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caribbean carnival

Notting Hill Caribbean Carnival

by Agung Waskito
Translated by Ferdi Zebua

The Caribbean roots

The Notting Hill Carnival is a Caribbean carnival held in England, taking place during the August Bank Holiday, with the largest visitor number in the world among the many similar carnivals spread throughout several cities in America and Europe. This carnival with its Caribbean cultural motive is held each year with differing themes each times. Three other similar festivals with similarly enthusiastic large crowds are the Trinidad & Tobago Carnival (at Trinidad-Tobago in the Caribbeans), the Rio Carnival (at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and the Mardi Gras (in Louisiana, USA), their visitors ranging from 500 thousand to 1,5 million people. This largest carnival in Europe is 50 years old, relatively young compared to her ‘older sisters’ who in general are as old as the formal abolition of slavery, more than 150 years old.

Due to its strong attraction towards visitors, during the last few decades Caribbean Carnivals have become a sort of trend setter for street events in the world. This tendency is connected with how many nations have taken advantage of tourism developments as one of their revenue sources, by presenting their countries’ attractions to the ‘world’.

Among the hundreds of Caribbean carnivals spread throughout America and Europe, some of them are built upon the basis of their local communities. Each participant is involved voluntariy, they have strong local attributes and they have a strong social atmosphere with a spirit stemming from the community. There are also carnivals created by organizations (or sponsors) which emphasize aspects of entertainment, products and more slanted towards commercial aspects and prominently displaying their fashion aspects, for example. The event organizers would try to make the carnival event as festive as possible, with profits going to the organizing body.

The birth and development of Caribbean festivals spread throughout various cities in the Americas and Europe are not with out cause. Their life flows within the path of human history with their cultural and humanitarian problems. Curiosity, the urge to own, and knowledge often drags towards power that shackles humanity. But antagonism is always born in the world, action creates reaction. That which is blocked from flowing would overflow, nothing can stop them in their seeking their way through, like water seeking the bay where they meet the ocean where all currents meet. The place where each element complements without annihilating any other, and enriching uniqueness and variety. Thus the fate of humans carried by the currents of eras meeting up in this small world-the carnival, where all are equal and differences gather into strength to celebrate life.

The Great Migration

The Caribbeans have settled in the UK since the 17th century. But, mass migration really began in 1948, when more than 300 Caribbeans (Jamaicans) were transported to England. The government enacted a policy of accepting migration from commonwealth nations due to a scarcity of unskilled labour needed to reconstruct infrastructural conditions. Because the economy suffered the Great Depression post World War 2, bringing in immigrants was one way to lower the cost of development, by paying cheap wages.

This governmental decision to bring in migrants was not welcomed by parliament members, but only on 1962 (when migrant numbers in England reached 98,000 people) was this policy to bring in migrants was finally repelled.

The Black (and other ‘colored’) people were attracted to coming to England, because they hoped to reach a better life, though they come carrying past memories of bitternes and pain. Moreso they feel that the Caribbean people had helped England during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Fueled with this enthusiasm and good will, they migrated with the hope that the government of the United Kingdom would return the favor of the Caribbean people’s contribution (favors including since times of slavery and colonization).

But once again their fates was once again dragged down by circumstances. Because their arrival in this country, which (they say) is the “Mother Country” of the colonies, the arrival of these newcomers was not welcome and they were not treated well. The memories of slavery it turns out are perceived differently by the two sides.

The presence of fascist attitudes among some English citizens with narrow points of view are part of the reality in living among the English people. But the forming of this friction caused by the arrival of migrants was also something never realized (or considered important) by the Government. The Establishment which include the Government are the parties whose roles (both as individuals and institutionally) have created conditions which hampers the Blacks (and Colored) from living safely and decently in England. Therefore in their new place, they are treated discriminatively in how they receive housing, education, social and health services, wages, and other primary living needs.

And in their social lives too they experience similar things in various public facilities, police action towards black youth, etc. This all happened merely because of differences in skin color, and other factors (like xenophobias). The segregation of skin color in public facilities prove that attitudes of tolerance towards differences and variety was apparently not part of English people’s lives. As a nation, they were ready to exploit, but were incapable of sharing. ‘Keep Britain White’, a statement of propaganda by sir Oswald Mosley to various establishment members and racist groups (such as the Teddy Boy gangs) underlined the attitudes of some of the English. Which is the serious problem of interracial relation,s which continue to this day. From time to time, injustices and terrible treatment towards blacks (and colors) increasingly became threatening, becoming a burden in life and killing hope. And, triggering more active behaviors of harassment and violence (even murder).

In the summer of 1958 the situation in Black (Afro-Caribbean) settlements in Notting Hill (London, Birmingham, and Nottingham) became tense and heated. Violence by the Teddy Boys group in their nigger hunting intensified. Caribbean stores and workplaces were attacked. In the following days the situation worsened, causing distress and fear among the blacks, especially women and children. Dangers threaten to happen at any time in their daily work and community activities. Travelling alone was dangerous, especially at night. Even the Notting Hill neighborhood was no longer safe for its residents.

The riots of that year was strongly believed by many people to be triggered by several attack incidents (between August 24 and 29), where several Black persons and couples were injured by assault. This violent behavior intensified when a crowd of around 400 white people crowded and attacked the Caribbean settlement at Notting Hill. This attack was responded to by local inhabitants, and would only come under control by the police in September 5, 1958. The brutality of these racists brought back memories of English behavior and exploitation in slavery from the past.

In Notting Hill, after the riots, tension intensified in the lives of the Blacks. This was strengthened by police and media statements which surpress the racist motivations behind the riots and the various incidents which followed after. Such as the murder of Kelso Cochran in May 17th, 1959 (which to this day remain unsolved). The rioting several months before and the development of the situation in Notting Hill brought a realization of the fragility of their lives. Because the Blacks could not rely on anyone else within the sensitive and fragile situation in Britain, except on themselves (as individuals and as a community). But the attacks by the Teddy Boys also made them realize, that as a community they can anticipate the upcoming attacks. But what is chilling is how to overcome the bigger life problems of today, and the future? Noone could answer. 

The birth of Caribbean Carnival @ Notting Hill

A few months after the racial riots, on January 1959, in the community of the West Indie Gazette newspaper and humanitarian activists, Claudia Jones with several of her friends discussed the problems of the black community. The discussion reached the topic of carnivals. This idea came from a silly suggestion by one of them. Almost all of them wouldn’t believe that a carnival would be able to change the condition of Blacks in Britain. Luckily Jones understood the essence and character of carnivals in relation to the role and the political-cultural power of the Trinidad Carnival in the Caribbeans. Which is, the ability to anticipate oppression by taking back their identity and personal balance within a condition of antagonistic dualism (master-slave relation). She was sure the alienated people could be united to take back their lives. And to become a strong community, such as the experience of the Caribbean people during the times after they were freed from slavery (1833-1962).

Through the carnival that she knew, Jones understood the meaning of celebrating life as the purification and rehabilitation of the soul of individuals, the people and the environment. The Carnival was viewed as an attempt to break out and overcome life’s problems within a spirit of high enthusiasm. Because within the creation process she formed an effective leadership, various creative work processes, and gave birth to positive and sustained working activities. In addition to bringing back to life confidence, perseverance, and various regenerative mechanisms related to the carnival and community. The atmosphere during carnival preparations also spurred community members to take lead as well as to work cooperatively in giving their best to the wider community and environment (which then lead to multicultarism in Britain). In other words she was able to create new and strong work opportunities, education, and social networks to mobilize the activities of their people which in the end reconnected the circle of life of a community in Notting Hill, and the Afro-Caribbean identity.

Memories and experiences of life in the Carribiean, and the first experience of becoming involved in Carnival within the fragile situation in Britain gave a large hope to the Black community. As if like when someone realizes a seed she had planted is growing naturally. Because the ritual ‘creation’ of this small world in the form of an expressive arena, has a role in pushing forward the overflowing of all passions and problems bottled up within daily life. They were convinced this purification brought benefits towards the reparation of the circle of life. Because this activity was willed by, is owned by and is for the purpose of welfare for all members of their society. As a ‘world’ that they had created in real life, the carnival would become the platform from which they overcome problems and gue towards the life goals of the Blacks. For her role in this carnival, Jones was then named as the “Mother of Notting Hill Carnival.”

Their first carnival was held indoor within the St. Pancras town hall. Jones’ statement, expressed with the theme, “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom,” needed to be proven at that time; do the arts really have the ability to give birth to seeds of freedom and justice for the Black? Does the Carnival have the power to restore life from chaos to order?

The carnival then took place each of the following years until 1964, ending because of Claudia Jones’ death. The Carnival as a political and cultural movement also underwent a stagnation. Up to this year, the Carnival which was called a Mardi Gras had become recognized within the Anglo-Caribbean events calendar. A year later (1965) by chance the carnival activity was continued by Rhaune Laslett at Notting Hill, she was a community activist who was unknown before and had no prior knowledge of Claudia Jones. She had a mission to embrace various ethnic groups which encompassed Ukranian, Spanich, Protugues, irish including Afro-Caribbean. An it was at this stage that the Carnival was first held on the streets in the form of a multicultural English carnival procession. In this first Notting Hill Festival, Laslett invited a Steelpan music group gathering 1000 spectaters and 2 police officers. When the Steelpan played, almost all Caribbeans and White poured onto the streets to enjoy the popular music and dance. For the Black this was the first time they were able to express themselves on the streets of Notting Hill while enjoying music, togetherness and take rememberance of the Carnivals at their birthplace.

But a year later (1966) a new threat appeared, threatening to disband the carnival. At that time a new Black community leadership took over the festival. In 1967, the carnival turned into a ture Caribbean Carnival due to the involvement of people from Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua and Trinidad, who live on the area around Landbroke Grove. This change in the next development displayes even more that the carnival is a source of Caribbean identity, especially the identity of the Black people within the sensitive situation in England. One element which became a trait of the carnival in Carribea is that, everyone is welcome to participate, which also became the motto of Notting Hill Carnival, “Every spectator is a participant – Carnival is for all who dare to participate”.

The contents of Notting Hill Festival

The performance materials of Caribbean carnivals are sourced from the volunteer participation from locals who have their own expertise in their respective fields which consist of: Mas or Masquerade, Steel Pan, Calypso, Soca and Sound System. In general each of these art forms have elements of satire or bedgrudging insults, comedy or humor, irony, seriousness, and also sexuality.

Calypso is considered the mother of Soca, it rises from the rhythmic tradition of Kaiso (from West Africa). It was born in a situation where slaves were absolutely prevented from communicating with one another. The Calypsonians played this music with texts/lyrics which subversively and in an inobvious way criticizes their masters and communicates with their fellow slaves. At the beginning they used simple tools to express their hearts with this music which continues developing and was used in a Canboulay (carnival) in locations safely away from their masters’ observation. The first Calypso music ever recorded in 1912 is an instrumental number from the band Lovey’s Orchestra, and following was the Calypso music with vocals by Duke of Iron who worked together with jules Sims in 1914.

Steelpan was also born because of a ban on using traditional drums, because the Europeans realized their slaves could use their drum playing as a communications tool. Because of that the slaves created the Tamboo Bamboo (a drum made of bamboo), which are a group of bamboo of different lengths which could create certain notes when the bamboos are hit to the ground. This instrument was usually played by youth in the slums of Port of Spain, and played in the Black people’s carnivals.

But then during World War II the Carnival was banned. They tried to replace tamboo bamboo with biscuit tin cans, various used tools and metals including oil drums, with the hope of carrying out a carnival. And unexpectedly, these new oil drum instruments could create nusical notes and would even develop to have quite a wide range of low to high notes. And when they had finally succeded in making all the heights and tuning consistent, they began making an orchestra group for this steelpan, or also often called steel band.

Soca was born during the time when Calypso began to fade in the 40s. It was created by Lord Shorty who at first experimented with Calypso rhythms in combination with Indian rhythmic instruments. This experiment produced an expressive musical combination which he called Solka, which meant ‘soul of calypso.’ And on the following periods this term then transformed into Soca. This music is also played with the band wearing masquerade costumes, which is also called Carnival Mas Band.

Masquerade (or Mas) means mask or disguise, which also includes costumes worn in Caribbean carnival tradition; it is a drama which portrays memories from the slavery era with various characters connected to the traits of evil or clowning, history, culture, life and death. These Mas groups are also accompanied with their band, who also functions to explain the themes presented by Mas.

In addition to all the materials above, usually there are also additional materials which originate from visitors who wish to participate to become carnival participants.

Each of those primary materials have history which connects to the times of slavery and colonization. The main materials have history with strong connections to the resistance of slaves towards their masters.

Until 1974 gradually organizations supporting the carnival began to form, such as the steelband group (now consisting of 20 separate groups), the costume bands and the masquerade bands (which now number 80). Followed by the use of sound systems to attract the attention of youths, who at the time were particular towards Reggae (with Reggae’s sound system). The sound systems also played other music such as Calypso, Hip Hop, Soca, etc. in line with the character of their lyrics and music, social messages hold an important role since the beginning of the Caribbean Festival as a platform to remind the roots of life and to strengthen the cohesion among black Afro-Caribbean. Especially when the youth increacingly became involved with the social troubles and are prone to conflicts with police. 

The carnival, black youth and the end of racialism

In the year 1975 the Notting Hill Carnival became the primary festival (under leadership of Leslie Palmer), and was more popular compared to other programs by Black Londoners for Radio London (by Alex Pascal, who in 1980 lead this festival)

Attempts to ban the carnival again grew and attracted police attention, who increased their vigilance due to the increase in number of black youth attending (which was associated with criminality and violence). Though racial discrimination did not have its legal justification anymore in public spaces after the enactment of the Race Relations Act (’65 and ’68), this problem continue on in the social life of the British people. In the following periods black youth increasingly became police target, and so conflict between the two groups became more frequent. And because of this the carnival committee began to incorporate themselves into an organization (lead by Selwyn Baptiste), who was then known as the Carnival Development Committee (CDC) whose mission is to promote and maintain the carnival.

At the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976, which was attended by over 150,000 people, a riot occurred between the police and the black youth. The Carnival of that year was remembered as an incident full of violence and danger. On several occasions the Home Secretacy made threats to ban the Carnival. And for the time being it appeared the Carnival would be stopped.

But as time passes Prince Charles, among several other influential public figures, gave their support to the Notting Hill Carnival. This action was followed during several yearly moments afterward during other rioths at St Pauls (1980 & 1982), Brixton (1981 & 1985), Toxteth (1981 & 1982), Notting Hill Gate (1982), Handsworth, and Birmingham (2005) for much the same reasons. When tracked back, conflicts within interracial relations tended to dramatically increase (continuously until 2008). But efforts to stop the festival by Government and Police forces (with various argumentations) was successfully deflected by the community and festival sympathizers.

These public incidents of course could not solve all problems of the Black communities in short order, and Black youth have become their own fenomenon for the future of their people, because they increasingly become involved in clashes with police, narcotics, and criminality.

But when seen as a 50 year journey, the struggle of the actors in overcoming the problem of interracial relations, and the presence of their millions of supporters, have proven Claudia Jones’ statement from half a century ago. That through their arts the black could emancipate themselves from fear and inferiority by turning conflict into potential. The Notting Hill Carnival had formed into a carnival which not only belonged to Afro-Caribbeans or Britons but also belonged to the world. Because the Afro-Caribbean people have their roots of identity firmly planted as a community through this festival. And the festival had become like an open home where all can come by.

Their growth now is no longer barricaded by racialism, because millions of supporters who always enjoy this yearly event is a representation of people against injustice and oppression. And now Notting Hill Carnival is preparing itself to welcome the Olympics and Paralympics of 2012, which will attract tourists and will begin a new chapter in Britain’s multiculturalism journey. And of course, the attention of these tourists are due to the socio-cultural rootedness which form the basis of the Notting Hill Festival, not because it was ‘designed’ as a commodity to fulfill a ‘market demand’.

(from various sources)

Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

Author: Agung Waskito (1957-2012)

An Ethno-musicologist and a former Program Head of Sacred Bridge Foundation in which he was active for 13 years, and contributed to various of its action research program.

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