Notting Hill Carnival’s transformation into the annual world class example of artistic excellence displayed on the streets of Notting Hill is a story of a community’s vision and determination. That story has its roots in the struggles of its artistic and cultural parent, the Trinidad carnival.
But our story will begin with London.
The precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival was held on 30 January 1959 at St Pancras Town Hall and was televised by the BBC. Organised by political activist and founder-editor of the West Indian Gazette, Claudia Jones, it was timed to coincide with the Caribbean’s largest and most famous carnival in Trinidad and designed to make a determined and positive statement against the Notting Hill race riots of 1958. The introductory statement to the souvenir brochure read
“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”
In 1960 the event moved to Seymour Hall in Paddington and in 1961 it was held at the Lyceum in The Strand. It alternated between the two venues, growing in attendance and importance with each year, until Claudia Jones was found dead on Boxing Day 1963. In early 1964 another amazing woman, who knew nothing about the events in north London, contacted police about holding a neighbourhood festival to help combat the devastating effects of poverty and deprivation in the Ladroke Grove area. Community Activist Rhuane Laslett invited various groups in and around Notting Hill to participate in a week long event that culminated with a parade on August bank holiday. Russell Henderson MBE recalls Rhuane’s efforts: “When she called her first words were ‘Russell, we can’t pay you’ – my immediate response was ‘What time? We’ll be there.’”
Russell appeared out of a side street with his steel band and people followed him until nightfall - about 1,000 in all. That was the first Notting Hill Carnival and the community has never looked back.
In its early years the carnival identified itself more with Notting Hill than with the Caribbean. However, as word got round, more and more Caribbean people attended the event and numbers rapidly swelled to around 10,000. Steelbands introduced masquerade to the event and sound systems could be found on almost every street corner. Rhuane decided to hand the event over to the community.
Over the next few years, management of the Carnival was transferred from one organisation to another as the community struggled to stage the event on little or no funding and a distinct lack of sponsorship. Since 2003 the Carnival has been managed on behalf of the community by the London Notting Hill Carnival Ltd (LNHC) with a Board of Directors democratically elected by the five artistic arenas that make up the event and supported by a number of key individuals that bring with them professional and business skills.
The next few years saw a dramatic and significant change to the make up of the Carnival’s audience. By the mid 1970s 40% of those attending the event were Black British. Alienated, they faced daily harassment from the police by the extensive use of sus laws. For them, Carnival was not a cultural event but a place where the sheer number of Black people meant that the police no longer hand the upper hand and they were the majority.
For 20 years, Carnival practitioners, participants and goers were forced to endure the legacy of the 1976 riots. Following the 1976 riors there were calls from all quarters for the event to be banned or moved to White City Stadium. Media reporting took a distinct turn with priority and profile given to the number of arrests rather than music and mas. However, Carnival also had its many supporters, including HRH Prince Charles and in the face of everying, Carnival participants and practioners continued to go to Notting Hill every August Bank Holiday.
1978 saw the introduction of the National Panorama Championships, won by Paddington Youth Steel Orchestra under the guidance and musical direction of Zak Herbert. Since the first competition held in Issac Newton School, the event has grown to be the biggest and most respected steel band competition outside of Trinidad and Tobago, the birth plan of the steel pan. Described by The Guardian as” Carnival’s best kept secret” it has also been described as “the jewel in the crown of pre-Carnival events” and for many carnivalists and traditionalists it is the heart of the weekend’s festivities.
By 1991 most had realised that like the community it represented, the Carnival was here to stay. Police figures put the number of attendees at around the one million mark but organisers said it was double that. The Notting Hill Carnival had established itself as Europe’s leading street festival, second only to Rio in terms of numbers.
1992 heralded the introduction of the London Calypso Tent, hosted by the Association of British Calypsonians (ABC). Like the Carnival itself, carlypso has its musical roots in the Dahomey work song and grew out of the struggles against slavery. Whilst, its traditional form and structure of call and response, stanza and chorus has changed over the years to reflect the growing influence of technology and other musical influences, it remains the music and heartbest of Carnival.
On 4 June 2002 The Mall is filled with colour as 20,000 performers celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The procession, which embodied all six themes of the Jubilee - Service, Community, Thanksgiving, Celebration, Past and future, and Commonwealth – was led by masqueraders from the Notting Hill Carnival with music provided by a 100 piece steel band playing a repertoire that included classical, religious and ceremonial tunes. The event was watched by millions worldwide. Carnival had arrived.
Today, the Notting Hill Carnival is the culmination of a year of planning involving hundreds of grass-roots community organisations engaging over 50,000 young people and adults in artistic endeavours. With its Trinidadian roots firmly embedded in Carnival history, the event continues to evolve with each generation adding its own flavour.
The essence of Carnival is formed of the five Artistic Arts Arenas - Calypso, Mas (masquerade), Pan (steel bands) and the Mobile and Static Sound Systems all combining to make this event unlike any other in the world.
Planning for the event is coordinated through the London Notting Hill Carnival Ltd in partnership with key stakeholders including the Executive Committee of Carnival Arts, the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, City of Westminster Council, Greater London Authority, Transport for London, St John Ambulance, London Ambulance Service, London Buses, London Underground, British Transport Police and London Fire Brigade.
The event thus grew from its humble beginnings to embrace the whole of London and as the dominance of the Trinidadian community became more pronounced, the event took on more and more characteristics of its cultural source. The growth and development of the event also reflected issues that characterised the struggles of the community – locally and nationally – to come to terms with its status and place in society.
These efforts at shaping Carnival were made against a background of a community engaged in complex combative relations with the society’s major agencies – education, criminal justice, housing, etc. There were a range of communal and individual responses to this that spanned political activism to deliberate and public assertions of different cultural, social and religious identities. The community’s relationship with Carnival was to embrace the streets on the two days of Carnival as owned terrain on which these identities and desires were played out.
© Ansel Wong