Dancing in the streets
This weekend sees the return of London's Notting Hill Carnival. Every August, the spirit of the Caribbean comes to the British capital for a two-day music and dance extravaganza. It is a fleeting immersion into island culture, a heady mix of sights, sounds and smells. The distinctively West Indian strains of calypso ring out throughout the festival and wafts of traditional dishes linger. "Carnival", as it is simply known by locals, has grown into the world's second biggest street festival. Only Rio de Janeiro's is larger. However, its beginnings were much smaller. Following a wave of immigration from the Caribbean to the UK in the 1950s, the first carnival took place in 1964.
Despite the event's prestigious West London address, Notting Hill, in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was an entirely different place at this time. Caribbean immigrants and new arrivals from other communities populated the area. Unfortunately, many were forced to live in relative squalor, paying high rents for rundown housing and facing considerable prejudice on a day-to-day basis. As a reaction to these circumstance - and much as carnivals have arisen throughout history - Notting Hill's event began as a defiant display of resistance and community pride.
Although its first incarnation comprised just one band and 500 people, Carnival now attracts up to one million partygoers over the course of its two-day run. These include thousands of families who will attend today's designated Children's Day and many more adult revellers who will turn out for the main parade tomorrow. "The numbers vary depending on the weather," says the director of the event's organising body, Notting Hill Carnival Ltd, Michael Williams. "Still, the hard-core element comes out in rain or shine."
Certainly, anticipation hangs thick in the air weeks before the event takes place. Combining colourful floats, masquerade and steel-pan-band parades, live musical performances and sound systems, Carnival requires serious preparation on both logistical and creative levels. The floats remain a tightly guarded secret until they are officially unveiled. In that moment, vibrant costumes are proudly exhibited to the swelling crowds, many of them explicit expressions of Caribbean culture and heritage. "When we started out, there were things that we could not get from home," says Lee Woolford Chivers of the Children and Parents Carnival Association. "Now things come in from abroad and we can fly over special parts of the costumes from the West Indies."
Calypso is the original sound of carnival season and can still be heard during the parades. Now, though, this older and more traditional style of music has been largely usurped by soca - a high-octane fusion of calypso melodies and Indian bhangra rhythms that hails from Trinidad and the surrounding islands. The static and mobile sound systems, however, offer much wider variety. A concept imported from Jamaica, the sound system is more than just a physical rig of speakers and turntables. It is a full performance company, comprised of DJs, MCs, engineers and roadies. In fact, far outweighing the draw of live performances, "sounds" are the main attraction for seasoned Notting Hill veterans. From the deep, steppers-style dub of Aba Shanti-I to the soaring Philadelphia soul, disco and R&B played by Norman Jay's Good Times, the event would not be the same without them.
Most importantly, as well as showcasing Caribbean music - from reggae, to lovers rock and dancehall - the way it is meant to be heard (incredibly loud and in a crowd), many younger sound systems also perfectly illustrate the impact that diasporic Caribbean culture has had on the UK capital. From drum and bass to 2step garage and the current sound of funky house, British urban music would barely exist without the influence of the islands.
The origins of Carnival go much further back, though, to the Trinidad of the mid-1800s. As Williams explains: "Carnival was originally a way for Caribbean slaves and, later, ex-slaves to express themselves. Everyone would let loose and have a great time. A lot of the costumes at that time were political statements and enabled the slaves to voice concerns without saying anything too overtly." Since then, carnivals have grown and developed all over the world, but their social and cultural role remains the same: a few days of celebration that give participants a chance to escape from the workaday world and reinforce both personal and community identities.
It is no coincidence, then, that the timing of the London carnival coincides each year with the August bank holiday - a day when British workers are excused from their jobs. In a time of economic hardship, the allure of this year's carnival is also obvious. It's free, fun and an opportunity to forget your troubles for a while. Unfortunately recent years have seen Notting Hill's success marred by pockets of violence and street crime. However, bearing in mind the huge numbers that the event attracts, it is still worth considering these to be isolated incidents p and, despite any negative press, this year's Carnival is bigger than ever. This weekend marks the culmination of a year of planning involving hundreds of grass-roots community organisations engaging over 50,000 young people and adults. The event is profitable, too, generating approximately £100 million (Dh614m) for London's economy.
"It helps to bring our culture to life," says Woolford Chivers. "For me, it's about the children. I focus mainly on their events. They are the next generation and they will disseminate the culture in the future. We want our children, and also children from all over the world, to continue and share in this. The UK is truly cosmopolitan and that is reflected in Carnival. I'm still excited by Carnival. It excites the children and it is a very beautiful thing. I hope that it will continue long into the future."
"Carnival offers a chance for us to be creative and contribute to something wonderful to London," adds Williams. "The message of Carnival is that no matter who you are or what you do, you can join in with the celebrations. Everybody's welcome."