Soca News spoke to Matthew Phillip, executive director of event organiser Notting Hill Carnival Limited (NHCL) to find out what we can expect on the road and beyond. Evolution rather than revolution sums up the changes for Notting Hill Carnival this year.
The Calypso Monarch contest takes place on Thursday 22 August, with the reigning monarch, De Admiral, facing stiff competition from a variety of UK-based calypsonians. The organiser, originally known as ABC and then ACUK, has undergone yet another name change and is now called the Association of Calypsonians and Soca Artistes (ACASA), formally bringing Calypso’s younger brother into the fold.
One disappointing development has been the further shrinkage of the London Calypso Tent’s season, as funding couldn’t stretch to more than four events this year. As a result, the popular Last Night of the Tent (People’s Choice competition) on Carnival Friday was axed.
This follows a long period of relative decline after the loss some years ago of the important Junior Calypso Monarch contest and its exchange programme with the Trinidad & Tobago juniors. Audiences have been dwindling and the only ‘outreach’ is through the efforts of individual calypsonians. The one bright spot is that the quality of the calypsos has remained impressively high, and the ABC Band and the Divettes provide superb musical and vocal support to the performers.
Relations between NHCL and ACASA are clearly strained to the extent that neither side really trusts the other. The calypsonians’ organisation accuses the carnival organiser of cutting its funding, while NHCL complains that ACASA has made no effort to raise its own funds.
Wherever the truth lies in this argument, we can only hope that after Carnival both sides ditch the foolish factionalism and adopt a more constructive approach. The calypsonians need to work together with other agencies to assure the music’s future in Britain. ACASA clearly needs to be reinvigorated with fresh blood and must make more effort to promote calypso nationwide and to attract independent sources of funding.
Panorama remains in the park at Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance, Kensal Road, on Saturday evening, but the layout has been slightly revised. The bands will be placed towards the back of the park, closer to the Red Bull music stage. Instead of a single seating stand for VIPs, media etc, there will be two stands, one either side of the performance area. Apart from the judges’ table placed dead centre, there should be nothing to obstruct the audience’s view of the bands. From the sketch plan SN saw, there does not appear to be any provision for a large screen, however.
Once again, people attending Panorama will be able to vote for their favourite bands in the online People’s Choice competition. Matthew said that consideration is being given to keeping voting open into Sunday. Next year, bands will be judged in separate size categories.
There will be a new name on the roster this year: Tottenham’s Pan Nation Steel Orchestra, playing Iron Love. Founded 10 years ago, Pan Nation has a performance side of more than 30 players (although 100 are listed for Panorama) and is based in Somerset Road, between Seven Sisters and Bruce Grove. The manager/arranger is Chris Storey and the captain is Maisha Adams-Amalemba.
Other bands competing are Croydon Steel Orchestra (Savannah Grass), Ebony Steelband (Trouble in the Morning), last year’s winners Mangrove Steelband (Savannah Grass), Metronomes SO (So Long) and Phase One SO (Savannah Grass).
Until 23 August, tickets are priced at £10 (more on the day) and are available from eventbrite, NHCL (email@example.com/panorama) and at The Tabernacle, 35 Powis Square. Gates open at 6pm and the competition is meant to start at 7pm. If you haven’t bought an advance ticket, get to Kensal Road well before the gates open – latecomers were left disappointed last year. Ticket receipts are shared among the competing steelbands, so you have the satisfaction of knowing your money is truly supporting the music. Food and drink will be available from stalls surrounding the park as usual.
The sound and fury of a few years ago seems to have died down somewhat and few reports have reached SN Towers of blood being spilled, chairs being thrown or reputations being trashed. Which makes a change! Perhaps age has mellowed or enfeebled some of the diehards, while the others are more focused on making money.
Either way, few significant changes have been introduced this year except at the judging point in Great Western Road, where there’s a slightly different layout of stands. After passing over the railway bridge, the first stand you’ll see on your left is for VIPs. The second is for the judges and will be identified with a large banner – several masqueraders told SN last year that it was hard to know who was sitting where. Matthew countered that this was deliberate, to avoid bands ‘showboating’ in front of the judges and causing delays. That, though, can be addressed with proper briefing of bands beforehand and strict stage management, as older masqueraders will remember from the Westbourne Grove stage. Nevertheless, there will be more robust stewarding in front of the judges, Matthew promises, and stricter segregation of masqueraders (directed to the left) and followers (shunted off to the right). Beyond the judges will be stands for elderly residents, community representatives etc.
Judges will sit at four tables, assessing mas (CAMF + NHCL), soca on the move (CMA), steelpan (BAS) and, for the first time, the overall presentation of Brazilian bands (though their costumes will still be judged by the mas judges). This recognises the ever-growing importance of the Brazilian carnival style within Notting Hill Carnival. In recent times, the Brazilian samba schools have been noticeably more vigorous in promoting their culture compared with the mas bands from the Caribbean tradition. Media analysis over many years has shown an increasing visual focus on samba dancers in preference to other masqueraders. This is largely because the frontline samba dancers present themselves as performers, who pose for the camera; masqueraders, on the other hand, largely play mas for their own pleasure and can be more challenging to capture in a well-composed image.
The Powis Square stage will operate on both days, and will include a slot for ACASA’s calypsonians. At the far end of the little park, Innocent will be handing out free smoothies and children can try their hand at mas making with a family carnival arts workshop. Glitter and face-painting will also be available.
Once again, the whole of Notting Hill Carnival is asked to fall silent at 3pm for 72 seconds on both Sunday and Monday, to remember the 72 residents who lost their lives in 2017’s terrible fire at Grenfell Tower.
In a statement, Phillip said: “We ask that everyone who is attending this year’s Carnival comes in solidarity and to come in a spirit of peace, love and unity and respect the silence and take time to remember.”
This year it couldn’t be easier. All sound systems, mas trucks and live stages will simultaneously tune in to radio station The Beat London 103.6FM (www.thebeat1036.com/), which will play a pre-recorded message from actor and NHC Ambassador Colin Salmon to co-ordinate the announcement and silence. The official Notting Hill Carnival app will also send a push notification to its users as a reminder of each day’s silence. There’s no excuse for any DJ, music truck or static sound to show disrespect by playing on – a second of silence is a small price to pay for each life lost.
There’s some good news on those most elusive of carnival facilities. Last year, there were one-third more units than in 2017, and this year the numbers have been increased again, though not so dramatically. Mas bands at Woodfield Road will be mightily relieved that at last they’ll have toilets at this entry point. For the first time ever, more robust toilets are being made specifically for Notting Hill Carnival and won’t be used for any other event. But will we ever see a bespoke toilet for costumed masqueraders? Don’t hold your breath…
Can Carnival ever be sustainable? We can be pretty sure that neither Claudia Jones nor Rhaune Laslett ever had to ask themselves that question in the 1960s, but it’s a burning topic today, particularly as Glastonbury and other festivals loudly proclaim their environment-friendly status. As Matthew points out, however, it’s easier to control people’s behaviour in a closed festival environment than at a carnival on public roads – all you can do is appeal to revellers’ better nature.
Nevertheless, for the first time there will be five free water bars on Kensington Park Road to encourage you to bring your own bottle. The dispensers look like petrol pumps, but we’re assured they’ll be filling you up with top quality Thames water. Having them all in one place is disappointing, but apparently traders in other locations objected that they wouldn’t be able to sell a 50p bottle of Evian for £3 if people could fill up for free.
The lighting towers at Panorama will be battery-powered, but plans for the judging point to be powered by hydrogen aren’t likely to happen until next year. Electric trucks may be five years away, Matthew reckons, but when they arrive they’ll be greeted with a sigh of relief from participants and onlookers.
Matthew made the point that mas bands and steelbands have been pioneers in recycling scrap materials – notably the old oil drums that were fashioned by steelpan pioneers into instruments for the first steelbands. Mas bands and music trucks using recycled materials include Red Bull, Mangrove Kids and Sunshine International Arts. SiA’s 2019 band will be “100% upcycled”, leader Ray Mahabir claims, “showcasing costumes from 2007‑2018 that have been reworked, redesigned and rejuvenated using fully recycled materials” ‑ much like this article, in fact!
- For more details of this year’s Notting Hill Carnival, merchandise, Panorama tickets and the Notting Hill Carnival app, see NHCL’s website, https://nhcarnival.org