History of Carnival

Today I was asked one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer. A question that I have thought about many times in the past but one that always catches me off guard when it is asked.

“Why do you participate in the carnival Miss?”

And the answer to that question… Because I love it.

Didn’t seem so hard did it, but in trying to pinpoint the one precise thing that I love about it is impossible. I’m taken back all the way from the 27 years I am now to the one place and one person I loved more than anything. My grandfather. Samuel Francis Fergus. One man with the quickest tongue and the sweetest Bajan tones that introduced me all that long ago to aspects of my culture that are still wanting to learn more.  Waking up as a young child to the reverberations of Mighty Sparrow, Arrow and the United Sisters through my bedroom wall, trying to keep in time with my grandad tapping his foot to “Long Time” or one of my all-time favourites “Sugar Bum Bum” on the record player. This was my first interaction with Calypso and the still sit in my memory box to this day, keeping their percussion and brass a family secret.

As I’ve gotten older and continue to play mas, it has become about so much more than my love of dressing up in feathers and gems (although I still love this part xD), or wukking up to the sweet sounds of Soca but how much history is present in the roads that I am chipping up and my passion for wanting to keep the traditions of telling a story through your art alive.

Still confused as to what I mean… let me give you a little history lesson.

When the word ‘carnival’ is mentioned, people usually think two things. Rio and Trinidad. And yes, they are two of the biggest modern carnivals but carnival’s roots go way further back than that. Carnival traditionally comes from a Christian celebration that occurs just before Lent. The main events typically occur during February or early March, during the period historically known as Shrovetide (which is when most carnivals fall – especially in Christian countries).  This usually concludes in a public celebration and/or parade and public street party. People would wear masks and costumes during many such celebrations, allowing them to unite with their fellow kinsmen.

Most Caribbean islands celebrate Carnival during this time. The largest is in Trinidad and Tobago. Carnival season usually starts with Trinidad as it is one of the most well-known ones, so instead of running from Jan to Dec, it can run from Feb to Jan. Colloquially known as Trini Carnival, it is an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday . The event is well known for its colours and celebrations.

The Mas tradition in Trinidad started in the late 18th century with French plantation owners organising masquerade balls (mas) to gorge themselves on food and drink before having to fast during Lent. The slaves, who could not take part in these balls, formed their own, parallel celebration called “Canboulay“. Canboulay (from the French cannes brulées, meaning burnt cane) is a precursor to Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, and has played an important role in the development of the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

Canboulay was a night procession with call and response singing, drumming, dancing, stick fighting, and the carrying of lighted torches. This procession drew on African rituals and traditions and was their way to comment on their survival and therefore victory over the slave system. After the liberation of slaves in Trinidad, they went onto claim the island for themselves and transformed the European Mardi Gras celebrations; that the plantation owners had abandoned with the island; into what would become the modern Caribbean Carnival, drawing on the African roots that came over the Atlantic with them. But by the 1850s, Trinidad’s British authorities regarded the Camboulay Carnival as an issue that was causing dangerous tensions in the community. They attempted to ban and then to control the festival. The transformed Caribbean Carnival was eventually forced to restrict the Camboulay to the early darkness at the beginning of the Carnival. The Camboulay became Jouvay (from French ‘Jour ouvert’ – start of the day) which incorporates the “old mas “,“dutty mas”, “jab molassie” and “jab jab” African mas tradition that recounted the hell they went through during slavery and which still opens the Carnival in Trinidad and other Caribbean carnivals today.

As with other Caribbean Carnivals, many participants wear elaborate costumes, often decorated with feathers and sequins. Carnival bands are organised groups made up of participants who pay for costumes fashioned by a designer and assembled by teams of volunteers. The costumed participants dance through the streets to the sounds of a steel band, a soca band or a DJ – the so called “playing mas'”

So how does this link to Notting Hill Carnival?

The Notting Hill Carnival is an annual event that since 1966 has taken place on the streets of Notting Hill each August over two days (the last Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday in August). It is led by members of the British West Indian community and is a significant event in British culture that started as a response to race relations in the UK at the time.

The roots of the Notting Hill Carnival come from two separate events which is why the actual birthdate of the carnival is still uncertain. The first which was named “Caribbean Carnival” was held on 30 January 1959 in St. Pancras Town Hall.

The UK’s first widespread racial attacks (the Notting Hill race riots) had occurred the previous year. The recent immigrants from the West Indies had been met with hostile resistance from white working class “Teddy Boys” which ended with the murder of an Antiguan man and riots that lasted over several nights.

The event that was held in response was held indoors and shown on TV by the BBC, and was organised by the Trinidadian Claudia Jones (often described as “the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”) who used her heritage to bring features of Trinidad carnival to London including steel pannists.

The other important element was a London Free School-inspired festival in Notting Hill that became the first organised outside event in August 1966. The prime mover was Rhaune Laslett, who had not been aware of the indoor event that had occurred when she first raised the idea. This festival was a more diverse and more central to Notting Hill but it still aimed to improve cultural unity. Originally it started out as a street party for neighbourhood children which turned into a carnival procession when Russell Henderson’s steel band (who had played at the earlier Claudia Jones events) decided to play whilst walking along the early Notting Hill route. By 1970, “the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators.

This continued to develop over the next 40 odd years to what we know as Notting Hill Carnival today.

Today’s Notting Hill continues to be an array of feathers and bright colours, people of all ages singing at the top of their voices to the most current soca song straight from the carnival mix that they got from a friend that visited one of the many carnivals across the world. It is bigger than ever with record drawing crowds of millions attending during the August Bank Holiday. And although it is amazing to see so many people enjoying the music and the food, so many have no idea what had to happen before it was able to get to that point, but you are surrounded by a number of people who are united in mas for the same reason that you are, because they appreciate their heritage and culture, and love mas because of what it went through and what it stands for and that is the real reason why I will promote and play mas until I can mas no more. Not just because I love it but because Mas maketh the man (or woman in my case).