Breaking Down the Sounds of Carnival, on Your Phone

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The world could definitely use a party. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, cities around the globe have canceled or curtailed what is annually their biggest bash, Carnival.

Many of the largest and wildest celebrations trace back hundreds of years to the Caribbean islands, and the tradition has continued with the Caribbean diaspora in cities like New York (the West Indian American Day Parade), Toronto (Caribana) and London (Notting Hill Carnival).

In the chill of February, readers of The New York Times can get a flavor of the sensory richness of these blowouts with Carnival in Winter, a special online package of multimedia experiences about the festivals produced by the Narrative Projects department.

Carnival is all about history, community, costumes, food — and music. To immerse readers into the sonic experience, Narrative Projects teamed with the Graphics department and the R. & D. department to create a special effect on Instagram that puts you inside a classic Carnival song. The effect, through the Instagram Spark feature that can be downloaded on phones, uses augmented reality, which lays a computer-generated image or animation over a user’s view of the real world. (Click here from your phone.)

In this case, you can hear a Carnival anthem broken down into four musical tracks — and you can “see” the tracks through Carnival-inspired 3-D animations and manipulate the music by moving in your physical space. The effect turns your phone — and living room —  into a virtual mixing board.

Picking just one song to represent the music of Carnival — which incorporates soca, calypso, reggae, dub, house and more — is a near impossible task. So, as one of the editors on the project, I reached out to an expert.

Don Letts, a 65-year-old filmmaker, broadcaster and musical matchmaker, is an icon of the British music scene. In the 1970s as the D.J. at the Roxy in London, he introduced the club’s punk clientele to reggae, the rising sound from Jamaica, his parents’ homeland. Between his friendship with Bob Marley and his close ties to the fledgling punk scene (he later formed the band Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones of the Clash), Letts earned the nickname “The Rebel Dread” for bucking convention and orchestrating cultural collisions that changed the course of popular music.

He also has been a regular at the Notting Hill Carnival for over 40 years. In 2009, he directed a documentary, “Carnival!,” on the history and politics of the festival.

Asked to name a “typical” Carnival anthem, Mr. Letts at first dismissed the task as impossible. Upon reflection, though, he directed us toward an old friend, the producer Mad Professor, and his 2005 track “Elaine the Osaka Dancer” — “A strange title, I know,” said Mr. Letts — which was written for a performer, Panafricanist, on the Mad Professor’s label. Mad Professor, whose name is Neil Fraser, is himself a well-known name in British music history. He pioneered the emergence of the British dub sound and collaborated with performers like Sade and Massive Attack.

Mr. Letts chose “Elaine” because, as he put it: “At Carnival you can stand on a street corner and hear a float going past with steel pans, along with the sound of a Jamaican sound system right around the corner. This song perfectly captures that sound: the collision of calypso and soca with the bass-heavy rhythms of reggae.”

Mad Professor agreed to license the song, so we asked him to break it down into individual instrumental tracks or “stems,” each of which would then be manipulated by the user of the Instagram effect.

This process proved to be slightly more analog — and painstaking — than anticipated. At one point, when asked for a progress report, Mad Professor relayed that he was “baking the tapes” — which might sound (or did to me, anyway) like a bit of music producer slang. In fact, it’s a literal description of the process in which analog master tapes are restored by exposing them to a high temperature for hours, reducing humidity that can affect the quality of the tapes.

Once the tapes were baked and the stems were procured, our graphics and R. & D. team built the Instagram effect. With the effect, the user can play with the drums, bass, horns and steel pan tracks while seeing commentary from Letts on why each element is crucial to a Carnival song.

It’s not the same thing as dancing to steel pans on a simmering street in London’s Notting Hill in the heat of summer. But in a year when Carnival has been canceled nearly everywhere, we hope it gets you as close to that feeling as possible.