The Rockins Guide To Notting Hill Carnival
In just a few days, hundreds of thousands of visitors will descend on the streets of West London for the Notting Hill Carnival, a vivid spectacle that celebrates the capital’s Caribbean communities. With its roots in early 19th century Trinidadian culture, the Notting Hill Carnival takes place every year on the August Bank Holiday weekend, as the streets are lined with music, elaborate handcrafted costumes and traditional food.
Notting Hill Carnival didn’t even exist at the end of World War Two, where a vast labour shortage saw a welcome mass immigration to the UK; West Indians joined working class Britons, Irish and Spaniards in the West of the capital, with a large concentration in both Notting Hill and Brixton. After the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, racial tensions were at a climax. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist and editor of the West Indian Gazette presented the idea of holding a Caribbean carnival in 1959. This celebration took place at St Pancras Town Hall on January 20 1959; a relatively conservative affair that showcased Caribbean arts and culture and was broadcast on the BBC.
What followed was an altogether more ‘hippy’ celebration that birthed the Notting Hill Carnival we know and love today. Social worker Rhaune Laslett was a notable figure in Notting Hill; a woman who was proactive in healing the racial tensions of the late 1950s. Laslett claimed the idea for the carnival came to her in a dream;
“I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown – but all laughing”
In August 1966, Laslett gathered local residents together to publicise the Carnival with small processions striding down Portobello Road with their saxophones. While their home was now West London, these musicians had originated from all over the world; from India to Ghana, Cyprus to the Ukraine. Using horse drawn carts borrowed from market traders as makeshift floats, the Carnival began. Musicians included Nigerian born Ginger Johnson with his Afro-Cuban band and Agnes O’Connell and her Irish Pipers. West Indian residents flooded the streets upon hearing the familiar sounds of home and a vast procession weaved up Portobello Road to Notting Hill Gate, gathering revellers along the way.
50 years on, and Notting Hill Carnival is now the second largest carnival in the world. While traditionally the sounds of Calypso and Steel Bands were most prevalent, the 21st century has seen the rise of static sound systems positioned around the carnival, the streets thumping with the sounds of reggae, dub, garage and hip-hop. Along with music and street food, the Carnival is famed for the mas troupes, (from masquerade), with around 15000 costumes on display. Harking back to Trinidadian celebrations that marked the abolition of slavery, the early days of Carnival were heavily parody-based. Taking full advantage of their freedom, Carnival goers would dress in flamboyant costumes that mimicked the European fashions of their former masters. To this day, mas costumes are made entirely by hand, usually crafted by traditional Trinidadian designers. The Notting Hill Carnival is a riot of colour, sounds, scents and celebration; while music may have evolved and attendance may have grown, the Carnival retains a spirit that is unlike any other celebration in the capital. Here’s to London’s biggest street party!