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The Roots and Reality of Europe’s Biggest Street Party

John Henry Dale

Paraiso School of Samba Float, 8/28/17. Photo by Stephen Goodchild.
By its 50th anniversary in 2016, The Notting Hill Carnival was considered the largest Afro-Caribbean Carnival in the UK and Europe, with some two million attendees bringing in nearly ninety-three million pounds in tourist revenue to London. Despite its clear economic and cultural contributions, media and police coverage of the event have remained heavily focused on the clashes between carnival goers and police rather than the positive, community-building aspects of the carnival. Four days before this year’s Carnival, for example, the Metropolitan Police tweeted out details of a heroin bust they had made: “In the run up to #NottingHillCarnival, officers have this morning seized what is believed to be a kilo of uncut heroin in #Catford.” Catford is in south-east London. Notting Hill is in west London. The popular Grime artist, Stormzy, hit back at the Metropolitan Police on Twitter himself: “How many drugs did you lot seize in the run up to Glastonbury, or we only doing tweets like this for black events?”

Notting Hill’s history as a central hub of Afro-Caribbean music and culture in the UK began shortly after World War II. Though probably more familiar to most of the world as the safely gentrified, quasi-bohemian backdrop to the 1999 Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts romantic comedy of the same name, Notting Hill in the late 1950s was not the place of quaint bookstores and tourist cafes. Instead, it was a stronghold of white, working class, and often racist neighbors who were increasingly, and sometimes violently, opposed to the burgeoning Afro-Caribbean immigrant enclave forming in their tight-knit community.

On June 22nd 1948, a ship called the Empire Windrush, carrying 492 Jamaicans and Trinidadians (and a few stowaways) arrived at Tilbury Docks, London, where the Thames begins to widen and flow into the English Channel. There were builders, carpenters, an apprentice accountant, farmers, tailors, welders, painters, musicians, mechanics, valets, a calypso singer, and a law student, among others. Many were also ex-Royal Air Force and Navy servicemen who had served England in the war and wished to make a new life in the “motherland.” Their job prospects were aided by a pressing need for workers of all stripes to help England rebuild its railways and its capital city, which had been devastated by repeated German bombing campaigns just a few years before.

By the middle of the 18th century Notting Dale, which immediately borders Notting Hill and is today generally considered part of the same neighborhood, was populated mainly by brickmakers and pig farmers, known colloquially the “Piggeries and Potteries.” Pigs outnumbered humans and the infant mortality rate was over fifty percent. It did not get much better in the next century. “In a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions,” read an article in an 1850 edition of Charles Dickens’s Household Words journal “[Notting Dale] is a plague spot, scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London.” The neighborhood remained largely suburban until it was developed with terraces of stuccoed brick houses backing onto large private garden squares in the mid 19th-century by a law firm and architect representing one of Kensington’s principal landowner, James Weller Ladbroke. As many of these upper and middle-class houses increasingly stopped employing servants in the early 20th century they were eventually partitioned into apartments that fell into disrepair by the 1930’s and 40’s. After being bombed several times during WWII, by the 1950’s the Notting Hill / Notting Dale neighborhood was essentially a slum punctuated with a few bourgeois pockets, but mainly populated with an almost exclusively white lower class of casual and day laborers, factory workers, nurses, rag-and-bone men (junk collectors), bookies, milkmen, housewives, street sweepers and a fair amount of thieves, hustlers and pimps.

Many Afro-Caribbean immigrants in Notting Hill found work rebuilding the neighborhoods in the surrounding area, or in the newly formed public service organizations like the National Health Service and British Rail. But job prospects for non-skilled laborers were slim, and racial discrimination was prevalent. Gangs of Jamaican and Trinidadian street hustlers, pimps and prostitutes began to emerge and stake their claim on street corners that had long been the exclusive domain of whites. Prostitution and pimping had, of course, existed in London since its pre-Roman foundations as a city and certainly existed in Notting Hill prior to 1948. But Afro-Caribbeans in Notting Hill were now starting to make real money doing it, buying fancy clothes, sports cars and chic suits. Some would pool their resources to buy houses that became brothels, informal casinos and shebeens.

Meanwhile, battered by years of war and generations of poverty, much of Notting Hill’s white working class in the same neighborhood could barely afford rent, much less buy a house. Racial discrimination grew throughout the 1950s, and Afro-Caribbean prostitution served as a perfect scapegoat for the not-in-my-backyard racism and xenophobia of Notting Hill’s working class white denizens.

Adding to the tension were fascist, nationalist political groups like Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), and more crudely racist groups like Colin Jordan’s White Defence League (WDL), both of whom had been whipping up racial hostility via political rallies, provocative marching, and propaganda. The WDL would also surreptitiously coordinate and encourage racist gangs like the Teddy Boys to go on so-called “n—– hunts” to create a general atmosphere of fear and paranoia amongst the Afro-Caribbean population.

Racial tensions reached a breaking point on August 29,1958 after a white Swedish woman named Majbritt Morrison was having an argument with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison, a local pimp, at the Latimer Road tube station. A group of white people intervened and small fight broke out between some of Raymond Morrison’s friends and the crowd. A gang of white youths retaliated against Majbritt the next day, calling her slurs and assaulting her with an iron bar. Later that evening, a group of several hundred whites, many from the Teddy Boys gang, attacked the homes of Afro-Caribbean residents of Notting Hill and continued doing so for the next five nights. But the Afro-Caribbean residents held their ground with rocks, fists, knives and molotov cocktails. In all, 140 people were arrested during the next two weeks, of which 72 were white and 36 were black.

The following January of 1959, the Trinidad-born, and US-raised activist and journalist Claudia Jones (née Claudia Vera Cumberbatch) organized the “Caribbean Carnival” at St. Pancras Hall as a Caribbean community-building response to the Notting Hill riots. This indoor musical event was televised on BBC and featured the Boscoe Holder Dance Troupe, jazz guitarist Fitzroy Coleman and singer Cleo Laine, as well as several steel pan bands. This event would be the seed of what would eventually grow into the Notting Hill Carnival.

Despite the success of the 1959 Caribbean Carnival, racial violence continued in Notting Hill and reached another climax with the murder of an Antiguan immigrant carpenter and aspiring law school student named Kelso Cochrane, who was stabbed by a group of white youths with a stiletto knife. His murder led to widespread outcry in the local community and, after Oswald Mosley staged a public meeting on the site of his death, is widely believed to be the catalyst for a marked decline in support for Mosley, whose political ideology was often likened to Nazism. Mosley fared poorly in the United Kingdom’s general election results later that year, garnering just 2,821 out of nearly 28 million votes in total cast nationwide.

After Claudia Jones died in 1964, informal Carnival events were held in 1964 and 1965, but in 1966, the Carnival was launched in earnest as “The London Free School Festival” by another pioneering community activist named Rhaune Laslett. She had envisioned more of a multicultural street party for neighborhood children that would celebrate Notting Hill’s diverse ethnic groups, which now included Ukrainians, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Africans. But when musician Russell Henderson, who had played at the earlier events organized by Claudia Jones, turned his steel band’s performance into a walkabout in the neighborhood, the festival evolved into a street parade attracting nearly 1,000 people.

Over the next decade, the Notting Hill Carnival would continue to grow and began to take on a distinctly pro-Black, Afro-Caribbean, and anti-establishment political tone with a new generation of organizers taking the reigns, like steelpan musician and community activist Selwyn Baptiste, who led the Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband. Predictably the policing of the event became subsequently more repressive. In 1976 tensions between police and carnival goers reached a boiling point and the carnival experienced its first major crackdown after police tried to arrest a pickpocket near Portobello Road on the main carnival route. Several black teens came to the pickpocket’s defense and within minutes the disturbance escalated into a violent brawl. The police were attacked with stones and other projectiles and around 100 officers had to be hospitalized along with about 60 carnival goers. Unfortunately for all, since 1976 there have also been several murders at the carnival:

● 30 August 1987 – Michael Augustine Galvin, 23, stallholder – stabbed.

● 26 August 1991 – Nicholas John Hanscomb, 38, bled to death after being stabbed in the thigh.

● 28 August 2000 – Greg Fitzgerald Watson, 21, stabbed to death after an argument over food.

● 28 August 2000 – Abdul Munam Bhatti, 28; the police treated his attack as racially motivated by a gang of “mainly black males”, as described by a witness. Nine men were sentenced for violent disorder in 2002.

● 30 August 2004 – Lee Christopher Surbaran, 27, was shot by a gang using a machine pistol for “showing disrespect”; in 2005, three men were jailed for life for his murder.

While its main purpose is to celebrate Afro-Caribbean music, dance and Carnival culture in the UK, as a consequence of these violent episodes and the resulting police and media scrutiny, the Carnival, has also come to represent black political resistance against racially-biased policing and media coverage. This year was no different.

Unaware of any of the recent twitter controversy or the Carnival’s historically polarizing dynamic, I had the good fortune to be in London this summer right as the Carnival was taking place. My lodging was at a friend’s apartment in the iconic Trellick Tower, located directly on the Carnival’s parade route on Golborne Road, which afforded a perfect view of the entire Notting Hill neighborhood and the Carnival’s parade route.

As I walked back to Trellick Tower from the tube station the night before the Carnival began, I heard a large crowd with drums in the distance. Several large steel-pan and samba bands lined the street, ready to play before a panel of judges, as thousands of street revelers cheered them on. I walked around the area and managed to film and photograph for a bit, but my movements were restricted by bodies packed tightly into the closed-off street. If this was just the warm-up, I could tell I was in for a very big and loud street party the next day.

Early the next morning, a beautiful and sunny Sunday, I awoke to dancehall beats and basslines with a rapid-fire MC toasting his way through a soundcheck from half a mile away. The music was as loud and clear—through the double-paned glass—as if it were being played from a stereo in the next room.

I sipped my coffee, taking in the view of Kensal Town and Notting Hill from the 18th floor balcony. The smell of jerk chicken and barbecue hung in the air and plumes of grill smoke rose upward throughout the neighborhood, forming a kind of hazy map of the Carnival’s parade route. Several of the stationary sound system stages warmed up their huge stacks of speakers and subs with Dancehall, Soca, Reggae, Afrobeat, Zouk, Soukous, Calypso, Drum and Bass and a wide variety of other traditional and electronic Afro-Caribbean musical sub-genres. As I looked south-east across the tube and rail lines and beyond the A40 Westway I could see the charred shell of Grenfell Tower, a council housing building that recently suffered a grisly fire which killed nearly 80 people. Many of the victims were poor, black or brown immigrants and the Grenfell Action Group had been complaining about the building’s various fire hazards to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for years. It’s hard to imagine a building filled with affluent white or oil-rich Middle Eastern residents would have suffered the same fate and the Grenfell tower stood over this year’s carnival as a sobering reminder that many of the racial, economic and immigrant discrimination issues that sparked the Notting Hill Riots of 1958 were still here in 2017.

After breakfast I looked out at the street below and saw what looked to be at least a couple thousand people in orange shirts marching slowly behind a truck carrying one of the loudest sound systems I’d heard all morning. The DJ was blasting some jumped up Soca Bass music with an MC hyping the crowd into a late-morning sweat. This was easily the largest sound system and crew I’d seen yet so decided to join in and livestream it on Global Locos, the DJ show I host at my studio in Miami Beach.

Leaving Trellick Tower, I took a left turn to catch up with this massive troupe of dancers and revelers and, as the march progressed down Westbourne Park Road, I started to see more people with chocolate brown stains on their shirts. While pondering the contents of this mystery liquid, a mixture of what smelled like cocoa powder and water rained down on my own shirt. As I turned around to film some dancers I read the lettering on the front of their orange t-shirts and to see this crew is called “Chocolate Nation Mas.” Fitting.

Originally a Carnival Band or “mas band” is a costume band rather than a musical band; a group of people wear costumes to go “masquerading”. Individuals are part of a mas band, that usually follows a truck, which provides food and refreshments for the marchers.

As I got closer to the sound system truck, the volume of the music reached just below the threshold of pain. It reminded me of a similar experience I had watching the legendary Vai Vai samba school practice in the streets of São Paulo in 2004: the cacophany of percussion induced in me a near-hallucinatory state where it became difficult to separate my own cognition from the sound around me. I became the percussion. Marching behind this sound system truck stacked with generators, speakers and massive subwoofers, surrounded by dancing, shouting carnivalians I felt that familiar sensation return. I became the bass.

After the crew passed the tube station I decided to take a break and check out some of the stationary sound systems located throughout the neighborhood. Mangrove/Volcano Sound with its roots in Trinidad, is one of the original Notting Hill sound systems and their steel pan band was one of the best I’d seen all weekend. I then headed to King Tubby’s Sound System, which was being livestreamed by Boiler Room and featured mainly roots and modern reggae, ragga drum and bass, and dancehall dubplates. At every stage I visited people seemed to be genuinely enjoying the musical moment.

I’ve been to plenty of urban music festivals and navigated my share of large and sometimes unruly street crowds in America. Growing up in Washington DC I would periodically attend a neighborhood festival, Adams Morgan Day, that might be considered Notting Hill Carnival’s closest equivalent in America. But in terms of crowd size, square mileage, and sheer musical volume level, the two simply don’t compare.

I’m aware there have been serious – even deadly – incidents of violence that have occurred in past years here at the Carnival and that I am admittedly a first-time Notting Hill Carnival-goer focused mainly on the positive aspects of what, for some, is an historically fraught event. And to be fair, trying to maintain a balance of safety and festivity while policing a two-day outdoor event with nearly two million attendees in the current threat environment of pop concert and tube station bombings is no easy feat for London’s Metropolitan Police. They deserve credit for doing their best to provide a safe place for massive crowds to enjoy a weekend of music and culture. As they know all too well, it only takes one or two sociopaths to ruin the fun for everyone.

But for me the Notting Hill Carnival was good vibes only. After spending a day marching, live streaming, dancing, eating, drinking and listening to extremely loud Afro-Caribbean music in the streets of one of London’s most ethnically diverse communities, it became clear that the founding visions of both Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett were still very much imbued in this event. It was both a multicultural street party and a politically charged celebration of the Afro-Caribbean carnival tradition. In a political environment increasingly reliant on racism and xenophobia as wedge issues, urban street carnivals like this that bring diverse communities together are more necessary than ever. Music and dance are essential human cultural signifiers and people need a stress-release from the 24-hour negative news cycles and algorithmically manufactured social media outrage. If the preceding warnings from Carnival detractors were to be believed I should have been constantly on alert for hooligans, pickpockets, random street violence or worse. But the reality of my experience was a rare feeling of complete contentment in witnessing an historic celebration of Afro-Caribbean music and dance culture while being periodically doused with chocolate water, paint and colored powder bombs, marching along in a sweaty crush of 2,000 party people I’ve never met.

John Henry Dale is a Miami Beach-based musician, producer and resident artist at ArtCenter South Florida. He is the Music Editor for The Miami Rail.