Mas on the (Notting) Hill

In August, Caribbean people in London head to Notting Hill for Europe’s biggest street festival, now celebrating its 41st year. Simon Lee looks back at the origins of Notting Hill Carnival and tells us what to expect from this year's events

Carnival Monday. Photograph by Stephen SparksPhotograph by Stephen SparksSplash Dragon. Photograph by Stephen Sparks

Whether you’re a Trini in transit or a Limey looking for action, the place to be this August Bank Holiday is on the streets of west London, for the UK’s biggest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, which celebrates its 41st anniversary in 2005.

What began as an impromptu parade following the small Nostalgia pan-around-the-neck side through the slums of then entirely unfashionable Notting Hill in 1964 is now a fixture of mainstream British culture, generating £93 million in revenue. The festival has developed from its Trini and Caribbean roots to include Brazilian samba bands and a range of music which may begin with steel pan and soca but also embraces salsa, dancehall, and contemporary urban sounds from hip-hop, garage, and house to techno and drum ’n base. The streetside menu is equally varied: from Trini roti and Jamaican jerk and curried goat to Thai noodles, Moroccan couscous, and Middle Eastern falafel.

A measure of Notting Hill’s respectability is the royal seal of approval granted in 2002, when the Queen remarked, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have Notting Hill Carnival as part of my Golden Jubilee?” It was a Notting Hill mas band which headed up the parade down the Mall, celebrating the 50-year-reign of a monarch whose family life has been providing calypsonians with material for much longer.

Just as the origins of calypso and steel pan are wrapped in controversy, there are a number of theories about the genesis of the Notting Hill Carnival. Broadcaster Alex Pascall takes the long-term historical and sociological view that it originated with the walking and playing traditions brought by Caribbean immigrants on the SS Windrush in 1948. Among the Windrush passengers was Trini calypsonian Lord Kitchener, who marked his arrival with the calypso he sang for reporters as he disembarked, London Is the Place for Me, and who in 1950 was to lead a spontaneous pan-playing procession of jubilant West Indians from Lord’s, where they’d witnessed their cricket team defeat England, through the streets all the way to Piccadilly.

While this J’Ouvert style jump-up would be immediately familiar to anyone from the Caribbean, it was a spontaneous one-off event, and the consensus is that it was another Trini, journalist Claudia Jones, deported from America in 1955 for her political militancy, who laid the foundations of Notting Hill Carnival with the Caribbean Carnival Evening she organised at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959. In the previous year, Notting Hill had erupted in race riots, as a resentful and suspicious white host community turned on the expanding Caribbean presence, which, because of the current “No Irish, No Dogs, and No Blacks” rental policy, had virtually been forced into renting the area’s dilapidated properties from Peter Rachman, one of London’s most notorious landlords.

Jones’s annual Caribbean carnival evenings, with their carnival queen competition, aimed at easing racial tension and uniting London’s fragmented Caribbean communities, proved an instant success, but found no permanent venue, relying on a succession of rented halls.

It was Rhaune Laslett, a social worker of mixed North American Indian and Armenian extraction, who kick-started the Notting Hill venue when she invited the Nostalgia pan side to play at what was a small children’s event. As pan pioneer Stanley Betancourt recalls, “She was having a children’s carnival, it wasn’t a big thing. There were lots of children with donkey carts, false moustaches, and an African drummer with drums made out of an elephant foot.” Nostalgia had invited their West Indian friends from the Coleherne Pub in Earl’s Court, and the kiddies’ carnival spontaneously turned into a Caribbean jump-up. “Let’s all take a walk, we call it a road march,” suggested Betancourt’s Nostalgia colleague Russ Henderson. “The crowd got bigger and bigger and bigger, and we got crowds of people coming in with lots of different things — pots and pans, it was just like the beginning of Carnival in Trinidad.”

The rest is bacchanal, history, or both. But, 41 years on, Notting Hill Carnival, which began as an expression of Trini and Caribbean multiculturalism and is now recognised as the UK’s premier multicultural event, retains its Caribbean roots. Of the five main elements of Notting Hill Carnival, four can be found in any island carnival: mas bands, calypsonians, steelbands, and mobile sound systems which are required to play soca (and, more recently, zouk). Only the static sound systems — which during the 1970s pounded out megawatt reggae, and now supply the diversity of world and urban music — might seem odd to a visitor from the Caribbean.

Pan is still a major element, both on the road and at Saturday night Panorama, when London steelbands like reigning champs Mangrove, Ebony, Metronomes, Glissando, London Allstars, Pantonic, Pantasia, and Southside Harmonics battle it out with provincial bands like North Stars from Huddersfield and Sounds of Steel from Plymouth. Leading Trini arrangers Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Robbie Greenidge, Rudy “Two Left” Smith, and Anise Hadeed have all worked at London’s Panorama.

Mas itself didn’t make a significant appearance at Notting Hill until 1973, when Trini-born wire bender Lawrence Noel began his Trinbago Carnival Club and started bringing out carnival bands. World-acclaimed Trini designer Peter Minshall began his mas career at Notting Hill, and nowadays while most of the bands are what Trinidad-born bandleader Ansel Wong describes as “beads and bikini”, you’re still likely to encounter such traditional characters as last year’s 20-foot-tall Midnight Robber.

For some roots authenticity, Trinidad’s 2005 Carnival Queen will be on the road at Notting Hill, and anyone feeling a touch of homesickness should head for the T&T Village in Powis Square, where the Association of British Calypsonians, headed by the Mighty Tiger, will present Trinidad’s reigning Junior Calypso Monarch and celebrated calypsonians like Stalin, Explainer, and Composer.

2005 may well be a turning point for Notting Hill Carnival, as both the organisers and London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, feel the festival has reached saturation point in terms of numbers and public safety. There have been controversial discussions about extending the route to Hyde Park, but as yet no final decisions. For mas bandleaders like Ansel Wong, a move to Hyde Park “would be the death knell for carnival as we know it. It’ll lose spontaneity and the opportunity to view carnival as street theatre. It’s about participating, not spectating. It’ll change from bacchanal to a sedate Lord Mayor–style show.” So if you like your bacchanal, get to Notting Hill this year.