Notting Hill Carnival 2018 - Through the times | MN2S

Notting Hill Carnival is one of London’s best-loved annual events, drawing over a million attendees to the capital every August for a riotous weekend of music, celebration, and Caribbean culture. Europe’s biggest street festival, it features 50,000 performers and over 30 sound systems, pumping an eclectic array of genres with a focus on reggae, dancehall, and jungle. With the carnival fast approaching this weekend, we’re taking a dive into the fascinating history of the event to see how it’s transformed over the past 50 years into the cultural institution that it is today.

Humble Beginnings

The history of the Notting Hill Carnival is the history of the integration of London’s West Indian community, and an inspiring story of revelry and resistance. Originally intended as an effort to bridge the cultural divide that separated communities following mass immigration from the Caribbean in the 40s and 50s, the event has become not only an emblem of Afro-Caribbean culture but also a symbol of diversity and pluralism, reflecting positively on the capacity of England’s capital to unite so many unique cultures in celebration.

The carnival as we know it today began to take shape in the 1960s, fusing two separate events: a “hippie” festival in Notting Hill aimed at promoting a general sense of cultural unity, and a Caribbean carnival held St. Pancras Town Hall, organised as a reaction to riots and controversy surrounding race relations. The latter event, officially the carnival’s first edition, was organised by Trinidadian Claudia Jones (often referred to as the “mother of Notting Hill Carnival”) and timed to coincide with Trinidad’s most famous carnival. Despite being held indoors, it was a major success, broadcast on television by the BBC and featuring a ‘Carnival Queen’ beauty contest alongside performances from renowned Calypso artists, steel bands, and dance troupes. For the next five years, the Carnival continued to grow, moving between various indoor venues throughout London until finally, it spilled out on to the streets, becoming an outdoor affair in 1965.

“It was our way of saying to the dominant culture, ‘Here we come – look, we here.’”

Trevor Carter, stage manager of the first Carnival event in 1959

Notting Hill Carnival’s Evolution

The story goes that the carnival as we know it today was born when Trinidadian jazz musician Russell Henderson’s steel band was invited to play at a Notting Hill street party and fete, arranged by community activist Rhaune Laslett. At first, Laslett’s event was mostly static, with costumes, floats and an August bank holiday parade – not overtly Caribbean but aimed at fostering a sense of cohesion among immigrant communities. Henderson felt that his performance wasn’t energising the crowds as he’d hoped, so he made a spontaneous decision to walk his steel band to the top of the road and back. Soon enough, he started walking the streets with the band, bringing the crowds with him as he went, forming a procession that toured the area, attracting swathes of revelers along the way. At that moment, the carnival was born.

As the years progressed, word traveled and numbers increased, Laslett decided to hand control of the event over to the people. The event became increasingly popular with the West Indian community, gaining a distinct cultural and political identity that has defined it for decades. The tangled history of the carnival since then has seen dramatic developments – the event became a major festival in 1975 when the organisation of a young teacher, Leslie Palmer, led to sponsorships, an improved and extended route, and the introduction of more steel bands, reggae groups, and sound systems. By 1976, Carnival had reached 150,000 attendees and began to fully inhabit its role as a central pillar of London’s West Indian community.

Riot and Resistance

No history of Notting Hill Carnival would be complete without a mention of the political and social controversies that surround it. A number of years have seen the event marred by riots in which minority communities clashed with police, a result of tense and fractious relations between the two sides that boil over during the lively proceedings. These riots led to a public outcry in 1976, with many calling for the carnival to be stopped altogether. Since it’s inception in 1959, there has been governmental opposition to the event, driven by the desire of some corners of the establishment to quell the cultural resistance that it represented. However, as race relations have improved and British society has grown increasingly tolerant, the carnival has gradually (and rightly) become an essential aspect of London’s unique identity and culture.

50 Years of Carnival

In 2016 the carnival celebrated its Golden Jubilee, attracting over two million people to the capital and enshrining its place as a fixture in the British cultural calendar. Over 50 years, the event has transformed from a modest affair with two steel bands to a breath-taking spectacle featuring jaw-dropping costumes, parade processions, chest-rattling sound systems and an indescribable atmosphere. If you’re attending this year, expect an overwhelming fusion of sights and sounds, with people, food, and music from all corners of the globe. Though there’s a definite focus on reggae, calypso, dancehall and soca, the sound systems dotted around Notting Hill this weekend will also blast jungle, grime, garage and dubstep, tracing a thread of musical influence from past to present that embodies the assimilation of Caribbean culture and identity not only into our society but our music too.

If you’re in London this weekend, get yourself down to Notting Hill. It has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

MN2S artists Salary Boy and Loods are playing the Steel City Dance Discs Carnival Afterparty at a secret London warehouse this Sunday.

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