Don't stop the carnival: Without calypso and mas, it's only a street party

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The first time I went to the Notting Hill Carnival five years ago I almost cried. It wasn't the fact that I only found one sound system playing a bit of dated soca, nor that the patties almost cost a fiver. No, it was when I actually saw a 'band rounding the corner: seven old people and three children dressed in a few white plastic fringes following a truck playing 'Hot Hot Hot. They were to the true spirit of carnival what Eastern European zoos are to the wildlife of the Congo basin. Pathetic.

As a Trinidadian who lives near Notting Hill Gate, let me explain my disappointment. Carne vale. Latin for 'flight of the 'flesh, hence carnival, a Roman Catholic festival which celebrates a final fling of all things lustful before the 40 days of fasting known as Lent. The two days before Ash Wednesday are when carnivals are held in Catholic countries all over the world - Trinidad and Rio being the most famous.

In Trinidad, after the emancipation of slavery, carnival was also an opportunity to mock former slave owners by dressing up and masquerading in lampooning or frightening costumes. This was known as 'playing mas. More than 150 years later, enthusiasm for this custom is still alive. Well, it's a national obsession.

Trinidadians start saving up for their carnival costumes a year in advance. They stick to 'playing in a particular band (some have up to 2,000 members) with evangelical loyalty and allegiance.

They talk about carnival all year round. And they get ready for carnival at Christmas. When it actually happens, it's as though a massive, national emotional bomb has gone off. 'If every country had a carnival, there would be no such thing as psychotherapy,' claims a friend of mine who plays mas every year.

Carnival Monday morning in downtown Port of Spain gives me goosebumps down the spine. The sun shines, the steel band trucks tune up and people dressed in glitter, feathers and not much else converge in the streets by the thousand. The good time vibe mounts until you think you're going to die. Carnival in Trinidad is a trip. To many Trinidadians it's the most important thing in their world. Which is why homesick Trinidadians who settled in and around Notting Hill Gate in the Fifties started holding their own carnival here in London. Not in freezing February, but in late summer. When it began it was a small, ramshackle affair. But its heart was in the right place, and its pulse, calypso, the backbeat of the parade, was also in the right place. The people who played mas through the streets of Notting Hill back then still had the spirit of mas, the joy of calypso and many past memories of carnival in their blood.

Two or three generations on, the plot seems to have been lost. While I applaud the Carnival Committee which organises the thin parade of floats down Ladbroke Grove and around Notting Hill for their undaunted enthusiasm every year, and the steel band competition on the Saturday night before the carnival, these events are treated like sideshows to the festival when they should be the main events.

Sadly, to most young black West Indians born here, joining a carnival band is a hick custom. They wouldn't be caught dead in a spangled glitter costume. Mas is for the old folks, the children and the few game-for-it white West Indians

studying in London. Still very much in contact with the home country, they have no First World style hang ups. Whereas second and third generation black West Indians born here have become self-conscious. British. Being part of a carnival band, a gaudy, silly procession, is just a bit uncool.

But it's not just the sorry state of the parade which is upsetting. The music of carnival has been lost, too. American rap and Jamaican ragga dominate Notting Hill with bloated, blaring sound systems parked on every corner. But calypso, not rap or ragga, is the music of carnival. Calypso is the tempo that moves the soul, that makes you tap your feet, that lifts your spirits, that carries your troubles away. Calypso is a balm. It's intoxicating. It's sexy and funny. It's carnival.

But again, to many second and third generation black West Indians born here, calypso, too, is considered a bit hick. Provincial even. The old folk like it. While the young prefer the macho gangster rap, black American rap, and the homophobic, sexist rantings of Shabba Ranks and other 'slack artists.

I don't object to this music in general. People can listen to what they like. But I do object to having to listen to this at carnival time.

The umbilical cord between the meaning and spirit of Trinidad's carnival and its removed sons and daughters living in London has been severed. American culture has replaced small town Caribbean culture. Foreseeable and understandable, maybe, but a big pity.

Notting Hill Gate is a large, loud, over crowded street party. Not a carnival.

(Photograph omitted)