Notting Hill Carnival: Coming from the Cold

London’s Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s largest street party. Annabelle Alcazar takes you there

Captured by the beat of the drum. Photograph by Horace OvéDreadlocks made easy. Photograph by Horace OvéEarly days of confrontation. Photograph by Horace OvéEnter the dragon; 1997 Carnival in Notting Hill. Photograph by Horace OvéFun for everyone. Photograph by Horace OréPhotograph by Horace OvéPhotograph by Horace OvéSeventies style. Photograph by Horace OvéThe devil confronts the angel, 1997 Carnival in Notting Hill. Photograph by Horace OréThese were among the first children to play mas in the streets of London. Photograph by Horace Ové

August Bank Holiday, the last Monday in August, marks the end of the summer holiday season, and for most of Britain is the time for the final trip to the seaside, candyfloss and ice-cream, toes dipped into the sea. But in the Notting Hill area of west London something quite different is in the air. Carnival — and it now boasts of being the largest street festival in Europe, drawing a crowd of over two million people from every corner of the globe.

Notting Hill, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has always been an area of great diversity, both ethnically and socially. On the south side are the grand Edwardian mansions of Holland Park, still inhabited by members of the upper class, while Queensway to the east has been transformed into a safe haven for wealthy Middle Eastern families. Portobello Road, which runs north to south down the middle, has traditionally been a vast antique market, and has become to the 90s what the King’s Road was to the 60s, a place where top designers and supermodels spend mornings brunching at trendy cafés, hiding behind their cool shades.

Since the Windrush days of the late 50s and early 60s when the first waves of Caribbean immigrants went to Britain in the hope of securing better lives, the area has always had West Indian residents. Not welcome at first, they were greeted with signs of No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish. But despite race riots in the late 50s they stayed, and introduced their rich heritage of culture and music to the bland British diet.

The year 1965 seems to be when it all began. Russell Henderson, a Trinidadian musician who has lived and worked in London since the 1950s, remembers it well. “It was actually Easter time. A community worker from Bassett Road was organising a children’s fete (party) with donkey rides and so on, a small thing, and she asked me to come and play some music for them. So myself, Sterling Betancourt and Ralph Cherrie went with our pans around the neck and played. Then we started to move down the road, all around the Bayswater Road to Whiteleys. That was the first time steelband music was heard in the street, and the people loved it. It was eventually moved to summer time when the weather was supposed to be better!”

Claudia Jones, another Trinidadian, is also credited with the Carnival’s birth. She, together with Pearl Connor and others, put together a Carnival show at a West London venue, after the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, to project a more positive image of Caribbean people.

From its inception, the Carnival was regarded as a focus of resistance against racial harassment through the assertion of Caribbean culture, and its organisation grew organically out of the black community. Some 30 years on, it is scarcely recognisable. It is a huge commercial money-spinner; a four-square-mile area is given over for two days to the joys of a gigantic street party. The whole area is closed to traffic and a peripheral three-mile route is used for the bands and floats to parade.

Like its Caribbean counterparts, the Carnival builds up to the two parade days with weeks of activity. The mas camps, where the costumes are made, are busy in preparation for months; many designers from Trinidad are involved. Wayne Berkeley, one of Trinidad’s most successful designers, has collaborated for many years with Notting Hill bandleader Dexter Khan’s Cocoyea band, winning the Band of the Year title many times. Artist and designer Peter Minshall started making mas in Notting Hill, producing bands from 1973 to 1976 before returning to Trinidad to continue a career that has reached such heights as producing spectacles for the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. Nizam Ali, a member of Minshall’s production house, the Callaloo Company, designed Metamorphosis: The Genesis for the Yaa Asantewaa Carnival Group, taking the 1997 Band of the Year Title.

Michael Rose, designer and leader of The People’s War Carnival Band in North London, actively encourages youngsters to be involved. His band in 1997 was called United in Riddim, Music of the Diaspora. Formed in 1983, the group comprises about 150 members and prides itself on its themes of social commentary. In Finsbury Park, the camp is a hive of industry, totally community-oriented, a lot of non-Caribbean members learning the art of mas-making.

On the Harrow Road in West London last summer, veteran masman Vernon “Fellows” Williams was designing Checkmate in a small room jammed full of middle-aged West Indians cutting, sewing, sticking and talking while loud soca music was playing. There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie, a solidarity among the old guard. Many third generation West Indians have never actually visited their parents’ homelands, but through their involvement with Carnival they learn and feel part of their heritage.

Larry Ford was one of the first to bring out bands in London. He was inspired, he says, by the Queen’s Coronation. “It was spectacle, parade, carriage and horses, but so lacking in joy and life. I was determined to show the British how it should be. I still dream of seeing Carnival go down Park Lane.”

All the bands rely on sponsors and grants; most complain that it is never enough. Bands rarely exceed 250 participants and average more like 150. But they come from all over the country and range from the Caribbean-type mas band to Brazilian samba bands, Greenpeace movement’s Mas In Camouflage, a cheerleaders’ band from Bognor Regis on the south coast, and a Gospel Rappers Band from Birmingham. One of Cocoyea’s sections covered themselves in Nutella, a chocolate nut spread (a nutritious alternative to Trinidad’s J’ouvert mud?). As in all Carnivals, anything goes.

From the beginning, Trinidad’s Carnival has always had political undertones; it has always provided a platform for rebellion and change. Notting Hill has been no different. The festival has been a metaphor for the tensions between the black community and the police. When it began to grow, perhaps too fast, the British authorities became uneasy with the wild antics in the streets, and heavy-handed police tactics were brought into play. This was reminiscent of the state’s efforts during colonial times in Trinidad.

For several years during the 70s and 80s, Carnival in Notting Hill was a time of confrontation, violence and arrests, culminating in 1983 with something like a full-scale battle. Former Police Commissioner Ken Newman said there were two problems facing society which might affect the balance between freedom and order: terrorism, and the growth of multi-ethnic communities. This attitude validated the neo-Nazi National Front’s use of the Carnival as a target. There had been efforts earlier on to stop the Carnival, based on the complaints of some of the residents; even now, some 3,500 of them decide to retreat to the countryside for the weekend.

Since then, the Carnival Development Committee and the Metropolitan Police have learnt to co-operate and plan together. This year, some 7,500 police will be on duty. As one officer admits, “To be dropped for the first time in the middle of Carnival is a real culture shock. Just getting the officers to the right place at the right time and giving them meals is a major task. Let alone supplying the 12,000 earplugs!”

Nowadays most officers can be seen enjoying the music, dancing with the revellers and turning a blind eye (nose) to the whiff of marijuana in the air. Their main problems are crowd control and lost children, and they are quick to mention that there is more crime at the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament than at Carnival.

It is Carnival Saturday night in 1997 — a night for the steelbands — Panorama Night. Some 15 steelbands are competing for the championship held on an open-air stage at Horniman’s Pleasance off Kensal Road. There are no “preliminaries”, just the one performance. Trinidadian pannist Anise Hadeed is the arranger for Ebony Steel Band, who have been champions more than seven times. Despite many requests, it was three years before he had any time even to get into a yard. By 1984 he was arranging Ebony’s Carnival tune, and the partnership has endured. “The band has about 50 to 60 players, most of whom are born here and come from the area — and there are some really good players.” Hadeed has also been very successfully arranging for Hydro Agri Skiffle Bunch at Trinidad’s Panorama Competition.

Sterling Betancourt, the veteran pan player and composer (and original member of Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, TASPO, the pioneering Trinidad band that appeared at the 1951 Festival of Britain) has been invited to make a guest appearance with his band Nostalgia. The night before, in a community centre on a housing estate, his band practises in earnest. Most of the players have just arrived from Zurich, Switzerland, where he is based (there are more than 60 steelbands in Switzerland). The room is smoke-filled. The local patrons sip their pints of lager, totally involved and enthusiastic about the music they’re hearing. There are about 25 musicians playing traditional pans, around-the-neck. Unfortunately, at the competition there is no raised stage for the bands, and as Nostalgia moves on foot rather than on trucks, they are difficult to view on the night. The event is free and the large crowd enjoys it all despite the chill in the air. Ebony playing One For the Savannah rightly emerge as champions again.

Carnival Sunday is children’s day. The Carnival route of three miles has been shortened for their parade to one mile. From midday, crowds start to gather along the route and beyond. The streets are lined with stalls selling every conceivable item. Food and drink are in abundance. There is everything from Jamaican jerk chicken, peas and rice, roti and corn, to Filipino and Thai specialties, Ghanaian oxtail and “cowfoot” stew.

Wenty’s Tropical Food specialises in fruit; mango, papaya, soursop, watermelon and now coconuts, both water and jelly. It is perhaps this arena which shows best of all the eclectic mix into which London has evolved.

Getting into the spirit is vital, and there is of course rum, Caribbean beers like Carib, Red Stripe and Dragon Stout, freshly squeezed oranges and canned juices and the ubiquitous bottled water — all at a price. Most of the pubs in the area are open all day and are full to overflowing. Other vendors supply hats, complete with dreadlocks, caps, umbrellas (for the inevitable rain or drizzle), condoms, African arts and crafts; even The Nation of Islam has a stall with books and pamphlets. Apart from the mas bands, there are a lot of other activities for the children to enjoy — inflatables are set up, playgrounds are opened up; there are face painting demonstrations, clowns and other side shows.

By nine o’clock on Monday morning, all masqueraders and music trucks are heading towards “the Grove”. Ladbroke Grove, a wide tree-lined avenue, is the starting point of the Carnival route, which makes an almost perfect circle. Streets are closed early, tubes and buses packed, although extra services are provided throughout the day. Throngs of onlookers make their way towards the central area to secure a vantage point either to view the mas or to dance to their favourite sound systems.

There are 50 sound systems, playing everything from rap and reggae to jazz, Latin, jungle and house. Mountains of speakers line the pavements. The sound is deafening. In the early days, a mix of roots, ska and rock steady spilled out from basement Blues parties — stacks of homemade speakers booming dub music while DJs toasted social commentary. Soca, calypso and steelband trucks accompany the mas bands along the Carnival route; to the strains of Ronnie McIntosh’s Ent and Machel Montano’s Big Truck. During the Carnival season most of the leading artists from Trinidad perform live in clubs and shows around the city.

There are three huge stages for live performances on both Sunday and Monday. Radio One, the most popular station in Britain, is under the Westway flyover and features mainly rap music. Among the acts appearing are Lil Kim, Jay-Z and EPMD, all US-based. DJ Tim Westwood’s huge following seems to be content to stand close by all day and absorb every note. Over at Horniman’s Pleasance, Kiss FM offer Wyclef Jean and Jean Forte of The Fugees as the headliners on Monday, while London’s own Jazzy B and Soul II Soul are the main attractions on Sunday. For dancehall fans there is Beenie Man from Jamaica, and Buster Rhymes flies in from New York.

By early afternoon the streets are jammed, and the pavements, barricaded to keep the crowds away from the parade, are impassable. In Westbourne Grove on a small knoll a Trinidad flag flies proudly. Around it a group of diehard Trinis gathers to “lime” for the day. Rum and “ole talk” are shared, wry comments are passed on the state of the island’s politics, the quality of the mas and the music. Some take a little “jump-up” as a band passes. Some don’t see each other from one year to the next — but that’s the beauty of it, the surety that they will meet again next year.

Around the corner in All Saints Road, outside the Mangrove Restaurant, a sound system playing current and old calypsos has everybody jumping. An Englishman dressed more suitably for a stint at The Royal Ballet dances with an old dreadlocked Jamaican as both share the same rum bottle.

Trinidad’s Carnival has spawned some 100 festivals across the world, and Notting Hill has this at its roots. But it has metamorphosed into something unique, absorbing many of the other cultural traditions of London today. It emphasises Notting Hill as a multi-cultural centre and a place of racial tolerance where the whole community gets involved. Most of the partygoers will not know or even think about where Carnival came from; they just want to enjoy themselves. John Scott lives on Westbourne Grove and invites 80 friends to see it from his balcony. For local residents it is a free spectacle of gigantic proportion and wonder — an opportunity to invite friends to the biggest party in London — and it’s all free.

Carnivals are now held throughout Britain at different times of the year, from Liverpool and Leicester to Birmingham and Cardiff in Wales. A group recently visited Trinidad to get one started in Glasgow.

The London Arts Board funds the Carnival Development Scheme whose mandate is to enrich the traditions of Carnival arts and design. This year, money is being given to, among others, a samba band to bring a designer from Brazil, and to stage Carnival in one of the wards of the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. In addition, the Museum of London is setting up a permanent Carnival exhibition to be opened in 1999.

No doubt 1998 will be the biggest and best Carnival ever. To quote Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair: “There is no more vibrant expression of our multi-cultural heritage in the British calendar.” So listen out for barking dogs, footsteps and the melodic chant of High Mas. Enjoy. Amen.