Revellers test the healing power of carnival

A Slice of Britain: With Notting Hill just a week away, London's Caribbean community turns out for a smaller, but no less vibrant, celebration
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The Independent Online

Carnival masks and headdresses sit on the ground waiting for their respective wearers; plumes of pink feathers lie spread out on the floor next to teenagers who practise dance moves. The spectacle before me looks like the world's largest art class.

"I just wanted to come here and send a message," said 26-year-old Stephanie Antoine, as she daubs glitter on to a large banner. "Because of the riots, we need to be positive. Some people will be going to prison, but when they come out, we want to say that life isn't over. Anything can happen, you just need to be positive."

This is Calo (Caribbean-London), a pan-Caribbean carnival camped in the heart of middle-class, north London suburbia. Although the cavernous Alexandra Palace, which hosts the three-day festival of music, dance, food and entertainment, engulfs the performers, there are probably several hundred people here.

The din of a sound-checking drummer punctuates the children's chatter. But as well as the evident buzz, there is a slight edge to the atmosphere as thoughts quickly turn to next week's Notting Hill Carnival.

Since the riots and civil unrest began earlier this month, only a mile or so from Calo's base, there has been much speculation as to whether one of the largest street festivals in the world, which brings an estimated one million people on to the streets of west London, should go ahead. Over the past week, opinion has fallen into two camps: those who want to see the carnival cancelled (perhaps permanently) and those who think it is an important cultural event and that giving up would mean giving in to the rioters.

The plan is to go for what is hoped will be a peaceful compromise: the carnival will go ahead but will finish early, at 7pm, and extra police officers will be present. "We totally encourage the earlier start and finish of the event," said a Met Police spokesman. "Notting Hill Carnival is an important event in the capital's calendar and we support it going ahead this year. Troublemakers are not welcome."

Organisers at Calo, which will be at Notting Hill, admit to being apprehensive. "I am slightly more concerned this year," says Ruthven Roberts, the artistic director of Notting Hill Mas Bands Association. "You have to be prepared and alert. But the curfew is necessary. Things tend to kick-off after dark. People in costumes are vulnerable."

With roots stretching back to 1959, the Notting Hill Carnival has taken place every year since 1964 and contributes almost £100m to the economy. But in the past 20 years five people have been killed and disturbances, costing taxpayers around £6m annually, have marred the event. This year is perhaps the closest it has come to being cancelled.

"Notting Hill Carnival is just like a game of football: it is well policed, well controlled and well understood by police," says Shabaka Thompson, the chief executive of Carnival Village, who shrugs off the curfew. "The curfew has been on our doorstep for years now. Last year the police wanted us to finish at 6.30. But we've always resisted it – Notting Hill is not just a Caribbean carnival – it's a testament to London."

As the Calo participants claim their headdresses, the huge plumes become animated and this festival comes to life. "Calo gives people who don't want to go to Notting Hill a chance to see what creativity is about. Carnival is about creativity and about healing," Mr Thompson says. "This is about letting off steam – in a positive way."