Two million to join in double celebration at Notting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival parade participants (Alamy Stock Photo)
Notting Hill Carnival parade participants (Alamy Stock Photo)

More than two million people are set to take to the streets of west London this bank holiday weekend as the Notting Hill Carnival celebrates two landmark anniversaries.

The introduction of sound systems and Mas bands 50 years ago transformed it into a large-scale event and the docking of the Empire Windrush 75 years ago heralded mass immigration from the Caribbean.

Carnival chief executive Matthew Phillip said the carnival, which dates to the late Fifties, promised to be another “amazing” year of celebration. Mr Phillip, who oversees dozens of full-time staff and thousands of volunteers, started going to carnival in the Seventies when his father set up one of the earliest Mas bands — short for masquerade — where participants dress in costume to dance through the parade route.

He said: “I still get that same feeling. It’s amazing to see so many different people from different walks of life, different colours, different social backgrounds, different economic backgrounds, religious backgrounds just smiling and enjoying each other’s company.”

Mas bands are one of the “five key arts” of carnival alongside calypso, soca, the sound systems and steelpan. Mr Phillip said the arrival of the bands and the huge sound systems, some of which have been in the same spot for 50 years, had a “transformational effect” on the event, adding: “To me carnival is always paying tribute to the Windrush generation. Carnival is not one or two people, or my predecessors, or myself. It is the community and the communities of London that have been heavily influenced by that immigration.”

The carnival was set up following race riots in the west London neighbourhood in 1958 when it was a by-word for poverty and bad housing rather than the gentrified area it has become. The first Caribbean carnival, set up by activist Claudia Jones, took place in 1959 and ran for six years until her death, when social worker Rhaune Laslett organised an event for local children which featured a pan band performing in Portobello Road, with the two events eventually giving birth to Europe’s biggest street party.

Children’s day takes place on Sunday, followed by the main event on Monday. Mr Phillip insisted that the carnival would stay in west London despite some calls for it to be re-located.

Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Susan Hall, has said it is now too big for its current location while others, including the Police Federation, have suggested it should relocate to Hyde Park.

Mr Phillip said the event was continually “evolving” but added that it would stay in the area. He said: “Yes, the streets of Notting Hill are narrow but they actually help us in dispersing crowds. I think if it was in one open space, that amount of people would be very challenging. Carnival belongs in the streets and the history and traditions of carnival are there. I always say the deepest roots of the carnival are in Africa but the more recent roots come from the Caribbean, and Trinidad in particular.

“Carnival started in Trinidad post the abolition of slavery and it was people going on to the streets and celebrating because they weren’t usually allowed to be on the streets and they would dress up and mock their former slave masters.

“I think it is similar for communities in London to be able to celebrate freedom and it has symbolism for most people.” He added that the carnival provided a multimillion-pound boost to the economy in the summer months.

Mr Phillip added: “You can look around the world and there are so many examples of art and music making what you would call ghetto areas cool and fun places to be — and then those artists and communities getting displaced. That’s why we are determined carnival remains in those streets. Before I took this role I could have thought people wanted it moved to a park but I can honestly say that the partners we work with, whether it’s the three local councils or the police … we haven’t had anyone trying to pressure us for it to come off the streets.”