Friday, August 24, 2007

Carnival and the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The largest street carnival in Europe originated in 1964 as a means for Afro-Caribbean communities to celebrate their own cultures and traditions. Taking place every August Bank Holiday weekend in the streets of London W11, it is a dazzling display of both social solidarity and artistic expression (not forgetting some stunning costumes).

At the roots of Notting Hill are the Caribbean carnivals of the early 19th century – a particularly strong tradition in Trinidad – which were all about celebrating the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. The very first carnival was an attempt to showcase the steel band musicians who played at the Coleherne pub in Earls Court every Sunday. When the bands paraded through Notting Hill, they drew black residents out on to the streets, and the event was enlivened by their reminiscences of the Caribbean homes they had left behind.
In the days of abolition, there was a strong element of parody in the songs and dances Trinidadians performed. Having been forbidden to hold festivals of their own during the period of slavery, they now took full advantage of the relative new freedoms abolition had brought them. Dressing up in costumes that mimicked the European fashions of their former masters, even whitening their faces with flour or donning white masks, they established a tradition that continues in the costume-making of today’s Carnival. The proper name for this aspect of the Carnival is Mas (as in Masquerade).
Mas is just one of the five basic elements of Carnival, the other four being the musical phenomena of Steelpan, Calypso, Soca and Static Sound Systems.

Carnival usually gets under way on the Saturday with the steel band competition. Sunday is Kids’ Day, when the costume prizes are awarded. On Bank Holiday Monday, the main parade takes place. It generally begins on Great Western Road, then wends it way along Chepstow Road, on to Westbourne Grove, and then Ladbroke Grove. In the evening, the floats leave the streets in procession, and people carry on celebrating in the clubs and bars into the night.
Bring a healthy appetite along to Carnival, as there are patties, curries, jerk chicken and fried plantain from the street stalls to go at, accompanied by the essential lubrications – Jamaican Red Stripe beer and rum punch.

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about whether the route ought to be changed so as to safely accommodate the substantial numbers the Carnival attracts. Up to half a million people visit Notting Hill every year for the event, the planning of which takes place over 12 months by a brigade of volunteers known as Carnivalists.
In 2005, a separate event entitled Caribbean Showcase, organised under the auspices of the Greater London Authority, was initiated in Hyde Park. A similar mix of Caribbean musics, cooking, fashion and crafts will be on its annual menu. This has been viewed with great suspicion, however, by the Notting Hill organising committee as an attempt by local government to muscle in on what has always been a community event. Claims of an eventual takeover have been strongly denied by the Mayor’s office.

Notting Hill Carnival 2007

Sunday 26 - Monday 27 August

12pm - 7pm

History of the Notting Hill Carnival - Notting Hill Carnival - Icons of England