Expat Diaries: London Carnival Calling

Expat Diaries: London Carnival Calling

Kiratiana Freelon invaded the London Notting Hill Carnival, discovering British multiculturalism along the way

December 20, 2012


Despite already living in London for three whole months last summer, I decided at the last minute to participate in London’s Notting Hill Carnival. With Carnival just the next day, I headed to a place I knew I could find a Carnival group to join: a Trinidadian party celebrating the Caribbean island’s 50th anniversary of independence.

I found £7 roti and £4 Carib beer, but where were the stands with groups selling Carvinal passes? I decided to make small talk with a man wearing a Kirani James T-shirt (the Olympic Gold Medalist from Grenada).

“Excuse me, I see you like Kirani James. Are you from Grenada?”

“Yes. I grew up there,” he said. “My name is Oliver.”

“Yeah my parents are from Grenada too,” I answered. Oliver’s eyes lit up. “Grenada, Mississippi. It’s a small town north of Jackson and south of Memphis.” Oliver laughed off my corny joke. “So are you doing Carnival, Oliver?”

“Oh yes, I play with a band. You want to play mas?” (“Playing mas” meant dancing through the streets behind a steel band, a soca band or a DJ during the Carnival.)

Of course I did. I just didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg. And I didn’t want wear the standard bikini. I wanted to put on a T-shirt and follow a big truck blasting loud music. A quick call to Oliver’s Carnival bandleader yielded great results—£35 for a T-shirt or £75 for a costume, including food and drink.

Race Riots in Notting Hill

Today, the Notting Hill Carnival is the biggest showcase imaginable for multicultural London. Two million people hit the West London streets for a two-day celebration of everything Caribbean. During the three-day weekend, steel bands follow a circular route on Sunday and Monday. (Sunday is the children’s carnival and Monday is grown-up day.) But how did a Caribbean Carnival end up in Notting Hill? You’d think it’d be in the London neighborhood of Brixton, the unofficial Caribbean capital of the UK.

American travelers make a pilgrimage to Notting Hill to experience the same elements of a quaint London neighborhood featured in its namesake movie—white and pastel stone houses, a weekly Saturday market on Portobello Road, and little shops selling maps and travel books. Unfortunately, the 1999 romantic comedy (starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant) failed to make reference to any of the area’s Caribbean history. It didn’t even include any Black people.

The roots of Notting Hill Carnival go back to its Caribbean community, specifically to a race riot of 1958. While researching a London travel guide, I learned a lot about the community’s multicultural, violent history. In the decade following World War II, Great Britain needed help rebuilding its economy and battered main city. Where’d the country turn for help? Its colonies.

The first large group of Caribbean immigrants arrived in London in 1948 on a ship called Windrush, and thousands more arrived in the coming years. Immigrants from Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, Antigua and Trinidad settled in Notting Hill; Jamaicans settled in Brixton. By 1958 the Notting Hill community consisted of at least 5,000 Caribbeans, most from Trinidad and Barbados. After a riot erupted between white “teddy boys” and Blacks in the area, Trinidadian journalist Claudia Jones launched an indoor carnival to ease racial tensions and promote cultural pride.

London’s First Mas Band

Oliver picked me up on Sunday morning in a black London cab. We arrived at the mas camp on the outskirts of East London on Sunday at 11am. As I walked into the warehouse area, 10 men patched together a sound system on an open 16-wheeler truck. A 20-foot poster of a tall lanky man in an Indian outfit flanked the back of the truck.

“That’s the man who started the band. It was the first mas band in Carnival. He passed away four years ago,” Oliver said.

But where was the band? I realized that my new friend wasn’t a musician in a Carnival band. We were both going to “play mas” in a band.

Lawrence “Stretch” Noel, a Trinidadian immigrant, first introduced costumed Carnival bands to the streets of Notting Hill in 1973. He and his wife Joan, along with friends, made 40 costumes in three weeks in a house in East London. Before, people simply followed steel bands along the Carnival route. Over time, the Notting Hill Carnival turned into the colorful affair that people expect today. Forty masquerade groups participated in the 2012 carnival. His Carnival group, the Trinbago Carnival Club, also introduced the mobile soca sound system.

Soca, Stewed Chicken and BYOB

Oliver’s mas band wasn’t a commercial operation. It was a “family” band. The matriarch collected my money for the T-shirt; her daughter gave it to me. Friends of the family distributed food for the day, a plastic container of stewed chicken. (Monday’s meal was curry chicken). Four dozen other adults and kids wandered around the warehouse. When Roland, head of the Trinbago/Inspirational Arts group, finally arrived, we loaded up a coach and sound truck and made the 30-minute journey from East London to West London.

By the time we arrived at the start of the Carnival route, we were the last mas band. A multicultural steel band passed in front of our truck. To my left, steel bands and soca trucks entered the parade route. I saw a sea of thousands, many carrying the flags of their ancestor’s islands: Trinidad, St. Lucia, Barbados, Grenada.

“Is this really children’s day?” I thought. I’d expected a very tame Carnival on Sunday—one bereft of alcohol and filled with innocent music. Other than the costumed kids in our band, no other kids lined the streets of the carnival.

Entering the parade route, the sound truck started blaring a fast, syncopated music that made everyone jump up and down. As we set out on a five-hour circular journey, I hoped the DJs would throw in some Jamaican dancehall along with the soca. (The only soca song I ever remember hearing on BET or American radio was Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On.”)

After the costumed kids crossed the “stage” and bands passed the judging station, adults relaxed and started to enjoy themselves. Bottles of rum and homemade rum punch emerged from band members’ plastic bags. Did I miss the memo that Carnival was BYOB?

The most popular soca tunes always make reference to wining, a dance in which women (and men) wind their hips, often together, up against the sound truck or on the ground. Taking in the new music and dancing, I tried my best not to look like the only American in the band. That meant wining, drinking, and jumping up and down.

Monday, I repeated it all over again—this time with my own bottle of rum punch, courtesy of Oliver.

Kiratiana Freelon is author of Kiratiana's Travel Guide to Multicultural London: Get Lost and Get Found. Follow her on Twitter @kiratiana.

"Expat Diaries” is a weekly series detailing the varied experiences of Black Americans living abroad. If you’ve ever wanted to pack up and leave the United States to soak up foreign cultures in search of adventure, live vicariously through the “Expat Diaries.” From Paris and Berlin, to South Korea and beyond, “Expat Diaries” dips into worldwide cultures and tells the truth about Blackness all over the world!



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