Notting Hill Carnival 2014 takes place in London on Sunday August 24 and Monday August 25. Find out all you need to know about the festival here: http://www.thelondonnottinghillcarnival.com/
Religiously taking place on the Sunday and Monday of the August bank holiday weekend, London's Notting Hill Carnival was born as an offshoot of the Trinidad Carnival back in 1964, thanks to Rhaune Laslett and Claudia Jones among others. About 500 people attended that year; now more than 1 million people attend the event annually - the biggest Caribbean street jamboree in Europe.
With four decades plus some years on has the truth of the matter been lost in all the yearly celebrations? Author Ishmahil Blagrove Jr., tells of a remarkable story about the original visionary behind the roots of this now humongous event, with this following extract taken from a new book by him.
The story of the Notting Hill Carnival begins on the post-war backstreets of North Kensington in a community scarred by poverty, social neglect, slum landlords and racial tension. The area was one cursed with acute overcrowding and dilapidated accommodation with no bathrooms, no hot water and, as late as the early 1960s, no electricity.
The desperate labour shortage at the end of the Second World War invited mass immigration to the UK. West Indians arrived in droves, joining the ranks of working-class Britons, Jews, Irish, Greeks and Spaniards in the cramped tenements of Notting Hill. By the late 1950s, Notting Hill and Brixton had the most concentrated population of West Indians in the country.
Militant factions of working-class whites were easily drawn to the bandwagon of the fascist Oswald Mosley, whose "Keep Britain White" slogan exploited their fears and the anti-immigration tendencies of the time, accusing West Indians of taking their jobs, their homes, their women, and of playing loud music until the early hours. The newly arrived migrants encountered colour bars in employment and housing and were inevitably set on a collision course with certain factions of working-class whites.
The Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958, and the racist murder of Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane the following year, marked a climax in racial tension. These events became the catalyst through which activists mobilised in an effort to bridge cultural gaps and ease these tensions. The British Communist Party led protest marches throughout the area, graffiti denouncing racism began to appear on walls, notable public figures such as the chief minister of Jamaica, Norman Manley, visited the area, while others organised public meetings and campaigns. Meanwhile, Claudia Jones, a Brixton-based Trinidadian political activist and editor of the first black weekly newspaper in Britain, the West Indian Gazette, presented the idea of holding a Caribbean carnival to build unity among people by showcasing Caribbean arts and culture.
Jones was a talented and determined woman who fought tirelessly for the human rights of oppressed peoples around the world. A resident in the US since emigrating with her parents from Trinidad, aged nine, she was jailed four times for her activism and membership of the Communist Party, and eventually expelled from America in 1955. The British colonial governor to Trinidad refused her re-entry to the country of her birth, fearing that her presence on the island "may prove troublesome", so she was deported to Britain, where she wasted no time in immersing herself in the politics of the day and helping to mobilise black political action and resistance to racism.
Jones's Caribbean Carnival took place on January 30, 1959, at St Pancras Town Hall and was televised by the BBC. It was held indoors because it had been planned to coincide with the Trinidadian celebration that is traditionally held between January and March (in the week before Lent), but the English weather was too cold at that time of year for the event to be hosted outdoors.
Carnival in Trinidad is traditionally a "jump-up" - a shape-shifting, carefree, open-air bacchanal. Jones's London version, however, by nature of its surroundings and presentation, was a sanitised and somewhat contrived affair.
Champ in town: Muhammad Ali visits the home of carnival founder Rhaune Laslett in 1966 (Pic: Getty Images)
As the editor of the West Indian Gazette, Jones is often credited with having brought the celebration of Caribbean carnival culture to Britain. However credit is also due to many others, among them the Trinidadian husband-and-wife team of Pearl and Edric Connor, who were the booking agents for the artists and organised many of the events. The West Indian Gazette organised other indoor Caribbean Carnival cabarets that were performed at various London venues, including Seymour Hall, Porchester Hall and the Lyceum Ballroom, and continued until 1964, when Jones died prematurely from heart disease at the age of 49.
A footnote on the front cover of the original 1959 souvenir brochure references a connection between that carnival celebration and the Notting Hill riots of the previous year, revealing much about Jones's character and her tenacious pursuit of social equality: "A part of the proceeds [from the sale] of this brochure are to assist the payments of fines of coloured and white youths involved in the Notting Hill events."
While Jones's events proved popular among West Indians, they were in essence indoor cabarets and had no direct influence on the Notting Hill Festival of 1966, out of which the Notting Hill Carnival eventually grew. That festival was the brainchild of social worker Rhaune Laslett, in collaboration with the London Free School, a community action adult education project co-founded by Laslett with photographer and political activist John "Hoppy" Hopkins and an amorphous group of contributors from the local community.
Laslett, born in the East End to a Native American mother and Russian father, was a notable figure in the community of Notting Hill who had adopted a proactive role in healing the racial tensions in the area in the late Fifties. She set up an adventure playground called Shanty Town for children of the area and established a voluntary neighbourhood service that provided free 24-hour legal advice to immigrants, local residents and the homeless.
She said the idea for the festival came to her in a vision - a "hamblecha", as it is known among Native Americans - in which she saw people of all races dancing together in the streets. In a 1989 interview with The Caribbean Times she recalled her dream: "I could see the streets thronged with people in brightly coloured costumes, they were dancing and following bands and they were happy. Some faces I recognised, but most were crowds, men, women, children, black, white, brown, but all laughing."
Laslett consulted her trusted neighbour and respected figure in the community, Guyanese activist Andre Shervington, about how to get the West Indian community to participate in the festival. She also consulted others and was advised to invite a well-known Trinidadian musician named Russell Henderson whose Sunday afternoon jazz gig at the Coleherne pub in Old Brompton Road was popular among West Indians.
Henderson's group consisted of Sterling Betancourt, Vernon "Fellows" Williams, Fitzroy Coleman and Ralph Cherry. There were not many steel-pan players in the country at the time. Henderson, who had also played for Claudia Jones at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959, readily accepted Laslett's invitation to perform at the first Notting Hill street festival. It was the attendance of his band that changed the course of what might otherwise have become a traditional English pageant, albeit with a multicultural theme.
Musicians and members of the London Free School publicised the upcoming carnival by leading small processions along Portobello Road with their saxophones during market day. There was an air of expectation in the community. The objective was to entertain the local children, to lift the spirits of those who lived in poor slum conditions, to ease racial tensions and to demonstrate the spirit of co-operation common to the progressives and activists who lived and operated in the area.
Founder: the idea for the first Notting Hill Festival, held in 1966, came to social worker Rhaune Laslett in a vision (Pic: Mike Laslett O'Brien)
In a 1966 interview with The Grove magazine, edited by Hoppy and published by the London Free School, Laslett said: "We felt that although West Indians, Africans, Irish and many other nationalities all live in a very congested area, there is very little communication between us. If we can infect them with a desire to participate, then this can only have good results."
Laslett's first Carnival featured a cornucopia of participants, all local residents but hailing from many places: India, Ghana, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Cyprus and elsewhere. Performers included Nigerian musician Ginger Johnson and his Afro-Cuban band, Agnes O'Connell and her Irish Girl Pipers and a white New Orleans-style marching band. Horse-drawn carts were borrowed from traders in Portobello Road to make floats and there was even an inter-pub darts match.
When Henderson's group arrived and began playing "pan", West Indians - hearing the familiar sounds from home - flooded the streets. In line with the Trinidad carnival tradition of "making a rounds" (where steel-pan players march in the streets), the group led a procession that wove up Portobello Road towards Notting Hill Gate and back again, gathering new revellers along the way. Henderson had inadvertently put a Caribbean hallmark on the festival and word quickly spread to the other West Indian communities in England about what had taken place.
In successive years, although the carnival was still diverse and eclectic and ran as a week-long Notting Hill Festival, it became progressively more West Indian, and specifically Trinidadian, in flavour. Steel bands such as the Blue Notes led by Pedro Burgess, Les Flambeaux, Bay 57 and Melody Makers came out on the road. Trinidadian costume-maker Ashton Charles began creating traditional "fancy sailor" costumes for children. More and more steel-pan players, performers and West Indians joined in, and the street celebration came to eclipse the spread of events and activities happening at a variety of indoor venues.
The festival also began to take on more militant connotations in response to the pressures that black people and the counter-culture scene were experiencing at the hands of the police and the Establishment. The Black Power movement had spread across the Atlantic and gripped the imagination of the black masses. For some, it became increasingly uncomfortable to have a woman identified as white sitting at the helm of what was by now seen as a distinctly black Caribbean cultural affair.
Rhaune Laslett found her authority being challenged, and her influence and control over the event gradually diminished. She retired from organising the festival in 1970 due to ill health (she died in 2002), amid concerns that violence would erupt because of rising tensions in the black community surrounding numerous police raids on the Mangrove Restaurant, a popular West Indian hangout. She left, dismayed that the festival she had conceived had adopted a confrontational tone that had sidelined her contributions.
Over the years, the dominant Caribbean hallmark and a pervasive ignorance about the carnival's early history has led to many erroneous and conflicting accounts as to who originally "founded" the event. And the contributions of Laslett and the London Free School have become cursory footnotes, thus perpetuating the belief that the Notting Hill Carnival is of uniquely black-Caribbean origin.
This is an edited extract from Carnival - A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival, by Ishmahil Blagrove Jr, published on Saturday by Rice n Peas Publishing, £25 (020 7243 9191, ricenpeas.com).
This year's Notting Hill Carnival runs August 24-25, thenottinghillcarnival.com