Carnival: Europe's Biggest Community-led Street Party
I’m excited. It’s a unique feeling I only get midway through a London August. One that isn’t due to walking into airport departures or to the new footy season starting, but instead one of knowing something spectacular & familiar is sitting just over the horizon. Once a year an event takes place that epitomises our city’s vibrant and varied community. It’s an event that is as intimidating as it is welcoming for first-timers and one that will stick in the mind of all that venture to it.
This is Notting Hill Carnival, aka Europe’s biggest street party, and it’s this weekend. With upto 2m people swarming upon north-west London over the bank holiday weekend, it is second in size only to Rio de Janeiro’s infamous bonanza and 11 Glastonburys couldn’t match its enormity.
For those less familiar, Carnival is an annual event held on the last weekend of August led by the British West Indian community to help promote cultural unity. This key celebration of Black British culture grew from a small, indoor ‘Caribbean Carnival’ in 1959 at St Pancras Town Hall organised by Trinidadian Claudia Jones in response to the Notting Hill race riots which occurred the previous year. With it’s roots in 18th century Trinidad Canbouley harvests, the inaugural carnival’s key features still hold true now with Calypso singers, steel bands and dance troupes. Seven years later, during the 1966 London Free School festival organised by Rhaune Laslett, Russell Henderson’s steel band (who had played for Jones in 1959) were performing at a neighbourhood street party and began leading a procession up Portobello Road and back. The modern day Notting Hill Carnival was born. Initially being popularised with live broadcasts on the daily Black Londoners radio show on BBC London, Carnival became the bridge between the city’s increasingly diverse communities that it still is today.
Over the subsequent decades the event grew from strength to strength with more steel pan bands, reggae groups, dancers and towering sound systems being recruited to invigorate the crowds along the extended parade route. Currently the route is 3.5 miles long running from Westbourne Park down towards Notting Hill Gate and looping back up through Ladbroke Grove towards Kensal Rise. If you’re concerned that the crowds will stop you experiencing the parade, don’t be. If you can’t see it (which you usually can) you’ll definitely hear it. The 70 floats (colourful, creeping lorries) house bone-shaking sound systems each followed by a loyal platoon of anywhere from 50 to 300 masquerade dancers. The traditional costumes made up of elaborate sequins & feathers that incorporate every colour imaginable and the dancers, whether on the lorry, street-level or high above the lined streets on stilts, maintaining their rhythm throughout the journey.
The parade lorries aside, there are 40 (!) static sound systems playing a plethora of music - Soca, Calypso, Reggae, Dub, Dancehall, Hip hop, Drum & Bass, House, R&B, Disco, 2-step, Soul, Bassline, Funk - to keep even the most picky of fans’ heads’ nodding and feet moving. The back streets east of Portobello Road filled with the masses trying to navigate their way swiftly between established soundsystems like Channel One, Rap Attack, Aba Shanti-I and Rampage whilst trying to not trip over the Red Stripe cans and Wray & Nephew hip flasks underfoot.
If music is the face of the weekend then food is its soul. There are over 300 sizzling food stalls serving up the finest Jerk chicken, curried goat, corn, the obligatory rice & peas - their combined fragrance filling your nostrils at every turn. The epicentre of these hawker stands is around Acklam Village under the West Way but you’ll just as easily find incredible West Indian flavours being served straight out of people’s houses. The procession itself even incorporates food with a hefty chance of being covered head to toe in melted chocolate on Family Day (Sunday) thanks to the Mas j’ouvert band’s float.
There are so many superlatives to describe Notting Hill carnival that it’s hard to know where to start. However, there are a few stressful elements of your visit that only improve with experience: navigating the simplest route through the crowds, the queues once you’ve managed to find a toilet, phone signal not being even close to existing. And of course the occasional spat occurs (Carnival was almost banned entirely in the mid 70’s following riots between youths and police) but in a crowd of 2m the percentage of trouble is minute and extremely isolated. The 9,000 police on duty usually make a visible effort to contribute to the positive environment with some getting involved in the festivities.
I was a late comer to Carnival, only really starting to embrace it’s magnificence in my early 20’s. Since then, it’s consistently been my favourite weekend of the year combining all the positive sides of London that I value the most. The crowd here is filled with the mix of ages, communities & cultures that make London the global landmark it is and in the current populist climate of preaching division and fear, events like Notting Hill are more vital than ever.
This summer has spoilt us for sunshine, and I’m just hoping that it’ll hold out for next week. Signs are looking good so far but even if the grey skies do fall upon it Carnival will prevail - as shown by the four friends a few years back walking the procession each holding a corner of a gazebo.... What better way to greet the end of Summer and the darker days to come than this incredible feast of culture that fills London's streets with colours, sounds, spices & movement.