In the darkness of Caribbean history, imported slaves were subject to curfew laws and banned from singing, dancing, playing music or wearing costumes. The one exception to this austere ruling was during the Christian religious festival on the eve of Ash Wednesday. This is known as Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and heralds the beginning of Lent, the Catholic month of fasting before Easter. Slaves were expected to provide entertainment for their European masters on this day. They would be dressed up and paraded, made to play music and sing and dance for the amusement of their white owners.
The Birth of J'ouvert
In 1833, slavery and all its associated restrictions was repealed and the freed people exploded onto the streets in song and dance. They would mimic their masters and pour scorn on the system that had enslaved them for so long.
In later days, in remembrance of this great moment, there would be street parties where now-free men, women and children would dress like their masters, powder their faces to look pale like their masters or make masks to resemble their masters, distorting images and features if they regarded their masters as particularly evil or ridiculous. This mimicry evolved into a social commentary called J'ouvert ('JOO-vay').
The intricate art of making fabulous costumes, the skills of steel drumming and calypso developed, matured and grew into a celebration of arts, food and culture drawing on all aspects of their heritage through history. Over time, this became an established tradition in its own right and Carnival became entrenched in the culture of the Caribbean.
Notting Hill has always fully embraced its dark side. In this fashionable quarter, in which the fabulously wealthy live cheek-by-jowl with the wretchedly poor, it is ultimately the underbelly of rogues, drug-dealers, call girls and petty criminals that gives the place its unique charm and edge. Christine Keeler, the good-time girl at the heart of the Profumo affair, rented a flat in Notting Hill; Peter Rachman, the shady slumlord, ran his empire from here; and the vicious race riots that erupted here... all add a layer of mystique to a rapidly gentrifying part of where, 200 years ago, pig farmers held sway.
- David Cohen in The Evening Standard (London), 2 August 2005.
Notting Hill, a shabby and deprived backwater of the wealthy London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was where many Trinidadians who came to Britain in the 1950s settled. There were instances of racial tension in the area from the 1950s onwards, culminating in a full-scale race riot in 1958. The majority black population was mainly out of work, living in substandard housing and suffering from a poor self-image. These people yearned for Carnival to bring them together as a proud and lively community.
Further away, in North London, dances were often organised in local churches or city halls and these were very popular. In 1959, the year after the Notting Hill riots, West Indian Gazette editor Claudia Jones (who had just been deported from the USA for her race protests) organised the first carnival. This was held indoors at St Pancras Hall.
'Every Spectator is a Participant' - Carnival Motto
Trinidadian Sterling Betancourt's Nostalgia steel band played on Sundays at the Colherne Pub in Earl's Court. In 1964, Notting Hill resident Rhaune Laslett invited this band to participate in a street party for children in the area. Up to a thousand people of all ethnic backrounds came onto the streets bringing their children with them and the event was a great success. Thus the seeds of the current Carnival were sown. Sterling Betancourt MBE still plays at Carnival today.
Once the black people of Notting Hill heard the first tunes of the steelband, they immediately came out onto the streets expressing themselves in appreciation of the music and togetherness and reminiscing about the Carnivals back home.
- Quote from the Carnival history website
Home to this Caribbean community,struggling to keep its youngsters on the straight and narrow, Notting Hill became the site of an annual carnival that grew year on year celebrating London's multi-cultural identity with great passion, colour and fervour. In the early 1970s, police presence numbered a mere 300 for crowds swelling into the hundreds of thousands. In 1976, the decision was taken to suddenly increase the police presence for the event to 3000 and many erroneous arrests were allegedly made. This heavy-handed tactic resulted in more rioting and crime figures for the event rose dramatically. It is important to note, however, that despite much larger attendances than at, say Glastonbury, reported crime at the Carnival has always been low. On the occasions when things have gone horriby wrong, the media attention has been huge, possibly contributing to the negative image of the Carnival in the 1980s and '90s.
The Notting Hill Carnival was momentarily the largest street festival in the world with attendance peaking at one and a half million at the Millennium Carnival of 2000 and is purported to be the largest street carnival in Europe. By 2001, police presence numbered 10,000 but the Carnival 'bobby' is a friendly participant (a deliberate strategy for positive crowd control). Post 9/11, police control was largely unchanged, with the crowds asked to be extra vigilant. Attendence has gradually shrunk back again year-on-year since 2000 though the Carnival just after the 2005 London July bombings was still better attended than many expected.
August Bank Holiday - Carnival Weekend
All year long, there are activites and events taking place as a build up to the pageantry and festivites of Carnival. Thousands of people beaver away, creating gorgeous costumes, planning routes, choreographing dances, rehearsing and organising.
Which Day to Go?
Carnival is an evolving annual event. It is different each year and new concepts are often introduced: The weekend officially kicks off on the Saturday morning with the annual 'National Steel Band Competition: Panorama', traditionally held on Kensal Road; Sunday is reserved for the children's pageants and is geared towards the younger participants with many activities and events surrounding and accompanying the route that the floats take; and Monday is the main Carnival day when people can be heard continuing to party throughout West London well past the 9pm shutdown and after the floats have all gone home to berth.
How to Get There and Back?
Every year, about a month before Carnival weekend, a leaflet is made available at all underground stations or online at Transport for London with information on how to get to and from Carnival safely and efficiently. Extra buses are always laid on and some Tube stations are either shut or limited in access for security reasons. It is important to plan your journey with some forethought, especially if travelling into Carnival with children. For example, if you are planning on following the Carnival route, you may not want to return all the way back to the beginning in order to catch a bus home. In this case, be sure you know which bus you need to take from the end of the route.
Survival Guide: A Few Hints
The queues are bladder excruciatingly long so don't wait till the last minute to look for a toilet. There is a published list of types and locations of Carnival toilets which is very handy indeed but the word on the street is still, 'Bring your own tissues'.
Put your mobile away, you won't hear it ring. Pickpockets abound and it is very, very noisy so in the pocket or cleavage it goes, set to vibrate if necessary or desirable.
Carnival has First Aid stations, Meeting Points, Lost and Found and a Children's area. There are police everywhere and people are generally very friendly and helpful. Do make sure you have a map of the area with you and a watch. Plan your escape route beforehand, as the crowds are immense and at the end of the day, everyone is going in the same direction: home.
If you are planning on going on to any of the private parties that abound after Carnival Close, make sure you have a ticket to get in and know how to get home. As in all adventures, it is probably wise to let someone know where you are.
Make sure you turn your tastebuds to 'adventurous' mode as well. The gloriously colourful, flavourful and aromatic Afro Caribbean foods are as much a part of Carnival experience as the music, dancing and costumes.
The Disciplines of Carnival
The Notting Hill Carnival is built on five main disciplines or premises. The arts involved are both visual and loud, ensuring the memory of carnival experience will be a lasting one for the visitors.
Steel pan was the first style of music represented at the Carnival. The steel pan is the original musical instrument of Trinidad and is either placed on a stand or carried in front of the musician hanging on a strap that goes around the neck. The steel pan has its origin in the African skin drum. According to the Soca News website, the steel drum was born:
... through experimentation with empty milk cans, large paint pans, butter tins, garbage can covers, caustic soda drums, motor car hubs and bits of steel.
Calypso is the traditional music of Trinidad and it's also a development of the West African heritage of the Caribbean culture. As the common language of carnival, it purports to deal with relationships and strife in everyday life.
Historically, African celebrations were 'piggybacked' with the colonizer's own religious observances as a way to maintain order and give the then-enslaved people a chance to 'let off' steam. The communing was tightly regulated so as not to foment rebellions, and the Cariso/Kaiso (Calypso) became the art form that enabled the transmission of news and social or political commentary. As its sparring was verbal rather than physical, the Kaiso (kah-EE-so) was preferred over the African Stick-fighting (Kalinda) music, which often led to property damage and human casualties.
- Caribia Digest Online
Soca is the modern evolution of calypso, a livelier and jazzier music that grew out of Calypso's waning years during the 1970s. It is an inclusive form of calypso with Indian, soul, funk and disco enriching the experience.
The word mas is derived from the French masquerade. The first Carnivals were more about the music and the street partying, and the first carnival costumes did not hit the streets of Notting Hill until the Carnival of 1973. The Mas dancers with their fabulous, ethereal costumes invoke the image of Carnival these days. Today a veritable industry has sprung up around Mas with its costumes and floats. Initially the costumes were built around wire structures but these days many are made of fibreglass.
You can make huge things (with fibreglass) but not with the same dimensions you are able to use wire work for. There is a vast difference. - Lawrence Noel of the Trinbago Carnival Club and Master Mas craftsman.
It is the messy J'ouvert or 'dirty mas' mimicry that opens Carnival as this was the precursor to mas itself. In 2004, the Notting Hill Carnival started a small J'ouvert event starting at 6am on the Monday but this is not enough for some:
The dirty mas band, Pure Lime, have sought to recreate the more sensual side of mas by presenting a chocolate (instead of mud) in and out and all over body experience at Carnival. This is one not to miss:
Imagine yourself chipping behind the truck on Carnival Day, your body (or you might prefer the sexy woman/man of your dreams) covered in brown, sticky chocolate and the sinfully delightful prospect of having someone (how about that same sexy woman/man of your dreams, again) licking it off for you or asking you to do the same to them. Gives a new meaning to sweet, sticky fun, doesn't it?
- Quote from the Pure Lime website
The Static Sound Systems blasting Jamaican, African and other music from the beds of trailers strategically placed along the route are the last keystone of the Notting Hill Carnival experience. There are about 35 of these systems on the Carnival route every year and they are usually the same ones year on year. There is an uneasy professional truce between these systems and the Trinidadian Steel Pan bands which complain of being drowned out on their parades along the carnival route. The static systems came into being during the 1970s and were initially unwelcome. Today they are undoubtedly the biggest crowd pleasers, with many coming for the 'rave' atmosphere, rather than the route carnival itself.
The most well known and successful of these Static Sound Systems is undoubtedly the Sancho Panza system which has been a feature of the Notting Hill Carnival since 1994. Jimmy KTel and Matt Brown and their 'posse of DJs' are one of Carnival's institutions, winning the 'Best Decorated Sound System' at the '94 Carnival and moving up in the world since then. They are in great demand and have been seen at events such as Glastonbury since. The greatest attraction at Sancho Panza in Carnival each year is the unannounced special guest. Past guests have included Bushwacka, Craig Richards and Lee Burridge.
'Unity in Diversity' - Carnival Motto
In 2001, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, commissioned a report on the Notting Hill Carnival.
This report is the product of a major evaluation of how the Notting Hill Carnival is managed, financed, supported and perceived. In addition to addressing the public safety issues posed as a result of the Carnival's growth, it also reveals the significant cultural, social and economic potential and contribution already made by the Carnival to London's communities, schools, businesses and tourists.
- Mayor Ken Livingston on the final reporting in 2004.
Amid furore, protest and fears of Carnival being stifled, this report stated categorically that Carnival has grown to a world-ranked event, second only to the Brazilian Rio de Janeiro Carnival and way beyond the realms of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, surpassing any European event. Despite great resistance, the report has decried the myth that the Notting Hill Carnival is a spontaneous event with little forethought and planning, dragging it and its haphazard management into the 21st Century with Health and Safety requirements, long term strategic planning and, above all, funding as befits an annual world event.
Leo Jasper, Chairman of the Notting Hill Report, elaborated on another purpose for the investigation. In his assertions on the reaons why the Notting Hill Carnival 'deserves our attention', he touches on an important detail in the recognition of arts:
Many of the problems faced by the Carnival are also experienced by... London's black and ethnic minority arts and cultural organisations – the struggle for recognition as credible art forms or endeavours, lack of investment from mainstream arts funding bodies and the continuing failure to successfully capacity-build the black and Asian arts sector. Research commissioned by the Arts Council, found that the prevailing perception of the arts amongst some members of the [minority] communities was that of predominantly white, elitist establishments which housed the opera, ballet, Shakespearean theatre, classical music and galleries featuring abstract post-modern art.
He is also vocal on the importance of the Carnival in terms of London and the UK as a whole.
The Notting Hill Carnival has become a national institution. It has become a defining London feature, which cuts across race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation and class. At Carnival, it is not uncommon to find three, possibly four generations of one family performing in the same masquerade band or steel-pan orchestra, such is the strength of tradition that the Carnival engenders. I know of no other major London event that has been able to consistently produce this level of activity, on this scale with relatively few resources, for so many years and despite so many obstacles.
All in all, the report and the attention brought to the Carnival through it, have had no adverse effects other than the also resisted plan to alter the route for public safety reasons. The report has had the result of bringing the Notting Hill Carnival into the mainstream and out of the fringes. In 2003, The London Notting HIll Carnival (LNHC) Ltd was set up to manage the Carnival. This organisation is responsible for the safe running and sound financial management of events. It also has the remit of developing and progressing Carnival events, supporting represented Arts and representing the interests of the Carnival community.