Tuesday, 1 September 2009
50 YEARS OF CARNIVAL - STILL THE PRIDE OF BLACK LONDON
The Notting Hill carnival is still ours
It's changed hugely in the last 50 years, but the festival
reflects the heart of black London as ever
Sunday 30 August 2009
Every year, as August comes to a close, if you put four or
five black Londoners of a certain age in the same room,
talk will turn to the Notting Hill carnival, how it's "not
the same these days" or "not really about us any more".
Sentiments it is, in general, difficult to disagree with.
Perhaps less justifiable, however, is the dispirited
wistfulness which tends to go along with such remarks. The
carnival has changed over its 50-year history, yet it
continues to reflect "us" with considerable accuracy. It
always did; it's simply that "us" refuses to remain the
Because London's black population is a culturally shifting
and increasingly diverse demographic, the carnival is too.
In fact, it was the first major change in how it defined
itself that saw it blow up from a low-key London street
festival celebrating an aspect of Caribbeanness, with a
cast of several hundred, to a vivid expression of what it
meant to be black in Britain, attracting hundreds of
thousands from all over the country. And it was the results
of the clear generational schism of the first half of the
Seventies, as the sons and daughters of the Forties and
Fifties wave of Commonwealth immigration made the Notting
Hill carnival their own.
From its inauguration in 1959, the carnival did its best to
adhere to its essentially Trinidadian template of mobile
steel bands and wildly costumed dancers, from which the
slipstream of revellers took their cue. Even in its
original indoor setting of St Pancras town hall, the
carnival conjured up the Caribbean to such a degree that it
appealed beyond expat Trinidadians and allowed participants
to think of home and escape from the tribulations of trying
to make a life in London in those times.
But it was never really relevant to their kids. My earliest
recollections of the carnival in 1970 or so are shared with
many of my then-teenage peers: a few of you went along with
your or a friend's parents, jumped up half-heartedly behind
a float, and the conversation centred on: "What on earth
are we doing here?" Then the sound systems moved in and
suddenly it all made sense.
Roots reggae, lovers' rock, soul, funk… Instead of the
steel-pan sounds of calypso and soca, this was the
underground music that meant everything to us, tunes seldom
heard outside blues dances, house parties or a tight circle
of below-the-radar clubs. Here they were booming out on
sonically awesome rigs, in huge, open-air environments,
with no entrance fees, licensing hours or dress code.
Importantly, this shift from being procession-based to the
static sound systems had massive appeal to inherently
bone-idle teenagers, to whom standing about should have
been an Olympic event.
In subsequent years, it seemed to grow exponentially,
colonising more and more of the neighbouring streets.
Astonishingly, the authorities didn't appear to have
noticed it, thus it was left to a lively self-regulating
anarchy whereby anybody who find a power supply could set
up their sound system, you could buy any variety of
delicious but scarcely un-health-and-safetyed yard food and
the police turned a blind eye to many things as long as
nobody was getting hurt. By 1974, the Notting Hill carnival
was the place to be, and in the same way as it had once
been our mums' and dads' manifestation of who they were, so
it became ours. Unsurprisingly, the old timers weren't too
keen, muttering about it losing its meaning.
What it was, though, was a largely participatory event,
inasmuch as being at a sound system is taking part. It was
almost 100% black, and, with the sound systems' wider
musical spectrum, reflected the different shades of black
in the UK. This last point was crucial to its success, as
it meant rather than being a strictly Caribbean affair it
spoke to London's ex-empire melting pot and everybody felt
they could join in.
Back then, it cut across more than simply heritage too, and
another reason for the growth was that attendance was
pretty much mandatory. Just about everybody put in an
appearance over the course of the weekend – young, old,
families, hustlers, middle-class professionals, busmen
still in their uniforms, drunks, dreads, men and women on
Indeed, when in the late 1970s it collapsed into violence,
it caused far more outrage among the majority of
carnival-goers than it ever did in the British media, as,
quite rightly, we knew a) it would be assumed we were all
rioters and b) we'd never be left to get on with our
weekend by ourselves ever again. That said, those first
riots were yet another expression of who we were at the
time – mad as hell with the way so many of us were being
treated on a daily basis. If truth be told, there weren't
many black people in Britain, young or old, who weren't
walking a little bit taller during the first week of
September 1976. Whether they were actually there or not.
Since then, the Notting Hill carnival has gone through
another seismic shift, but is an equally relevant
expression of what it means to be black in London in the
21st century – a far more diverse, mixed up and inclusive
state of affairs. Like the capital's black population
itself, the carnival now has its own history and draws upon
that to acknowledge where it came from as well as where
it's at: of course there are steel bands, costumes and
calypso, but there are sound systems busting grime, garage
and drum'n'bass along with the reggae. And as British black
culture has become part of the world at large, so the
world, both at home and abroad, is welcomed in.
As a result, what began with a couple of hundred Caribbean
immigrants following two or three steel bands has become
Europe's biggest street festival, but black London remains
as its beating heart, with its music, its sound systems and
its updated takes on original Mas costumes. Claudia Jones,
the Trinidadian black and feminist activist who founded the
carnival 50 years ago, might not quite understand too much
of it, but she'd be beaming with pride.
Lloyd Bradley is author of Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King