Countdown to Notting Hill Carnival: Meet the people behind the magic

·5-min read
Notting Hill Carnival / Shutterstock  (Times Newspapers/Shutterstock)
Notting Hill Carnival / Shutterstock (Times Newspapers/Shutterstock)

At Notting Hill’s Tabernacle, drinks are flowing and jerk chicken is being dished out at a rapid rate. In the courtyard, old friends catch up while a steelband soundtracks their shared memories of past carnivals. There’s a feeling of excitement — and relief. In four weeks, Europe’s biggest street party will return to Notting Hill for the first time in three years.

At the heart of Carnival is the parade; made up from live music (calypso, Brazilian and steelbands), sound systems and mas (‘masquerade’) bands, which create and provide costumes. The countdown — and pressure — is on. There are floats to decorate and elaborate costumes to finish, before two million people descend on the streets of west London. But for one night only, Carnival stalwarts are hav - ing an evening off to celebrate the launch of this year’s event. ‘There’s a whole lot of history here,’ says Sonny Blacks, a dapper looking man in his late 70s. We’re queuing to get a drink, but as people recognise him, they step aside and usher us to the front.

Blacks is a Carnival veteran. He came to the UK from Trinidad in 1961, and as a young man in a steelband, he’s been instrumental in organising Carnival since it began. ‘When I first came to England, the war had just finished and it was very dark and dismal. We brought life and happy music,’ he says. Blacks is thrilled the event is back. ‘We need it, people can let out their emotions and their frustration, it’s such a blessing.’

Notting Hill Carnival 1975/ Shutterstock (John Hannah/Shutterstock)
Notting Hill Carnival 1975/ Shutterstock (John Hannah/Shutterstock)

The pandemic-induced hiatus was a huge blow to the community, but it did provide opportunity for innovation. This year, the first-ever electric truck will be making its Carnival debut. ‘There’s zero emissions and the music will sound better, because it’s not having to get over the sound of a diesel generator,’ says Matthew Phillip, CEO of Carnival Village Trust. ‘Last week’s weather highlights that every little thing that we can do is important.’

The beginnings of Notting Hill Carnival are often debated. In 1959, Claudia Jones, founder of the UK’s first major Black newspaper, organised an event in St Pancras Hall, while the first outdoor event was born out of a chil - dren’s street fair organised by Rhaune Laslett, a local resident and community activist whose work sought to ease inter-cultural tensions in the area following the Fifties riots.

‘We were one of the bands that came through Ladbroke Grove during the riots,’ says Pepe Francis, director of Ebony steelband. ‘We were performing as bottles were being pelted; that’s one memory I’ll never forget.’ At its core, Carnival is a party; a roaring celebration rooted in AfroCaribbean culture and welcoming to all. But to ignore the racism it was born out of is to do a disservice to the resilience of the people who make it so special.

Notting Hill Carnival 1999/ Getty (Universal Images Group via Getty)
Notting Hill Carnival 1999/ Getty (Universal Images Group via Getty)

‘Kelso Cochrane [who was stabbed to death by a gang of white youths in west London in 1959] is not alive. Stephen Lawrence is not alive. That is the reason why there is Notting Hill Carnival,’ says Clary Salandy, a community figurehead and founder of Mahogany, which creates largescale carnival costumes. ‘They are not here, so we have to be. We’re not here to cause destruction, we came to contribute. Look around — at every hospital, every bus — and you will see the positive contributions of people of colour.’

There have been multiple occasions throughout its history when police, politicians and media have critiqued Carnival as unsafe. There have been calls to move or ticket the event, despite the fact crime rates are lower than Glastonbury — which rarely receives the same negative attention. ‘I’ve only been an organiser since 2018,’ says Phillip. ‘I’ve heard of all this, but in my conversations with police, there’s never any talk about it being ticketed or moving.’

‘People have agendas, some get met and some don’t,’ says Symone Williams, relationships manager for the Arts Council. ‘There could be an extension of the event, but we’re staying; Carnival will always be in Notting Hill.’ Her father, Vernon, was one of the original founders, who also started Genesis — a mas band — with her mother Allyson.

Notting Hill Carnival 1982/ Shutterstock (Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock)
Notting Hill Carnival 1982/ Shutterstock (Nils Jorgensen/Shutterstock)

To the uninitiated, mas bands are a dizzying spectacle. Performers on stilts wear huge sculptural costumes and tower over a sea of bikini-clad dancers. While they may be Insta-worthy, like Carnival itself, mas has a rich and complicated history, one that dates back to emancipation of slaves across the Caribbean in the 1800s. ‘Growing up, dad told me that Carnival costumes are a message, a story. You always start by thinking, what story do I want to tell?’ says Symone. Her mother nods: ‘Mas is a part of traditional culture. I’m proud to be a role model and have a legacy for my children.’

Phillip encourages Londoners to get involved. ‘It’s put together by us organisers, but Notting Hill Carnival is a lot of small community groups that knit together to make one event. Every mas band will have a space where they’re cre - ating costumes and preparing. They’re always welcoming to visitors and people who want to wear costumes.’

Salandy echoes the sentiment. Her theme this year is ‘A Time to Remember’; a celebration of past generations and a way to honour those who lost their lives to Covid. She hopes party-goers will reflect on the enduring resilience of the Carnival community. ‘In Trinidad and Tobago, there were laws passed in the early 1900s preventing Black people from participating in celebrations. Slavery had been abolished, but there was a law forbidding people of colour from gathering in groups larger than 10, another law ban - ning the use of drums — anything with an animal skin.’

She pauses, before breaking into a grin. ‘But that’s the reason we have the steelpan: culture is like that. You can’t step on it and expect it to disappear. It will always come back — it just comes back different. Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to that.’

Notting Hill Carnival, 27-29 Aug (nhcarnival.org)

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