The Voice Online looks back on the history of Europe’s largest street party in this article by Janelle Oswald.
MILLIONS OF revellers and proud Caribbean island flag bearers have been descending on West London to celebrate Notting Hill Carnival for over five decades.
Famed for the vibrant, flamboyant colours of a wide range of costumes and floats featuring calypso, mas and steel pan bands as well as multiple sound systems booming every type of music imaginable, Notting Hill Carnival (NHC) is a festival for the entire family to enjoy.
The largest European street party and the second major street festival in the world after Brazil’s Rio Carnival, NHC was first staged on August Bank Holiday in 1965 when Rhaune Laslett, a local resident, invited members of various non-white communities in the area to participate in a bid to unify the community.
However, the real birth date of NHC began 54 years ago with Trinidad-born Claudia Jones – dubbed ‘The Mother of Notting Hill Carnival,’ – who started the carnival in 1959 as an attempt to promote racial and cultural harmony in strife torn Notting Hill.
The strife was a direct result of thousands of Caribbean immigrants moving to the ‘Queen’s country’ to rebuild its infrastructure that had been devastated by the Second World War. This led to the build up of cultural and social disharmony among the new settlers and indigenous population.
Consequently, racist working class gangs known as the Teddy Boys, supporters of British fascist leader Oswald Moseley’s Union Movement and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League, led attacks on the Caribbean community, urging disaffected residents to ‘Keep Britain White’. The racist violence peaked on May 17, 1959, with the murder of a young Antiguan man, Kelso Cochrane, who was killed by six white men who have until this day never been charged with his murder.
Creating the slogan, ‘A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom’ in order to reflect the struggle of the Caribbean community in the UK, Jones’ celebrations grew from strength to strength and in popularity each year. Today the two-day festival, which always falls on the last Sunday and Monday of August, still represents a celebration of multi-cultural Britain and has also become an important revenue stream for London’s economy, generating more than £100 million every year.
Like all carnivals around the world, the root to this Caribbean-style carnival got its genesis from slavery and its Catholic European past. The concept of carnival came from followers of the Catholic religion in Italy who started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival just before the first day of Lent.
In the UK, NHC kick-starts with J’ouvert – Saturday night/Sunday morning, which is a non-stop jamming session mixed with oil and mud not suited for the fainthearted. J’ouvert or ‘Jouvay’ is at the heart of Trinidad carnival, and is also celebrated in other Eastern Caribbean islands for more than 200 years. It was taken from the French jour ouvert, meaning day break or morning, and signals the start of the bacchanalia that is carnival.
Highly traditional and full of symbols of culture and heritage, NHC J’ouvert is steeped in the tradition of playing mud mas involving participants known as Jab Jabs covering themselves from head to toe – and others – in paint, chocolate, mud, white powder or anything for that matter. It is customary during J’ouvert that no one is clean, and is an exciting sight to see a newcomer being hugged by muddy revellers.
This messy affair is followed by a spectacular parade dominated by youngsters known as children’s day. Many of the costumes reflected throughout the day are reminiscent of the costumes worn by slaves in the Caribbean.
Carnival traditions also borrow from the African practice of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.
Feathers were frequently used by different African tribes in the Motherland on masks and headdresses as a symbolic metaphor of our ability as humans to rise above problems, pain, heartbreaks, and illness — to travel to another world to be reborn and to grow spiritually. Today, we see feathers being used in numerous ways to create beautiful costumes at NHC.
There would be no carnival without music, which is the heartbeat of NHC. More than 80 performing units and 40 sound systems are on hand to keep the party going. However, critics argue that although the demand for other genres of music is growing, such as reggae, R&B, funk, and house, it is crucial to keep calypso and soca as the main music of the festival.
The origin of Calypso can be traced back to the arrival of the first enslaved Africans brought to work on the sugar plantations of Trinidad. Forbidden to talk to each other, and robbed of all links to family and home, the enslaved Africans would sing to ease their pain. They used calypso, which can be traced back to West African Kaiso, as a means of communication and to mock the slave masters.
The climax of the NHC takes plaon Bank Holiday Monday and is the busiest day of the festival as this day is reserved for the very bravest adults who love loud music, don’t mind immense crowds, and the desperate hunt for the nearest loo!
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