When I first went to the Notting Hill Carnival in London I felt a bit nervous. There were comments in the papers about this huge West London festival’s past reputation for violent crime, riots and racial tension.
Now, having attended three times, I think this massive celebration of London’s West Indian culture is something you must experience.
I danced along with the parade, picking favourite floats and then moving on to find more colour, more music, more excitement. The Red Stripe beer flowed, the whistles were blowing and the August sun shone warmly.
Each subsequent time I’ve attended there has been a bit less freedom of movement, partly because of the sheer numbers and partly because of the metal barriers put up along the route.
But the colour of the elaborate costumes, the passion of the dancers and the sheer exuberance of the atmosphere keep me coming back for more.
The Notting Hill Carnival, which started in 1959, is a celebration of London’s Caribbean or West Indian community. From humble beginnings as a measure to improve Britain’s race relations, it has grown to be the second largest street festival in the world (after the Rio de Janeiro Carnival).
Over a million people pack the narrow streets over the two days and things can get a bit intense. But the police presence is a much more positive one than back in the bad old days and I’ve never felt unsafe, although I do leave before it gets dark.
The music has traditionally been hip-shaking Soca and Calypso music from the West Indies and surely there’s nothing that says ‘Caribbean’ more than the sound of a steel drum band.
But in recent years reggae and dub have come to the fore, and even R&B and House with DJs doing live sets from stages.
I expect there are many residents of Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill who decamp for the August bank holiday weekend but resident participation is an entertaining part of the scene as people hang out their windows and join in the fun.
The Caribbean food – jerk chicken, goat curry, fried plantains and other tasty bites – is always a winner with steaming cauldrons and gallon drum grills presided over by West Indian Mamas. The participants also make sure to get their share of the food:
A photography tip for the Notting Hill Carnival: The best way to get good shots of performers in the carnival without other people’s heads in the foreground is to go to the marshalling area as the parade is starting off.
The performers are pumped and ready to go, full of smiles and there’s plenty of opportunity to move about and get those colourful shots.
The Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to a century of immigration, of cold arrivals and fear on the part of both immigrant and resident.
It’s West Indian poet Derek Walcott’s “colonisation in reverse”. It’s all that’s best of dark and light meeting in London.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to the Notting Hill Carnival in London?