Notting Hill Carnival Monday. Photograph: Kola Grafix

The hall was hot and steamy and reverberating to the sound of steelpan. Round the sides, stalls offered cold beers, rum punch, doubles and patties, and in the garden moko jumbies strutted their stuff as more pan played. Mas glittered from the gallery and powerful but enigmatic African masks dominated the stage.

Every year, the media are invited to a press launch for Notting Hill Carnival. Venues have ranged from the glamorous (Kensington Roof Gardens) to the gritty (under the Westway flyover) and the exceedingly modest (a small, stuffy upstairs room in an obscure side street). This year’s choice of The Tabernacle marked a return to the roots of London’s carnival.

That was very much the vision set out by Matthew Phillip, executive director of Notting Hill Carnival Limited, which was appointed earlier this year to run Notting Hill Carnival. NHCL is an offshoot of Carnival Village Trust (CVT), which runs both The Tabernacle and the Yaa Centre and therefore has a track record that ought to give confidence to the majority of carnivalists.

Mangrove supplied the pan outside in the garden, Alan Vaughan the moko jumbies and Croydon’s youthful Endurance Steel Band brought the sound of steel into the hall. The mas was designed by Melissa Simon-Hartman, the wire sculptures by (who else?) Carl Gabriel, and Maurisa Coleman infused life into Melissa’s mas with a solo dance display. A tight-packed mass of journalists provided the crowd listening intently to Phillip as he outlined the changes we could expect for Carnival 2018.

Naturally, there’s yet another new website (www.nhcarnival.org) and a new app (available from Apple Store, http://bit.ly/iOS_NHC, and Google Play, http://bit.ly/android_NHC). Although no radical upheavals are planned for the August bank holiday programme, there are some significant developments.

Brown Sugar – Calypso Monarch Finals, Tabernacle, 25 Aug 2016. Photograph: Stephen Spark

Calypso and steelpan

It all kicks off, as usual, with ACUK’s Calypso Monarch contest on Thursday 23 August and the People’s Choice contest at the London Calypso Tent on Friday, both at The Tabernacle. Panorama retains its traditional Saturday evening spot at Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance, but, in response to complaints that the steelbands have been all but invisible to the crowd, the layout has been changed. Matthew Phillip told Soca News: “This will give spectators a much better view from the park’s natural amphitheatre.” There will even be a small invitation-only grandstand so the pioneers can enjoy the UK’s premier steelbands in their full glory. What’s more, the app will allow the audience to vote at Panorama, so for the first time we’ll be able to see whether the crowd agrees with the judges.

Early-risers and all-night fete-goers will once again be making for the Sainsbury’s (Canal Way) roundabout at the top end of Ladbroke Grove at 6am on Carnival Sunday for the paint and powder mayhem of Jouvert. It would be good if the revellers’ dedication and enthusiasm were to be rewarded with more steelband participation this year.

Mahogany – NHC Children’s Day, 25 Aug 2016. Photograph: Stephen Spark

Children’s Day

Notting Hill Carnival’s official opening takes place at the Great Western Road judging point at 10am. We can only hope that better management and more self-discipline will keep this event to its allotted half-hour this year rather than allowing it to overrun and delay the whole parade as occurred in 2017. Phillip told SN that spectators will be allowed back into Great Western Road (on the right-hand side, opposite the judges’ stand) – a recognition that “there’s been no atmosphere there for years”. This part of the route will be more strictly managed to avoid certain bands ‘grandstanding’ to the judges and holding up the thousands of masqueraders behind them. “We want to keep everything flowing – Carnival’s about movement,” he emphasised.

“This year we will return the Sunday to the children,” promises NHCL on its website. We’ve heard it before, but Matthew Phillip seemed sincere when he announced that there will be several new children’s bands on the road and pledged, “The children’s bands will be prioritised.” The challenge will be to keep the kids’ bands apart from the large and loud adult dutty mas and T-shirt bands. It’s anticipated the young masqueraders will start moving off from the northern part of the circuit between 10am and 11.30 – though they won’t be rushed out early, he reassured us. Meanwhile, at the southern end of Ladbroke Grove, the mud will start flying as the dutty mas bands hit the road. Hopefully, there will be at least a mile and a couple of hours or so between these two aspects of Carnival.

On Sunday, the Association of Calypsonians UK has a three-hour programme at the popular Powis Square stage to present the best of UK calypso, along with performances by guest calypsonians from Trinidad. This being Children’s Day, the stage will also showcase the talent of local youngsters. Phillip promised that there will be a “nicer infrastructure” at and around the stage (regular rubbish clearance would be good…). Alternatively, head over to Horniman’s Pleasance to hear what’s going down on the Red Bull Stage. The following day it transforms into the ‘Wilf Walker Community Stage’ and turns the spotlight on Notting Hill’s homegrown artistes.

Bacchanalia Mas, NHC Carnival Monday. Photograph: Peter Hogan

Carnival Monday

However, the main action is on the route on Monday, when (as the website puts it), it’s “time to free up and just revel in the joy that is Carnival!” The bands will be hoping the new organisation and the police can together deliver more efficient route management, without the long hold-ups that have become a feature of playing mas in Notting Hill in recent years. As on Sunday, much will depend on ‘firm but fair’ management of the area in front of the judges. Phillip made the point that, without a costume gala, the judging point on Carnival Day is the only opportunity bands have to present their mas ‘artistically’. Many in the mas community feel that the return of some form of costume show should be a priority within the next year or two.

NHCL has pledged to recruit stewards from the local community to work with the established stewarding contractor, McKenzie Arnold. This is a welcome response to serious concerns expressed about the lack of local knowledge shown last year by many of the stewards, who had clearly been recruited en masse from elsewhere. Carnival participants will be hoping that stewards do not all vanish from the streets at 5pm but actually stay to help them through the most challenging part of the evening when the route becomes very crowded.

An interesting innovation is a tie-up with green energy company Ecotricity, which will be powering CVT’s two buildings this year. There are plans to introduce electric vehicles to Notting Hill Carnival in the future, which should spare revellers’ lungs from noxious fumes (except those they choose to inhale, of course!).

Competition changes

There will be changes to the judging this year. In addition to the competitions run by the individual associations – ACUK (calypso), BAS (steelbands), BASS (static sounds), CAMF (mas) and CMA (soca on the move) – NHCL will be judging bands using “streamlined” criteria, which should be easier to understand than the numerous sub-categories of size and type used in the past. A new Brazilian category will replace the old ‘samba’ category – Phillip pointed out that not all costume groups in the South American tradition are samba bands. (Whether they are all ‘Brazilian’ is another contentious point – wait for the howls of outrage from Colombians!)

Competition results will be officially announced at an awards ceremony on Saturday 15 September, Phillip revealed. However, he acknowledged that there would be publicity value in releasing names and photographs of mas and pan winners to the media. This would provide a ‘good news’ story for Notting Hill Carnival to help counteract the often negative news agenda put out by the police.

Mangrove Steel Band, Notting Hill Carnival Launch 2018. Photograph: Peter Hogan
Mangrove Steel Band, Notting HIll Carnival Launch 2018. Photograph: Peter Hogan

The media and the message

Thankfully, NHCL appears to have a more enlightened approach than its predecessors had towards the media. Compared with previous years, when the press launch guest list was often packed with friends of board members, there were significant numbers of actual journalists at this year’s launch. Accredited journalists and photographers covering Carnival will be able to use a media centre at The Tabernacle, where there will be wi-fi, information, refreshments, a place to relax and – possibly most welcome of all – toilets. The initiative means that, for the first time, media workers have a real incentive to report direct from Notting Hill Carnival, instead of sitting in the office compiling stories from unreliable police press releases.

Phillip ended by thanking financial supporters and stakeholders such as Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster and Brent councils, Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police Service, London Ambulance Service, London Fire Brigade and also carnivalists and local residents.

Windrush within us

The launch event continued with a video of carnivalists in the mas camp and panyard talking from the heart about what Carnival means to them. Scenes of revelry on the road were accompanied by Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. No, it wasn’t soca, but the soundtrack worked beautifully with the uplifting images. It was another encouraging sign that some of the old, clichéd thought processes are being ditched in favour of something more sophisticated. It was appropriate, too: Satchmo’s iconic track was recorded in 1967, just a year after Rhaune Laslett and her London Free School colleagues set Notting Hill Carnival in motion.

Tabernacle youngsters movingly recited a poem about the Empire Windrush and then launched enthusiastically into a dance routine. This was their own take on the London Carnival experience, which they’d based on a remix of Bunji Garlin’s stirring Carnival anthem ‘Differentology’ and recorded at The Tabernacle. Triggered by the disgraceful UK government Windrush Scandal, the children were inspired to carry out a research project into the migrants who came to Britain on the troop transport ship HMT Empire Windrush 70 years ago. Get down to Great Western Road on Carnival Sunday morning to watch their performance at the opening ceremony.

Representing the other end of the age scale, calypsonian Tobago Crusoe sang Miss Tourist (composed by Windrush passenger Lord Kitchener), garnering some audience participation, which continued as the sound system played soca classics from the ‘golden era’ of the 1980s.

Overall, this was a very positive and encouraging launch for Notting Hill Carnival under its new management. The changes are relatively small ones, but all seem to be sensible and achievable. For those who have been complaining that Notting Hill Carnival has increasingly become divorced from its roots, NHCL’s focus on ‘localism’ and on children is a move in the right direction.