The Notting Hill Carnival is one of the largest street festivals in the world, second only to Rio’s Carnival. The parade features floats and dancers and 30-plus sound systems set up over a square mile of the Notting Hill neighborhood of London. It is a kaleidoscopic event, spread over the Sunday and Monday of the August Bank Holiday (the last weekend of August). Sunday is ostensibly family day, and the Monday is for adults to party, but I’ve been on both days a number of times and never really noticed much difference; there are always plenty of kids around on Monday and lots of people looking to party on Sunday. This year I went on Monday.
The Carnival is a continuation of the Caribbean Carnival tradition, which began in Trinidad in the 1780s, when black slaves and freedmen sought to mimic and mock the lavish masquerade balls of the island’s French aristocracy. Although Trinidad was owned by the Spanish, French nobles looking to escape the chaos of the revolution found refuge on the island throughout the late 18th century, and in 1797, Trinidad became a British colony. Once slavery was abolished in 1833, ex-slaves throughout the Caribbean sought to celebrate their freedom. They lampooned their former masters through satirical songs and extravagant costumes derived from the clothing of French and British gentry. Instruments made from frying pans and trash can lids eventually became the steel drum, and the music blended the songs of the West African “griots,” travelling musicians, with the Caribbean Creole tradition of teasing “picong” lyrics.
The Notting Hill Carnival isn’t something you can just pop down to; it’s a commitment, it takes stamina. This is probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve been to Carnival, and today I’m coming prepared. I have a street map I’ve marked with the positions of all the sound systems I want to check out, a big bottle of water and a pre-mixed bottle of rum and orange punch. I don’t have a smartphone — I can’t trust myself not to continually check emails and Facebook, and browse websites — so the map is key. I also have 20 pounds in single-pound coins, as all of the food and drink stalls are cash only.
It’s early for a bank holiday, not yet nine o’clock, but even at this time of the morning, the tube is full of people on their way to the party. I’m not really sure which station to get off at. There are four or five possibilities — Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park — but some of them are closed. Opposite me a father and teenage son are decked out in Jamaican flags and wristbands; I ask the dad which station he’s getting off at, and he recommends Royal Oak.
Facing a huge labor shortage after World War Two, the British government invited West Indian immigrants to the U.K. in the late ‘50s. The immigrants — some of whom had served in the armed forces themselves and were often fiercely proud of their Commonwealth identity — were dismayed by the hostility of their reception from the white English. Carnival celebrations were a way to remind themselves of home and to assert their identity. A Trinidad-born journalist, Claudia Jones, organized the precursor for the Notting Hill Carnival with an indoor Caribbean-themed celebration in North London’s St. Pancras town hall in January 1959. The party was a huge success and continued for a number of years. Subsequently in August 1965, Rhaun Laslett, an East Londoner of Russian-Native American extraction, put on a small-scale children’s street party in Notting Hill. A local steel drum band’s impromptu walkabout grew into a parade in subsequent years. The two events merged in 1968, with The Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in All Saints Road as the planning epicentre — and site of the first sound system. Considered a West Indian affair throughout the 1970s, from the early 1980s the event began attracting people of every background from throughout London.
At Royal Oak, there are plenty of people about already. A middle-aged man walks up to two policemen and hands them a used laughing gas canister.
“I found this,” he says.“I wouldn’t worry about it, mate,” the policeman says.
I wander the streets for an hour or so — Portobello Road, Ladbroke Grove, Westbourne Grove. In the late ‘50s, Notting Hill was considered poor. The incoming Caribbean immigrants settled amongst previous Irish and Portuguese arrivees, who soon left, having themselves driven out native Anglo-Saxon Londoners. Seeing the houses now, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to sell them; they’re worth millions. With this post-war influx of West Indian arrivees Notting Hill went from being a shabby, nondescript western suburb to becoming a byword for the danger and exoticism of the newcomers. Racist thugs rampaged through the area in riots in 1958, and for much of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was a battleground for the bewildering variety of youth subcultures in London. Throughout, it was also a neighborhood where ordinary people worked and lived. By the 1980s, rising house prices in London meant Notting Hill was back on the map as an affordable and trendy locale. Now artisan bistros and sailing-wear retailers sit next to Jamaican takeaways and money transfer shops.
The sound systems begin firing up at 12 P.M. This year there are 40 of them dotted around the neighborhood, each specialising in a particular kind of music: soca, reggae, house, drum & bass, hip-hop, ska and soul. Sound systems grew from Jamaicans staging parties in their neighborhoods in the ‘50s, competing with each other to play the latest American R&B singles. Over time, the stereo setups got bigger and louder, indigenous ska and reggae became the music of choice, and sound systems started popping up everywhere with a West Indian population. The systems at Carnival range in size from big to fucking MASSIVE, and they’re all there for free. Some of the bigger ones get themselves sponsored by drinks companies to cover their costs for the weekend, but most are there simply because the owners want to play music.
The dub and reggae sounds go through 20 minutes of testing using sirens and frequency sweeps. The house and soca systems just start playing music. Soca is the modern descendant of the calypso folk music of Trinidad, and it’s the soundtrack to Carnival: a high-energy 2/4 beat, rainbow melodies and sly, winking lyrics. Traditional calypso songs poked fun at the island’s prominent, and there’s still a thread of satirical humor in soca lyrics.
Two of my friends turn up at 1 P.M., and we head over to Clyesdale Road, where the vibe at the King Tubby sound system is superb. King Tubby was a legendary dub and reggae studio engineer. He died in 1989, but his legacy lives on through a number of sound systems bearing his name. Apparently there’s some controversy around the lineage of the version of the King Tubby sound system at today’s Carnival, but when everyone’s smiling and bouncing to Gappy Ranks’ “Heaven in Her Eyes,” it’s hard to give a fuck.
Everyone at Carnival is repping their heritage. I spot Jamaican, Trinidadian, Ghanaian and Nigerian flags all over the place. A few are less familiar. All day I’m asking people with unfamiliar flags what they are: Antigua, Mauritius, Dominica, St. Lucia and Barbados. I don’t see anyone wearing a St. George’s Cross — England’s flag — all day. It’s been co-opted by some pretty unpleasant far-right groups, and it’s a shame. No one wants to turn up to Carnival and be mistaken for a member of the E.D.L. or the National Front.
By 2 P.M., the Rampage sound system on the corner of Colville Gardens and Colville Terrace is a roadblock. Rampage is allegedly the biggest sound system in the entire Carnival. It plays grime, dancehall, hip-hop, house and drum & bass. When we get there, the D.J. is playing some tech-step classics, stuff like Ed Rush and Optical’s “Kerb Crawler.” The atmosphere is wild, unhinged. A staggering number of people are inhaling laughing gas, letting off “culinary gas dispensers” into balloons before sucking them down. The laughing gas thing must be something I’ve missed out on. I feel like I’m a bit too old to get involved. I wonder if the concerned middle-aged man is still scooping up used canisters.
By half-past two, we’re lining the parade route. The parade is loose, super relaxed; people march in it behind floats and alternate between furious dancing, chatting, smoking cigarettes and spliffs, and making phone calls. The only people moving in units are the various groups of drummers. One of them is composed entirely of middle-aged white women. A man on the St. Lucian float has a water pistol filled with rum and douses the crowd with it liberally. The costumes are vibrant; one of the best is a chap dressed as a “duppy,” someone possessed by evil spirits. He’s dancing in a fidgety, mock-distracted air, head swaying. Later, there’s a woman dancing who somehow poses directly for my camera without acknowledging me. She is magisterial.
Carnival is a street party in the truest sense of the word: People party on the street. All around me, partygoers are simply jamming out on the pavement or in the middle of the road. This isn’t some sanitised, roped-off fiesta-by-committee with neatly demarcated sound system areas and transit routes. It’s admirable — and baffling — how the biggest street festival in Europe has still maintained a grassroots air. The music is all run by people who love running sound systems. All the food stalls are independent. Local residents make a few quid by charging for the toilets in their houses.
At 4 P.M. on the corner of Alderson Street and Kensal Road, we’re at bass music king Toddla T’s stage. The system is seriously nasty, the abyssal low end thumping into my chest. When Jamaican soca/dancehall stars RDX step onto the stage, the crowd goes insane. RDX’s signature song is “Jump,” a parping sunbeam of a song. Watching a couple of thousand people obey it is something to remember.
Everyone is fucking hammered. Rum, beer, weed — everyone’s on holiday. People are rolling spliffs next to police officers. By now there’s a thick layer of bottles and rubbish covering the ground. In a thousand years time, there’ll be a substratum of Carnival party debris for archaeologists to puzzle over.
We repair to a pub for a restorative pint before plunging back in. There are only a few hours left before the sound systems shut down. A Costcutter minimart is pumping out g-funk; shirtless lads are dancing in the aisles. Opposite the Costcutter, a man is playing a drum kit made out of a bicycle — or, possibly, it’s a bicycle made out of a drum kit. Either way, it can be assembled into a fully working bike or a fully functional drum kit and he’s playing the shit out of it.
6 P.M. Our final aim for the day is to spend an hour so at the Mangrove sound system on All Saint’s Road. Mangrove was the first system to play at the Carnival, over 60 years ago. It would normally be a three-minute walk from where we are; it takes us 45 minutes to move 200 yards or so. The crowd is so thick at this point that it’s like some kind of meaty human porridge: moving through a crowd who are themselves all trying to move through the crowd.
In this final hour before the sound systems shut down, there’s a kind of jolly frenzy in the air. Everyone is determined to cram as much dancing, drinking and fun as humanly possible into the last part of the day. We’re still a good 500 yards away from Mangrove. Between it and us is a solid mass of people. There’s a drum & bass rig in between us too. We give up and just enjoy what we can hear. Next to me a man is listening to a girl’s detailed explanation as to why she can’t give him her number. He’s having none of it and leans in close, talking directly into her ear. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but after a good five minutes of back-and-forth discussion, she gives him her number.
At 7 P.M., we’re at the top of Tavistock Road, ready to go home, but the street has been temporarily blocked off by the police. People keep arriving as the sound systems close down. One of the mounted police women has a spectacularly ineffective bullhorn. It’s impossible to hear what she’s saying.
These days, no social event in the U.K. is complete without a decent kettling. Kettling is a weirdly in-vogue police tactic for dealing with large crowds by, essentially, keeping them crushed into a tight space and not letting them go anywhere. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it has been in the past, but the mood in the crowd today is fairly British: good-humouredly resigned to this final bit of administrative purgatory, the karmic balance for what’s been a great day.
It’s weird on the tube on the way home. Clearly, plenty of people have not been at Carnival today, but it’s hard for me to process: It seemed like most of London was there — if they weren’t at Carnival, what were they doing? The crowd at the station when I get off is still studded with revellers, sewn through the people like golden thread through a bolt of cloth. There’s soca in my head for the next few days.
Patrick Kilkelly writes about culture, travel and music. A Ph.D. candidate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he reads more about 19th century Korean grain tax reform than is healthy.
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