Notting Hill Carnival, 2001

[The text on this page contains some dubious statements and misinformation. If you read any of it, make sure that you read the informed explanation below.]

Notting Hill has had a carnival for years -- since 1964, I believe. It's held on "August bank holiday", not a holiday to celebrate banks but instead the last weekend in August.

I like calypso and reggae, but I'm a boring old "white" guy who's had more than an earful of how north Kensington is overrun by pickpockets, junkies and murderers. (Well of course it is -- it's part of London!) Also, I live rather a long way away. So I hadn't been to the area for decades until I went to the carnival in 2001.

The carnival is a two-day event. In principle, the first is more for kids, the second more for adults. I didn't have to choose, because on the second day I'd arranged to fly to Belgium.

the Law, Notting Hill carnival the Law, Notting Hill carnival

Security concerns first: Yes, the boys in blue are very conspicuous in the carnival. Some seem to be enjoying themselves (one was dancing, to the delight of all), some don't. Mostly they look rather bored. I can't blame them: they've nothing much to do -- stop people from falling in front of trucks, etc. -- until something goes wrong, and they hope nothing will go wrong. Meanwhile, they have to turn a blind nostril to marijuana fumes while continuing to look moderately law-enforcing.

walking to the carnival walking to the carnival

We got to the area early, before most other people. It was nowhere near as crowded as I'd imagined. It did get more crowded later in the day, but the papers the next day said attendance had been lighter than usual.

Unfortunately the weather was . . . well, extremely English, starting cloudy and cool, getting darker and darker, not quite turning into a thunderstorm, and drizzling. If the photos here make it all look a bit drab, remember that this is even after they've been tarted up (having contrast and brightness increased) via software.

So what's the carnival all about then, anyway? Well, one very important ingredient is the sound systems. Here's one:

sound system

Yup, though this was taken in the early afternoon, I needed a flashgun. It was that dark.

The sound system is a monstrously powerful public record player. The DJ can just play the music or he can talk over it. (If that sounds like rap, remember that the idea came to Jamaica well before the US!)

They're loud. How loud? You feel your jeans flapping. You feel it on your ribcage. Turn your back to a powerful sound system and you can still feel it in your ribcage.

Some of the systems were playing interesting music, some were playing synthesizer-generated Caribbean filler (hmm), some were playing synthesizer-generated, non-Caribbean filler (yawn). This doesn't seem to be one of the best periods for Caribbean music -- though Cuba is as productive as ever, and I like some tracks by Lady Saw. I tried not to think about the music and looked at the sound systems. Here's my favorite:

sound system sound system sound system sound system

A lot of businesses are boarded up during the carnival. Still, even they can be colorful:

boarded-up shop

And other businesses flourish:

grog shop selling T-shirts food

In particular, the business of victualling. While a lot of it is rather dodgy-looking barbecue, there were good-looking salady things (see above), and we consumed excellent goat curry.

Of course the most photogenic attraction, and probably the main one, is the parade with its floats. [Er, no. See below] Bad weather and photographic incompetence conspired to prevent me from taking good photos, but perhaps what's below is enough to give you an idea.

The floats themselves are large trucks. If you expect a totally transformed and hidden truck (as in Drop dead gorgeous), you're likely to be disappointed: these trucks still look like trucks.

Notting Hill carnival float Notting Hill carnival float

People occasionally play music on the trucks, dance on them (see the top of this page), or, fueled by Red Stripe, do nothing in particular. The trucks are primarily moving sound systems and advertising hoardings (Western Union and London's Evening Standard are major sponsors).

I don't know why, but I found the sight of trucks moving slowly down the road curiously moving.

Immediately behind the floats are kids in wild costumes.

Notting Hill carnival mas' Notting Hill carnival mas' Notting Hill carnival mas' Notting Hill carnival mas'

The ones you see here are pretty good. Unfortunately they only started up rather late in the day, when it had started to drizzle and the [expletive deleted] batteries of my camera were about to die. Just after the batteries gave up completely, there were some costumes that make what you see above look like business suits. My favorite: a single suit with six skeletons attached.

Following the kids in mas' costume are their parents, brothers and sisters, friends, and just miscellaneous people enjoying the walk and the music.

following a float following a float following a float

radio car

Next time I'm in London, I want to listen to Radio Azariah.

Notting Hill angel wings

It was a carnival day for kids, and they enjoyed it.

Stephen Spark writes:

Just a note on your Notting Hill Carnival 2001 page. As a masquerader myself, I feel strongly that people need to understand what Carnival is all about, so I hope you don't mind me adding a few comments.

The "floats" (ugh!) are not the point of Carnival -- they are just there to carry the music, which, after all, has to be heard a long way back, especially on the Bank Holiday Monday (adults' day, which is a lot busier). When you're in the rear section of a 250-strong mas band, you'll still need to hear that music. In fact, last year, South Connections -- the group I play mas with -- had two trucks, one at the front and one at the back, which really improved things. It's hard to move to your own band's music when all you can hear is the music from the truck belonging to the next band. And when you're spending between 10 and 12 hours on the road, you do need good music to carry you round that 3.5-mile circuit!

In this respect, Caribbean Carnival is quite different from the Rio style, for example, where the floats are the show. But for us, the only way you can play mas is "down the road" . . . on your own two legs. Until relatively recent times that's because the main "engine" of Caribbean (particularly Trinidad) carnival was steelband, and, before that, the iron band and tamboo bamboo and bottle-and-spoon. Hopefully, the true flavour of Carnival should be more obvious this year, as the Notting Hill Carnival Trust is to ban from the route all the purely commercial/promotional trucks and anything not associated with a mas band. So decorating the truck is not really relevant -- we leave that to those dreary municipal parades of council trucks that provincial towns and villages laughingly call "carnivals".

Carnival requires three things:

Without mas, Notting Hill would just be another urban music festival; without music it would be a street demonstration; without movement it would just be a show. Carnival most certainly is not a "street party" (as the press insist on calling it). Anything else -- stalls, static sound systems, stages etc, is part of what should be rightly called "Notting Hill Festival" -- a good thing in itself, but not Carnival.

Really, you can't call carnival a "parade" because in true Carnival there is no division between "spectator" and "performer" -- anyone can cross that artificial line at any time. Remember, nobody gets paid for this . .  "is we ting", as the Notting Hill slogan put it a couple of years ago. Indeed, we not only make the costumes ourselves, but pay between £40 and £100 for them. As masqueraders, we're not putting on a show for anyone (though we do hope we'll impress the judges, of course, cos it's fiercely competitive). It's our self-expression, the day when we reclaim our streets, the one day of the year when all are equal and a dustman can be a king and a king can smear himself in molasses and play "devil mas". If people want to stand and stare, well, that's up to them, but it isn't what Carnival is about. To understand Carnival, you have to be part of it. Trouble is, it's hard to find out how to join a mas band or a steel band. But you can go round the mas camps (where the costumes are made), the panyards (where the steelbands practise) and the fetes (soca dances).

Sadly, in this country, we are very ignorant of even our own traditions and culture, so perhaps it's not surprising that the press reports of Notting Hill Carnival are superficial, ignorant and often prejudiced. Luckily, there is a magazine/website where you can find out more called Soca News and a steelpan magazine called Pan Podium. I'd really recommend checking out both magazines and seeing if you can get to a mas camp and a soca fete, as I'm sure you'll find it makes going to Carnival a lot more interesting and enjoyable. And maybe I'll even see you playing mas down the Grove some day!

Want more? Mark Denton goes to the Carnival every year and has made an excellent photo site. There's also what seems to be an official site; whether official or not, it's very informative and has good photos as well.

Many thanks to Stephen Spark for the essay that he modestly calls "just a note". More comments and corrections are always welcome. Write to me (Peter Evans), or tell the whole world. (Just don't ask me questions: I'm not qualified to answer them.)

Other snaps


First sellotaped together 16 September 2001. Stephen Spark's comment added 19 July 2002. Last fiddled with: 27 August 2002.

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