Friday, 12 March 2010

The Notting Hill Carnival - Europe's biggest street party

Think again if the name of the west London district Notting Hill conjures up only thoughts of the 1999 rom-com movie in which floppy-haired bookseller Hugh Grant romanced Hollywood star Julia Roberts. Its focus on the well-heeled, media-types who inhabit the posh terraces of renovated Victorian townhouses and quaint mews all but missed the vibrant heart of what is traditionally one of the most multi-cultural icons in the UK.
Nowhere is the original soul of Notting Hill more apparent than in its annual Carnival – the biggest in Europe – where more than 1 million people regularly whoop it up. Here the Caribbean community, which arrived in the UK in the 1950s, returns to share its sunshine culture with the rest of the world.
The 2010 Notting Hill Carnival takes place on Sunday August 29th and the following Monday, which is a public holiday in England.
The Sunday is just as raucous and colourful with street corner amps pumping out hip-shaking music of all sorts while vying with food stalls for the attention of visitors. But with the focus in the procession on children the streets are slightly less crowded with sightseers.
Monday is the big day. Last year there were nearly 130 floats, about 60 Mas bands of which 10 will be steel bands, thousands parading in Carnival costumes, and around 40 static sound systems.
The very essence of Carnival is found in the competition for the title of Best Mas Band on the Road.
Mas – short for Masquerade – finds its origins in the slave trade when abducted Africans were brought to Trinidad. The slaves – and later the emancipated population – blended the traditions of Africa with the pre-Lenten festivals of the French Catholic colonists to celebrate their roots. What was once an occasion to forget the every day oppression with music and dance – and to satirise the colonists – spread throughout the West Indies and transformed over the generations in to an annual life-affirming celebration.
A Mas band sees 30 or more dancers dressed in costumes consisting of thousands of sequins and feathers and expanses of naked flesh; some are little more than elaborate bikinis others can be towering structures that need several to carry. A truck converted to provide music – either a steel band or a sound system thumping out calypso rhythms or more likely ‘soca’ - accompanies each Mas band. Soca is the dance music, which evolved from calypso with the introduction of a more dominant drumbeat.
It can take more than six hours for the Carnival procession to complete the three-mile route. So there is plenty of time to explore what will be about 300 stalls – most of which selling ethnic food.
The air will be heavy with the aroma of curry goat, jerk chicken, and beef patties. Estimates from previous Carnivals suggest that a ton of chicken curry will be consumed; the same weight in patties and rice and peas. Some 15,000 deep-fried plantains, 30,000 corn on the cobs, and 12,000 mangoes will be devoured.
All this will be washed down with around 5 million hot and cold drinks – and a tide of Jamaican beer and rum.
Carnival came out of the 1958 race riots as an initiative by the Caribbean community to say this is who we are; we want you to understand our culture – and come and join in.
Today there are still areas of deprivation that haven’t yielded to gentrification but 1950s Notting Hill was predominately a district where an impoverished population lived in multi-tenanted sub-standard housing. It was almost inevitable that it would attract immigrants from the West Indies invited to come to Britain by the government of the day to help make good the manpower shortages created by the Second World War.
Growing tension between the white and black communities boiled over in 1958 with mobs of Teddy Boys and other disaffected white youth indiscriminately attacking West Indians and their property in the streets of Notting Hill.
The following year Trinidad-born Claudia Jones earned her title, as ‘Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival’ by helping to organise what was to become an annual indoor celebration. The first Carnival proper took to the streets of Notting Hill in 1964 having outgrown the local halls.
Nearer this year’s event there will be plenty of Internet-based advice for visitors about how to best to enjoy Carnival.
Most of it will be commonsense promoting the wisdom of checking train station and bus route closures; bringing water; taking care of children; and leaving valuables at home. Like any large gathering of people pickpockets are to be guarded against. A disposable camera is probably a sensible investment.
Arrange to meet family and friends outside of the Carnival area and agree on a meeting point just in case you lose each other once inside.
Then all that is required to enjoy a splendid day out is some sunny weather to match the mood of Carnival 2010.

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