The story of the Notting Hill Carnival
With its colourful street parades, renowned sound systems and endless street dancing, Notting Hill Carnival is the biggest street party of Europe and the highlight of the August bank holiday weekend.
The joyful celebration has a meaningful purpose that is not always appreciated. Indeed, why does it have to take place in the streets of Notting Hill? Why the need for impersonation?
The yearly event that takes to the streets of Notting Hill is deeply rooted in Caribbean traditions. Its significance to the communities that have settled in the West London areas in the 1950s explains its longevity.
A carnival that was created amid racist tensions
After the Second World War, workers and ex-servicemen from Trinidad, Jamaica, St Lucia and other Caribbean islands were invited to come to the United Kingdom to help rebuild the economy and replete the labour shortages.
The most notable event was the arrival of close to 500 workers from the Caribbean on the SS Empire Windrush, in 1948. This generation of workers is now known as the Windrush generation.
Many of these workers found a home in Notting Hill and North Kensington, a then deprived area, which was also home to a struggling white working class. Conditions were difficult, and soon, social and racial tensions started rising. The tension culminated in the 1958 race riots, where effectively it was white against black. The efforts to bridge the cultural gap between the communities gave life to the Notting Hill Carnival.
The parade was started as a remedy; it was a way to bring people together. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist, was central to organising the first event. (Liverpool, 2003, p.10)
Carnival: an ancient tradition
The roots of carnival lay both in Europe and Africa.
In Africa, the art of masquerade is at the centre of the African celebrations, initiation rites, and harvest festivals.
In Europe, Christian communities have celebrated Carnival from Christmas until Ash Wednesday since the Middle-Ages.
In the Caribbean, throughout the colonisation era, the Christian Carnival tradition was brought from Europe and celebrated by the white bourgeoisie whilst the oppressed Africans conducted their own clandestine celebrations.
From their emancipation in 1834, newly "liberated" plantation workers took control of the streets and regained their freedom, both physical and mental, by celebrating carnival. Stevens, (2011, p.65)
It exploded as a representation of the freedom gained and the oppressors' loss of absolute control. (Stevens, 2011, p. 65). The Afro-Caribbean people usurped the streets and gained control of the previously white-exclusive activities, modifying them and adding new dimensions loyal to the African and slave cultures (Hebdige, 1987, p. 35).
Carnival: a catharsis
The celebration of carnival is the epitome of excess and impersonation.
Participants set aside their everyday individuality and experience, and they indulge in excessive celebrations.
This catharsis is a necessary step to experience rebirth, rejuvenation and revival. The participants wear masks and elaborate costumes that transform them into spirits, beasts or ancestral beings, and, in doing so, they set aside their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity (Bakhtin, 1984).
How did the Notting Hill Carnival evolve throughout the years?
The first version of the carnival took place on 30 January 1959, at St Pancras Town Hall, just five months after the 1958 riots.
The carnival was then held annually and eventually taken outdoors, under the influence of Rhaune Laslett, a notable figure in the Notting Hill community. (Liverpool, 2003, p.12)
Laslett’s vision was to bring all the communities together. She invited renowned Caribbean jazz musician and steel pan player, Russ Henderson, to perform with his group, the Henderson’s (of which Vernon ‘Fellows’ Williams was a member). As years went by, the festival retained its Caribbean essence and became influenced by the Carnival of Trinidad; carnival costume makers, such as notorious Peter Minshall, were early creators of masquerades in Notting Hill. (Liverpool, 2003, p.18).
Today, Notting Hill Carnival is famous as the largest street party in Europe, with 2 million visitors each year.
On Carnival Sunday, it showcases a children’s parade and also J’ouvert and Fun Mas. The latter are cathartic street events that characterise the excesses and impersonations of carnival.
Revellers participating in the Fun Mas throw paint, powder or even chocolate at one another.
On Carnival Monday, over 70 masquerades parade on the streets. On both days, watchers and revellers come from all over the world to listen to sound systems, steel pan orchestras and immerse themselves in this fantastic, liberating atmosphere.
Racial and social tensions are no more. What is being celebrated now is history. It is the victory of successful integration, and the popularity of the event is testimony to this.
There is something for everyone at the Notting Hill Carnival, including music, food, arts and dance. Russ Henderson would be astounded and, surely, delighted about its continued success.
Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rabelais and his world. (trans. H. Iswolsky). Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Blackgrove, J. R. (2014) Carnival a photographic and testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival. London, Ricenpeas.
Hebdige. (1987) Cut w' mix: Culture, identity and Caribbean music. London, Methuen.
Liverpool. (2003) Rituals of power and rebellion. Research Associate School Times Publications. 1965
Stevens, (2011) Carnival: Fighting oppression with celebration [Online]. The University of Western Ontario/ Available at http: //ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1108&context=totem (Accessed 15 February 2020).
Voon, (2016) A photographic survey of Africa’s enduring masquerade traditions [Online]. Available at https://hyperallergic.com/289233/a-photographic-survey-of-africas-enduring-masquerade-traditions/ Accessed 15 February 2020.
Notting Hill Carnival Masquerade bands