5th Biannual Steelpan Conference
University of East London
Cass School of Education
11th - 12th October 2014
“Many tributaries make a mighty river”. We must therefore celebrate and acknowledge all the
Known and unknown contributors who have helped to establish the Notting Hill Carnival in
Britain. With over 50 years of history there are many moments and individuals to celebrate
and much to analyse.
Establishing the Caribbean Carnival in Britain is a great achievement against fearsome odds.
In spite of the raw aggression, racism, scheming and non-cooperation of the British
authorities, what has been achieved at Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s largest festival of
Notting Hill Carnival is an established part of a global Caribbean Carnival diaspora with an
annual cycle of carnivals which span from North America, the Caribbean to Europe and as far
as the Seychelles and Japan.
Like all Caribbean Carnivals Notting Hill carnival has within it opposing cultural forces the
Camboulay v Mardi Gras traditions.
The Caribbean Carnival culture was brought to Britain during the migration of Caribbean
peoples after World War 2. It was carried in the, heart, minds and blood of those from all over
the Caribbean. As my father John La Rose stated “We did not come alive in Britain”. Many
Caribbean people, known then as “West Indians “, were workers in the NHS, British Rail and
London Transport but they were also musicians, masqueraders, folk dancers, carnival
designers and calypsonians. They made a deep impact on Britain with their vibrant culture,
music, dress style, language and food.
But what is the story of over 50 years of the Notting Hill Carnival?
The Caribbean Carnival in Britain was born as a direct response to the August 1958 Notting
the White Defence League incited gangs of young white “Teddy Boys” to roam the area in
their thousands to attack mixed race couples and black people in the streets chanting “Let’s
lynch the niggers!”. The police did not intervene.
The Caribbean peoples, whatever island they came from, organised united and attacked the
racists with force. One of the leaders of these fierce Caribbean fighters was Baron Baker.
They attacked with Molotov cocktails, knives, stones, cutlass and ambush. They defeated the
racist gangs and then the police intervened and arrested the defenders.
Racial tension continued to be high in the area and in May 1959 an Antiguan carpenter and
law student Kelso Cochrane was murdered by white youths on Southam Street off Golbourne
Road. Thousands of black and white people turned out for Kelso Cochrane’s funeral it was the
start of a fledgling anti-racist movement in Britain. His racial murder remains unsolved. The
book “Beyond the Mother Country; The Notting Hill white riots” by Edward Pilkington is a
good account of all these events.
Claudia Jones the editor of the newspaper “West Indian Gazette and Afro Asian News”, was a
Trinidadian cultural and political activist deported from the USA. In direct response to these
events she established a committee to put on the “West Indian Gazette Caribbean
Carnival” at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959. She understood the unifying power of the
Caribbean Carnival and wanted to establish carnival in Britain as a showcase for the art and
talent of Caribbean people. Although there had been attempts to have parades in Powis
Square in Notting Hill before, these were indoor carnivals as it was too cold in Britain between
January and March, the traditional pre-Lenten Carnival season.
In the following 6 years the “West Indian Gazette CaribbeanCarnivals” were a fabulous
success. They moved from St Pancras Town Hall, Seymour Hall and other venues in West
London. The Carnivals were packed and filmed by the BBC. MPs attended along with High
Commissioners; there was a mas competition, steel bands, calypsonians like the Mighty
Sparrow and other performers. Claudia Jones famously wrote in the Carnival brochure “A
peoples art is the genesis of their freedom”. Claudia Jones died of chronic heart disease in
Christmas 1964. There was no indoor carnival in 1965. On the 50th anniversary of Claudia
Jones death, Savannah View as part of the African Odysseys programme at the British Film
Institute (BFI), screened the film “Looking for ClaudiaJones” directed by Nia Reynolds in
celebration of a great woman and leader.
Another woman entered the story of carnival in Britain. Rhaune Laslett or Miss Las was an
English social worker committed to the welfare of immigrants in the North Kensington slum of
Notting Hill. The novels “Lonely Londoners” by Samuel Selvon and “Absolute Beginners”
by Colin MacInnes capture the essence of this lively, poverty-stricken area in this period. The
district had a reputation for being home to predatory landlords preying on a large immigrant
community of Spanish, Irish and Caribbean residents. It was also the base of radical,
alternative groups and communes like the London Free School, an advice centre at 34
Tavistock Crescent and the Notting Hill Peoples Association who campaigned to get private
parks in the Colville area unlocked for use by everyone.
With her numerous Caribbean friends and clients it is hard to believe that Miss Las had not
known about Claudia Jones’ Caribbean Carnival. But Rhaune Laslett’s Notting Hill Carnival
was not initially the Caribbean Carnival of Claudia Jones, although the festival had similar
aims. The first Notting Hill Carnival wanted to recall the “Peoples’ fayres and pageants” of
the early history of the Notting Hill area.
The first Notting Hill Carnival in 1965 was an outdoor parade through the streets on August
bank holiday Monday. It was a multicultural festival electrified by Russell Henderson’s steel
band combo who played regularly at the Colherne pub in Earl’s Court. There was also a Nell
Guinn costume, Ginger Johnson’s African Messengers band and a inter- pub darts match. It
was later transformed into the Caribbean Carnival we know today. There was no clear vision
for the Notting Hill Carnival at this point. The local radical groups involved with its organisation
renamed the festival as the Peoples Free Carnival for a short time.
It was not until the early 1970s that a recognisable Caribbean Carnival emerged under a new
Caribbean leadership of Granville Pryce, Selwyn Baptiste, Junior Telfer and Merle Major
amongst others. Later in 1973 Leslie “Teacher” Palmer stepped in to a crisis when there was
no Notting Hill Carnival organiser. With the help of Anthony Perry of the North Kensington
Amenity Trust who were responsible for developing the land under the Flyover and Granville
Pryce, Leslie Palmer galvanised everyone. He had a plan and vision.
He introduced local 3 music bands and Reggae sound systems in to Notting Hill Carnival
to attract British born blackyouth.
Although masquerade bands had been in Carnival since Ashton Charles’ fancy sailor
band in 1969, they had not lasted long. Leslie Palmer convinced Lawrence Noel, Mack
Copeland and Peter Minshall to bring out mas bands. Notting Hill Carnival now became a
Caribbean Carnival and national festival with 15,000 attending. Pioneer Soca sounds like Lord
Sam, and Shadow Hi Fi also played in the bays under the Flyover.
But success brings problems ......
By the mid 1970s Notting Hill carnival was attracting the attention of the police and local white
residents’ associations who wanted the festival banned. 1975 saw threats of a court injunction
and a huge petition against carnival displayed by Commander Patterson of the Metropolitan
Police. But this was just a prelude the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976 saw police invade the
carnival area with ten times more police than any previous year. Inevitably a riot broke out.
The police were routed by the black youth. The Metropolitan Police have never forgiven the
Notting Hill Carnival for this crushing defeat. It is strange how history repeats itself, in Trinidad
in 1881 the Camboulay Riots established the carnival in Trinidad forever after attempts by
the colonial authorities attempted to stop it.
There were calls for Notting Hill Carnival to be banned by the Home Secretary and the press.
The carnival leadership, a new organisation called the Carnival Development Committee
CDC, which elected Selwyn Baptiste as director Darcus Howe chair and Larry Forde secretary
produced the publication “The Road Make to Walk on Carnival Day; The struggle for the
West Indian Carnival in Britain” a powerful mandate for the existence of the Notting Hill
Carnival. The CDC was successful in keeping Notting Hill Carnival on the streets.
Notting Hill Carnival was still financially independent in this period. Its income came from stall
holders’ fees, regular Sunday fetes at the Tabernacle inPowis Square, the home of the
Carnival, with music by steel bands on rotation and sounds like China Funk, Black Patch and
Peoples War Sound System. The majority of the income for the carnival came from the annual
Carnival Gala at the Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street. But this financial
independence was taken away by the locking out at the Tabernacle and refusal to allow the
CDC to book the Commonwealth Institute. At the same time the Home Office formed and
funded a rival committee the Carnival Arts Committee CAC which undermined unity and
forever divided the carnival community. It was divide-and-conquer tactics.
Stability and progress returns..... for a short while
In the 1980s Alex Pascal was the chair of the CAC. He had a new vision for the carnival and
received support and new funding from the progressive Greater London Council (GLC) lead
by Ken Livingstone. The leaders of all political parties sent greetings to the Notting Hill
Carnival through the Carnival magazine every year. Alex Pascal founded the “Foundation of
European Carnival Cities” organisation and led the national “Caribbean Focus 86” festival.
But the police under future commissioner Paul Condon continued to attack the carnival. The
Metropolitan Police demanded a seat on the carnival organising committee along with the
Home Office and an 8pm shut down of carnival.
The CAC leadership refused.
1988 saw a vitriolic smear campaign in the press unleashed on the non-compliant CAC as well as a
The CAC leadership refused.
1988 saw a vitriolic smear campaign in the press unleashed on the non-compliant CAC as well as a
massive police drug raid on the Mangrove Association on All Saints Road to arrest Frank
Critchlow a leading community activist. The CAC’s records and documents were taken away
by the police and the City accountants Coopers and Lybrand wrote a scathing report on the
CAC’s competence. Not a single charge was ever proved. But the damage had been done.
Claire Holder took over from the now disgraced CAC leadership and disbanded the
organisation and formed the Carnival Enterprise Committee CEC which was more pro
business and pro police. The 1989 carnival saw the emboldened police try to interfere with the 4
parade of the carnival bands. The carnival community responded strongly and formed the
APC Association for a Peoples Carnival to resist the plans of the CEC, the local councils
and police. The APC also had an educational remit and published a newsletter.
This was the period of “Orangina”, “Lilt” and then “Virgin Atlantic Notting Hill Carnival”
rebranding. But these short term sponsorships saw no financial gain for the carnival bands or
the development of the carnival itself. During this commercialisation period the income from
the stalls was transferred to Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and
Westminster Council. Even the Notting Hill Carnival magazine was franchised to the Evening
Standard newspaper the long time enemy of the Carnival. This was the period of
commercialisation and big business with no benefit to the carnival or its constituents the
Blueprint for the future
The blueprint for the style of Carnival leadership established by Claire Holder continued from
then to the modern period. There have been many carnival organisers. I want to describe this
style of carnival leadership. Typically there would be:
a) Demands for new controls or regulations from the authorities to the carnival organisers
every year. There would be demands for earlier Carnival finishing times or sterile areas
or road closures or change of routes.
b) The authorities still view Notting Hill Carnival as a public order situation. This would
be backed up by changes in procedures or health and safety regulations or laws
engineered to apply to Notting Hill Carnival.
c) The carnival organisers would then secretly agree to these demands without going
back to consult the Carnival community or bands they are supposed to represent. The
carnival organisers have been relegated to a “rubber stamp” to legitimise the
oppressive plans of the authorities. The carnival organisers are no longer accountable
transparent or democratic.
d) It is then publicly announced by the authorities that there will be new arrangements at
Notting Hill Carnival this year.
The most precious commodity for Carnival bands at Notting Hill Carnival is a pass to allow the
bands and their vehicles to enter their own festival. There can be no spontaneous last minute
mas or music bands formed. Without a pass you are lost. Control and regulation is paramount
at Notting Hill carnival.
This continuing aggressive model of tightly controlling and keeping Notting Hill Carnival
underdeveloped continues. There is police swamping, a critical media looking for crime figures
and uncooperative obstructive local councils along with underfunding of the carnival bands.
This has shaped the Notting Hill Carnival we have today. This includes the effect on the art of
Carnival with repetitive “bikini mas” and more “fun bands” producing less creative mas
through pressures of commercialism and underfunding. After 50 years we must review; Where
we came from. Where we are going and what we must improve.
But yet Mahogany’s mas was used at the opening of UEFA European Football Championship
at Wembley in 1996. Notting Hill Carnival mas bands were part of the Millennium celebrations
and mas bands chipped down the Mall during the Queen's Jubilee . Notting Hill Carnival was
even held up as an example of London’s diversity during the bid for the Olympics in 2012. The
double standards of the British authorities towards Notting Hill Carnival is breathtaking. The
Caribbean Carnival in Britain is kept underdeveloped and repressed while the money
generated is absorbed greedily by London.
Carnival culture is a culture of resistance and survival
Yet mas bands, steel bands still parade the streets and 1 to 2 million people still turn up every
year for Notting Hill Carnival. The spirit of resistance is still flickering. The Notting Hill Carnival
has produced unique carnival mas, mas designers and mas makers like, Vernon “Fellows”
Wiliams, Clary Salandy, Rock Byron, Ashton Charles, Lincoln Rahamut, Michael “Speedy”
Ramdeen, Nikki Lyons, Larry Forde, Lawrence Noel, Carl Gabriel, Arthur Peters, Errol
Romilly, Leslee Wills to name a few. But the Caribbean Carnival we have struggled for over 50
years to establish may be unrecognisable in 10 years time.
Those of us who love Notting Hill Carnival and want it to survive must support a strategy for
getting a percentage of the millions of pounds made out of the carnival by shopkeepers, stall
holders fees, Transport For London the Hotels and many other sources. There must be an
economic strategy for a financially independent carnival. The Carnival needs money to
develop the festival, pay for permanent pan yards and mas camps, erecting temporary seated
viewing stands and hire vehicles for the road. One of the pressing issues is the disgrace of the
Panorama and the production of an event that respects pan and the pan lovers who loyally
turn up. We need a Panorama to be proud of. The creative elements of Notting Hill Carnival
are being starved of funds but we cannot be solely dependent on the funders. A financially
independent Notting Hill Carnival is a must.
We must build and support Caribbean Carnival institutions like the Carnival Village and Yaa
Centre. They must develop into an artistic, intellectual and educational resource for the
Notting Hill Carnival and the Caribbean Carnival in Britain.
We have to support and develop democratic accountable and effective organisations for mas,
steel bands, sounds and calypsonians/soca artistes in associations like British Association
of Steel bands (BAS), Association of British Calypsonians (ABC), Caribbean Music
Association the Soca Sounds (CMA) and the mas association Carnival Arts & Mas
We must record our own history. Carnival bands have to record the story and history of their
arts organisations. Independent British film makers, our new griots, have to be encouraged
and supported like Optiks Hamilton who produced “Carnival Ah We Ting”, Nia Reynolds
“Looking for Claudia Jones” Stephen Rudder “ Sequins , Soca and Sweat; The hidden
heart of Notting Hill Carnival “ , Keith Morton “Panamundo” and Wyn Baptiste “The story
of Selwyn Baptiste”. We must also publicise and screen the iconic and culturally powerful
“King Carnival” by Horace Ove for new generations.
Education is crucial for the development of the Caribbean Carnival in Britain. We come from a
specific, deeply rich art and festival tradition. Conferences like this Bi-annual Steel Pan
conference are crucial. As Savannah View I organise an annual two day festival of film about
Carnival culture with the BFI and Carnival Village. I was also honoured to contribute to an
important book that came out this year about Notting Hill Carnival edited by Ishmael Blagrove
“Carnival; A photographic and testimonial history of the Notting Hill Carnival”.
Education and research must be our major tool.
The Notting Hill Carnival is an example of cultural resistance for over 50 years. In the panel
discussion at the BFI in August people clearly outlined the need for new struggles for financial
independence and for accountable and democratic carnival organisations that must work to
progress and develop the carnival, its art, its music and its future. Looming battles to resist the
pressures from gentrification are on the horizon. This will also require political mobilisation of
MPs and councillors, online petitions and campaigns to change the current arrangements we
find at Notting Hill Carnival. Without struggle there is no progress.
I want now to call the names of some of those who have passed but have contributed much to
establishing the Caribbean Carnival in Britain for over 50 years.
To inspire us I want to call on their names:
Claudia Jones., Kelso Cochrane, Rhaune Laslett, Andre Shervington, Edric and Pearl Connor,
Chris Le Maitre, Granville Pryce, Selwyn Baptiste, Ethnia Smith, Johnno Roberts, Vivian
Comma the “Golden Cockerel”, Frank Critchlow, Carlton “Zigilee” Constantine, Merle Major,
Philmore “Boots” Davidson, Biggs Yearwood, Randolph “Bull Bull” Baptiste, “Rock” Byron ,
Allan “Capitan” Thornhill,, David Roussel-Milner, Wayne Berkley, Tony Cumberbatch, Shadow
the mas man , Hugo Learmond, Vernon “Fellows” Williams, the calypsonian Peace & Love,
Larry Forde, Lawrence Noel, Geraldine Connor-Crawford and all those unnamed and
unknown who have made a contribution to Notting Hill carnival.
We stand on the shoulders of giants.
We, must now stand up for we culture.
Author and researcher, Director of Savannah View, designer and band leader Peoples
War Carnival Band (1982 1998), vice chair CDC (1978-1980) founder APC (1989)
© Michael La Rose October 2014