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Some images of the London Notting Hill Carnival
The Notting Hill Carnival has been an annual London event since 1959. It was started by members of the Trinidadian community who brought the carnival tradition from their islands to the streets of London. Today the Carnival is a great expression of African Caribbean culture at its best, not only as a static entity but something that is dynamic, evolutionary and developmental.
I first visited the carnival in 1982 and never wanted to go back, due to a fear of being crushed by the huge crowds celebrating. Although some elements were enjoyable, getting stuck in the middle of totally standing crowds was very scary. However, in 2009 I decided to go to the Carnival again in order to develop this exhibition. My good friend Junior Douglas, writer / director of JA Story, accompanied me to the carnival. I also interviewed a number of people with a long history of involvement with the celebration and read about its history in the Caribbean islands and in London. This exhibition is based on my understanding of the carnival and its significance.
Every year, during the August Bank Holiday weekend, including Monday, parts of West London become a big sea of celebration with over a million people dancing, listening to a variety of music, eating tasty food and having a lot of fun. Floats, Mas bands and people with colourful costumes parade in groups in a clockwise direction, within a designated carnival zone. The areas covered are Notting Hill Gate, Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park. It takes nearly the whole day for one band to cover the total distance, moving and dancing with the rhythms of their own music, cheered by crowds standing on pavements. Within the zone there are countless numbers of static sound systems playing hip hop and other popular music, which are of particular interest to young people.
Along the parade route and within the zone the aroma of food being grilled and cooked fills the air and the main speciality is the Caribbean Jerk Chicken. Many local people who live in the area see the carnival as a money-making opportunity and set up food and drink stalls outside their houses. In addition to the two day carnival parade and music stages there exists a pre carnival period, which consist of the Grand Costume Gala, the Calypso Tent Monarch Finals and the steelpan ‘Panorama’. Although the vast majority of those involved in the Masquerades are African Caribbeans, members of other London communities also show off their talents at the annual carnival and join in the celebration.
The carnival period, which ends with the two day parade during the August Bank Holiday, brings colour, creativity, buzz and energy to West London. However, tens of thousands of people work throughout the year to put on the great show. These are organised under different Mas bands and usually led by a man or woman who has been dedicating many years to the Carnival and in some cases a whole lifetime. During the history of the Carnival in London many people have moved on from one band to start a new one. Through this process new bands are always being formed and new creativity injected into the Notting Hill Carnival. People with Carnival experience in Caribbean Islands also help inject new dynamism into the London Carnival. For example, Patsy Richie (immediate right), who has been involved in carnival for 20 years in St Lucia, helped set up the Xtreme St Lucia UK 6 years ago, based in London. She designs and co-ordinates everything for the organisation’s participation in the Notting Hill Carnival. According to Patsy, the London Carnival is more diverse and has a greater variety of music compared to St Lucia where the main form of music is Soca. She also feels that in the Caribbean islands carnivals are more family and community oriented than in London.
Notting Hill Carnival is said to be the biggest street celebration in Europe and the second largest carnival in the world after Rio. Although the carnival is full of fun, colours and smiling faces hugging and embracing one another, its origin can be traced back to two tragic events in history: the slave trade of Africans into the Caribbean islands and the racist murder of an African Caribbean man from Antigua called Kelso Cochrane in Ladbroke Grove (London) in 1958 by six alleged members of the White Defence League.
Today, the carnival is enjoyed by members of London’s diverse communities and from surveys it has been found that the annual festival attracts visitors from Europe and beyond. Notting Hill Carnival’s total contribution to the London economy is estimated to be in the region of £100m, creating up to 3,000 full time equivalent jobs.
The carnival has also become more embedded into the wider society by, for example, engaging school children through work experiences at carnival Mas camps. Carnival organisers are also often invited to run workshops in schools and community settings. In many festivals that take place around the UK Caribbean style carnival costumes and parades are incorporated. These often include local school children and members of local diverse communities. In 2008 I was lucky to witness the start of the Newham Mayor's Town Show which started with such a carnival parade (top three pictures on the right)
Children learn about the origin and spirit of the festival and the colourful costume making processes. Gloria Cummins (below on the right with white hair), leader of the Flamboyan Carnival Band based near Westbourne Park, explained to me how it works within her own organisation. She said that local schools send pupils for work experience on a regular basis for several weeks prior to the Carnival. Most of the pupils sent to Flamboyan are from Muslim backgrounds and the girls normally cannot wear the costumes and dresses made for the carnival as they are very revealing. However, they learn about different aspects of the carnival and what it means to the African Caribbean communities. Through this and other processes the carnival is becoming more ingrained into the wider society and forming an important element of London’s identity and the city’s spirit.
As stated earlier, the origin of the London Carnival can be traced back to the tragic murder of a young Antiguan carpenter in 1958 by white racists. At that time new immigrants who came to Britain, as a result of invitation by the UK government to fill the post Second World War labour shortages, experienced a lot of hostility, prejudice and racial violence. Organised white racist thugs often roamed areas where immigrant communities lived with weapons, terrorising and brutally attacking them. Over the years there have been a number of tragic racist murders of innocent members of the London’s minority ethnic communities, including Stephen Lawrence who was killed in 1993 in Eltham. He was 19 years old and wanted to become an architect.
The tragic murder of Kelso in 1958 in Ladbroke Grove was the trigger that led to members of the African Caribbean communities getting organised to develop strategies to deal with racist threats and fight for justice, equality and an improved quality of life. The tension created by racial violence and the murder of the young man lead to the Notting Hill race riots, which started in late August 1958 and went on for more than one week. Many members of London’s African Caribbean communities responded by forming groups and associations and out of that process emerged Claudia Jones, editor and co-founder of the West Indian Gazette. She floated the idea of a carnival in London and helped to start it by getting the Gazette to sponsor the formation of a carnival committee. The first carnival was organised on 30 January 1959 as an indoor festival in St Pancras Town Hall.
The carnival’s purpose was to “present West Indian talent to the public, which at that time could not see Caribbean people as anything other than hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Mayor of London’s “Notting Hill Carnival A Strategic Review”). The indoor carnival continued for six years under the theme of “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”. After the death of Claudia in 1964, Rhaune Laslett took the initiative to hold a street fair in Notting Hill and invited members of the African Caribbean community to join the event. When it took place in 1965, it “consisted of one steel-pan combo, 500 followers and two policemen”. Nearly the whole of the local African Caribbean community and many White people came onto the streets to enjoy the event. Since then the Carnival has grown to become the largest street celebration in Europe.
However, it has also been a major public order issue, including several major disturbances that took place over the years, of which, the 1976 carnival was marred by widespread rioting. Robbery, mugging, violence and drugs have been an unfortunate negative side of the Carnival. But in recent years, better management, improved leadership and sensitive policing have made the carnival much safer.
Although the origin of the London carnival can be traced back to the tragic murder in 1958 and the subsequent Notting Hill race riots, the idea of the carnival in the UK is based on the carnival tradition in Trinidad. During slavery black people were not allowed to play music or celebrate except during Easter and before the carnivals that white people in Trinidad used to hold. However, when
“freedom eventually came on 1 August 1834, the emancipated slaves took to the streets and celebrated their liberty through song and dance, reproducing and reinstating the former Canboulay festival as an anniversary symbol of liberation and freedom from the shackles of colonialism and the brutal regime that was slavery. They mocked and mimicked their former slave masters and mistresses by painting their faces and creating costume caricatures of the garb, pomp and ceremony that had been the hallmark of the wealthy plantation owners. The carnival therefore became a celebration of their freedom from bondage as well as their remembrance of it.”
(Source: Mayor of London’s “Notting Hill Carnival A Strategic Review”, June 2004).
This explains why Claudia Jones and others argued for and helped give birth to the Noting Hill Carnival. It is about using the emancipatory and empowering tools and methods developed by freed slaves and subsequent generations in the Caribbean islands, particularly Trinidad, to deal with the challenges that African Caribbean people were facing in the UK at that time.
Although the Carnival is a big street festival, it is unlike other such events. It is more akin to religious festivals than community and cultural events. This explains why so many people work so hard throughout the year with so much dedication in their homes, small premises and in community centres working away to make the carnival a success. Each group chooses a theme and develops a number of designer dresses for their members to put on for the parade. Some also produce colourful floats. Although it is not about worshiping and making connections with a higher being, carnival seems to generate in African Caribbean people feelings similar to religion.
What does the carnival mean to people? Gloria Cummins (on the right with white hair), who is originally from Trinidad, explained to me that the carnival is inclusive and everyone can and are invited to participate, although some people may wish to exclude themselves because of religious reasons or the fact that they cannot wear revealing dresses. For her the carnival is part of her culture and a deep tradition of Trinidad with remnants of Africa.
Gloria says that the Carnival has a strong spiritual dimension and everyone involved feels a sense of duty to make it a success every year. Thousands of people from thousands of places come to the carnival as a sense of duty. Parents and adults pass on the arts, practices and feelings of carnival to the younger generations. On the other hand, sometimes inspired children reactivate parents’ interest in the Carnival. One volunteer at Flamboyan explained that when she was young she used to attend the carnival but for many years she did not take an interest because she suffers from claustrophobia and is scared to go to places with large crowds. However, she proudly explained to me that recently it was her young daughter’s interest in the carnival that inspired and rekindled her interest that led to her volunteering to do some work and help Flamboyan with their carnival preparation.
According to Desmond Noel (on the immediate right), who has been involved with the Trinbago Carnival Club since eight years old, founded by his father Lawrence Noel, carnival means fun, freedom, enjoyment and merrymen. He feels that it also helps people become more aware of traditional art forms in Trinidad and Tobago and their African roots. Noel Lawrence was one of those pioneering individuals who introduced the first costumes in Notting Hill Carnival in 1973.
The buzz, noise and aroma of the Carnival make the experience truly exhilarating. It instils and deepens pride within African Caribbean communities. Visitors and tourists come to the event in large numbers and the friendly faces of the people - some dancing, while others watching - make the experience unforgettable.
The art and creativity involved help those participating enhance their own skills and capacities. The carnival art and the designer costumes made are making more inroads into the mainstream. The story of the carnival is how the disempowered and discriminated use arts and creativity to develop their capacities and powers, overcome adversities and help change the perception of those involved - intentionally or otherwise - in creating and perpetuating the disadvantage. The carnival spirit partly represents a supreme non violent struggle against oppression of one people by another. The power of arts and culture is used to create bonds and various interdependencies between people, and help breakdown the walls of prejudice and discrimination. The annual carnival held in London during the August Bank Holiday period, including the tireless work that goes on within the city’s communities throughout the year in preparation for the event, paves the way for building new roads and bridges in connecting people from different cultures and promoting better understanding between communities.
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