Lewis Benn of London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET)

Notting Hill Carnival launches into the past

By Stephen Spark

United Kingdom | Wednesday 27 July 2016: 9:09 BST

The Golden Jubilee edition of London’s spectacular celebration of Caribbean culture was launched on Friday 22 July. There was plenty of history, but not many clues about the future.

This year’s venue was quite a contrast to the elegant surroundings of the St Lucia High Commission used in 2015. The Westway flyover looms over the community spaces of Acklam Road and provides a concrete roof to the food market, theatre, bar and café, but it proved an inspired, informal setting – the perfect place for liming on this warm, sunny evening. Much carnival history has been made on this spot, which one hopes the high commissioners and other VIPs appreciated. Local MP Victoria Borwick – best known for her controversial residents’ questionnaire – appeared to be thoroughly enjoying herself.

Standing in front of a large projection of the NHC 50th anniversary logo, Lewis Benn of London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET) took us back to 1966 when Rhaune Laslett and her colleagues at the London Free School started the Notting Hill Fayre as a little local distraction. “Surely Laslett and pannists like Russell Henderson, Ralph Cherry and Sterling Betancourt would never have believed that the Notting Hill Fayre would still be with us,” Benn remarked. Former carnival organiser Leslie Palmer pointed out that had he not intervened a few weeks before the 1973 carnival, the event might have died there and then.

That was an appropriate moment to remember our carnival pioneers, who did so much to get mas, pan, calypso and soca on the road and to keep it there against all the odds. Inevitably, their numbers are dwindling, and a respectful minute’s silence was held for the memories of Jean Bernard, leader of PATO (Pioneers And Their Offspring), and Arthur Peters, mas man of Cocoyea.

What followed was an impressive historical showcase. St Kitts and Nevis’s finest gentleman of calypso, King Socrates, took us from the proto-carnival of the Ancient Egyptians through the Emancipation Carnival of 1834 and even looked forward to the 200th anniversary in 2034.

A prose-poem on that iconic migrant ship Empire Windrush was delightfully interpreted in dance by Muraldo DC. One of the passengers who alighted from the ship at Tilbury in 1948 was Aldwyn Roberts, better known as calypsonian Lord Kitchener, whose optimistic ‘London is the Place for Me’ must have rung hollow to fellow West Indians struggling against cold and prejudice in the Notting Hill slums.

Rhaune Laslett “believed in the power of the arts”, and when she asked the Russ Henderson (steelpan) trio to take part a staid English parade was transformed into a much livelier Caribbean affair. Laslett’s baby was very nearly strangled at birth, however. The narrator told us that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea gave a grant of £100, but, perhaps mindful of current RBKC Mayor Elizabeth Rutherford sitting in the front row, neglected to mention that in the 1966 the mayor withdrew the grant because the organisers had been infiltrated by “black radicals”.

Funding has always been a challenge for carnival organisers, so maybe they should employ the persuasive menace of Celia Burgess-Macey, reprising her Midnight Robber role from Sunshine International Arts’ 2015 ‘Oil Slick’ presentation. Even more colourful, and far less threatening, were Soca Massive’s masqueraders, playing ‘Pirates’ this year.

Any doubt about the value of Carnival should surely have been dispelled by Ebony Steel Band, playing with fire under the stern gaze of Pepe Francis: it was simply enthralling. In the café area Miss T&T UK delegates paraded briefly (for contest details see www.misstntuk.com/home.html) before the stage was turned over to calypso. Alexander D Great gave us his tribute to Kitchener, ‘Grandmaster’, and joined with Debra Romain for ‘Panwoman on Trial’; King Socrates had written a special, upbeat celebration of NHC’s 50th; Giselle sang of panmen and panwomen in ‘Pan Fever’ and Ms Desire looked as though she meant every word of ‘Girls Jus Wanna Have Fun’. Helena B (‘Soca in Meh Head’) has one of the loveliest voices in UK-based calypso, and she was followed by one of our most engaging and interesting performers, G-String (‘Overdoing It’). Then it was time for some full-blown soca from Triniboi Joocie, starting off with the irresistible ‘Beautiful’ before getting into his fast-tempo number, ‘Doh Run From It’, which got even the most senior members of the audience moving. Finally, Soca Massive played us out with a mix of old and new tracks.

But we never did get to hear what was being planned for Carnival 2016!

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Soca News
February 2017

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Cocoyea Band Launch