steel pan bands soundtrack the parade, soca fills the air from the floats, and bassline reverberates from stages playing the best of reggae and bashment.

With all this going on, it is the sound system culture that brings that real DIY spirit to the street corners, as sweaty revellers grind to the sounds of local selectors and MCs. In what can feel like a hyper-masculine sphere, Marilyn Dennis of the Mellotone sound system has made a name for herself, having set up the first all-woman collective. Her love for planning street parties started out in 1985 when she became part of the ‘80s ladies’ collective at the Caribbean celebration. Dennis has led huge shows over the years, even appearing on the BBC for a performance in Hyde Park as a part of the Golden Jubilee.

Since then, she has witnessed a troubling trend. “Historically, we had hundreds of sound systems... it’s been narrowed down to 33 this year,” she tells Dazed over the phone. Having set up her sound system every carnival for 24 years on Telford Road, across from the fire station on Ladbroke Grove, she now works on the administrative team as secretary to help other sound systems jump through the many hoops laid out by the council to even be able to play on the day. “There is so much back-and-forth that people miss out, but if the local authority worked with us, we could secure sponsorship and get people excited.”

As she gears up for this year’s Carnival, on August 26 and 27, we caught up with Dennis to reminisce on bass, female unity, and the importance of this relic of black British culture that is rapidly coming under threat.

For people who don’t know what a sound system is, what is a sound system?

Marilyn Dennis: It’s nothing like a DJ, a DJ is a sole person. A sound system is, historically, a collective of men who bring equipment along with them. They’ll have amplifiers, processors, turntables, mixers, three amps, speakers – bass, mid, and top. It’s huge. You have at least 20 boxes varying from bass and mid to top and they’ll have a selecta which might be one or two people at the forefront that will play the music. There’s people doing mics, an operator who mixes all the music and makes it sound appropriate and an MC. Its origins are from the Jamaicans, who brought sound systems into England and have been playing with sound systems at parties in the early 50s.

You said before that most sound systems were very male dominated – why do you think that it?

Marilyn Dennis: I just think it’s not an area that women had a good knowledge of, it’s not something that we were geared towards. It’s quite male-dominated, so a woman in that space was pretty much by herself, so I don’t think it’s something that would have attracted women, although women have always had an interest in sound systems. They follow sound systems, but I think to participate would have been very difficult then.

Why did you decide to start an all-female sound system?

Marilyn Dennis: My first sound system was 80s Ladies, and that was unheard of, but there were female sound systems around at the time. Julie Henry (Night Nurse) and myself had been playing as a collective, and I said to her one afternoon, “Should we try and play Notting Hill Carnival? That will be good.” So we approached the Carnival chair at that time, Claire Holder, and she showed us at Telford Road, which is the perfect road as it’s just off Ladbroke Grove, and we did our first year at Carnival out of a van. That’s how it all started.

Talk me through your first Notting Hill as a sound system collective – what do you remember?

Marilyn Dennis: It was a very very small set, and I remember that first year, there were only a couple of people on the road. Now, 24 years later, the road is full from start to finish. But every time we talk about that first day, we remember how there was nobody on the street and I was really nervous. This guy looked us up and down and kissed his teeth. We were pissing ourselves because it was just the way he looked as if to say “how pathetic?”. That was our first day of the carnival. People were stopping by every day and paying a blind bit of notice to us and now people cannot get onto that street. I wish he could see us now.

“We talk to women from the stage, we want to empower them. ‘Girl you look good,’ I’ll say” – Marilyn Dennis

How does your sound system differ from the male-centric ones?

Marilyn Dennis: We talk to women from the stage, we want to empower them. “Girl you look good,” I’ll say. We are quite protective, and say to the guys, “Don’t be too rough. Dance with girls nicely.” We have to control the crowds because health and safety is paramount or we’ll lose our licence. If I'm on stage and there are things going on in the crowd I’ll shout “don't grab her please,” that kind of thing.

You mentioned that sound systems have more than halved in the last 20 years – what is carnival without them?

Marilyn Dennis: People come from all over the globe to hear them. You don’t get all-day parties like this. Just seeing the crowds and seeing everyone dancing and smiling. People going wild and taking pictures, and just being together. Since the legislation changed, maybe ten years ago, it’s been challenging. This year in particular, it’s been very very challenging with the local authorities and the police.

What record do you always play to keep the spirit of carnival alive?

Marilyn Dennis: “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley, because it's a happy song that everyone knows. It gets the crowd rocking, you can just see them swaying and its instant unity. Everyone loves that song.