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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The best of times, and the best of times: Notting Hill Carnival 2015

Noon Sunday 29 August, some lone skanking on Ledbury Road before the crowds build. Although things got rammed later, it was still one of the least-uncomfortably-packed Carnivals  in decades, or so it seemed.

Here's a surprise - an unremittingly and relentlessly cheerful post from this blogger. Obviously and inevitably, it's about the Notting Hill Carnival - the 49th edition of which ended this evening around 9pm (well, that was when I left).

Although the weather ranged from grim to vile, this was still one of the most enjoyable carnivals I can remember. Maybe this was partly because the numbers were reduced by the bad weather. It becomes difficult to enjoy anything when it seems the air is being squeezed out of your lungs by the bodies of fellow revellers.

But the great thing about Carnival 2015 was a shift back to classic roots music and plenty of great live performance. Whether or not it was "Europe's biggest street party" (and oh how heartily sick we all are of hearing this particular cliché being about the only thing mainstream media have to say about the event for the past 20 years, apart from the arrest figures) is beside the point. The thing for Carnival lovers is that this is the one chance in a year to really forget troubles, to find complete release in music and dance on the streets of this  totally bonkers city, where every square foot is now up for sale for thousands of dollars. This event is the biggest and most reliable expressions of sanity in a mad city, and that's the truth of it.

Lovers of old school Jamaican roots reggae and dub are still lamenting the loss of Jah Observer's sound system on Ledbury Road. This year though, the replacement - Solution Sound System - was making a very good bash at filling that chasm-sized gap.

There was another rootsy system further up the street, just before you got to Channel One, which has  almost become a victim of its own success. Even with the smaller crowds overall this year, the Leamington Villas system was uncomfortably rammed for most of the two days. Mind you, Rampage was always like that - that, it seems, is how the youth like it.

It was good to see Gladdy Wax still going strong on Portobello, as well as the Afro-Cuban system a little further up. And the knee-deep roots dub scholar's choice, Abu Ashanti-I, up at the northern tip of the carnival was bringing great joy to assorted old rastafarians, Euro-dreads with stringy locks,  W11 trustafarians and old buffers and puffers (self included) alike.

A real highlight this year was a package of lovely surprises on the balcony stage of the always astonishing Gaz's Rockin Blues on Talbot Road.

Drummers on the world music stage, Powis Square Gardens

I've always loved Gaz's set-up with its various themes, desert isles with bits of shipwrecks or crashed air places, palm fringed rumshacks, blues party shabeens, pirate lairs etc etc….and always great rhythmy- bluesy-bluebeaty-rare-groovy-afro-celtic-skatalite sounds, everything thrown into the mix.

This year there were real treats here which more than compensated for the crowds of W11 party kids who tend to congregate here with their cocktails and their pushed-up designer sunglasses. First time I went past a band was stirring up the crowd with a convincing rendition of Legalise It. Turned out the little singer, all in black, was Peter Tosh's nephew.

Such a brilliant band, the Trojans. A bit later, passing again, it's your actual Max Romeo donning his iron shirt and chasing the devil out of town. All this to that  little bit of street - your own personal reggae heritage concert, if you happen to be living in one of the flats opposite.

The crowds here were daunting at times, but very close by, Powis Square Gardens had its own mini-festival of world music with loads of space to sit or dance, always the oasis.

Legalise It! A junior member of the Tosh family with the
Trojans at Gaz's Rocking Blues
It was not far from here, early on day one, there were suddenly people running with iPhones held high:  Jeremy Corbyn was passing through on some sort of official walkabout with Carnival elders. He looked like he'd just popped out of an intense political meeting, tired and drawn.

Jouvert, pigment and chocolate

The revellers and masqueraders who had got up early enough to take part in the opening J'ouvert ceremony are an increasingly conspicuous element of day one, which is usually referred to as Children's Day.

It is  the day when kids strut their stuff behind the floats, but it's also when adults throw powered pigment at each other, along with a bit of liquid chocolate if you're lucky. Hence the sight of people covered head to toe in dye, or sticky with chocolate, or both. I thought I'd missed them this year, until I came across a whole tribe of masqueraders, covered in colour.

Just look at this guy…

Notting Hill Carnival, Jouvert, red paint, 2015, photo : Bill Hicks

…and then see what happens when he meets some friends….I hope they are still friends….

Notting Hill Carnival, Jouvert, red paint, 2015, photo : Bill Hicks

 …and here, waiting a few yards on, are Mr Green and Mr Yellow, just waiting to coat you…..
Notting Hill Carnival 2015. Photo: Bill Hicks

and then, if you think you have escaped, hiding somewhere there must be Mr Blue….

Notting Hill Carnival 2015. Photo: Bill Hicks
 End of Carnival

At the end of the second day, another revelation and new favourite - the Fun Bunch sound system. So, it's what sort of music? House you say?

No. Well yeah, but for the last hour of this year's carnival they were blasting out some great old school hip-hop and rap, and really got the crowd three or four feet off the ground and rising.

It was a sweet crowd, and many sweet things happened. Right at the end, the sweetest thing  - a guy in the ground floor flat right behind the system, whose weekend must have been very noisy indeed, was dancing happily on his own behind the window. Suddenly everyone was pointing at him and cheering. He responded by dancing more vigorously,  and the crowd went wild, whistles, horns, the lot, and he seemed to love it. A beautiful little ending to that part of the day for many of us.
Happy dancing resident of Talbot Road, last minutes of Carnival 2015
at Fun Bunch sound system

Except, it's not the end. Yeah, they cut-off sound system power at 7pm, but someone always manages to squeeze in one more track. And then, all those floats nose-to-tailing right the way up Chepstow Road have to get back to Ladbroke Grove, and these days they are as loud as any sound system, with their own power!

They inch forward, the music cranks up again, their masqueraders (who never stop moving their feet) step up and up, jumping up, spinning, with  their acquired followers, like pilot fish on a whale,  hanging on to their tails.

So, up to 9pm and later, there's a queue of massive lorries with scarily high-tech sound systems, blasting out hard music almost like a weapon of dance, the DJs swinging around on the poles and railings on the top deck, shouting out instructions to their crews and greetings to the crowd, and another great wave of exhausted, beautiful dancers, dancing farewell to summer, dancing like there'll never be another summer, just wanting to keep it all going another minute, another song. It's almost painfully beautiful. Carnival at its best, after dark on Westbourne Grove as the floats stack up and the cops begin to move in. It's never the last dance!

On the 452 bus home, I sat  behind two young women who had both been at the Carnival. The first, a Hungarian, had enjoyed it but had also been disappointed by how managed it all was, how corporate. She thought there would be more spontaneous performance, more individual, amateur contribution.

The second, an American, also had little good to say about the event: she had been shocked by how much violence she had witnessed, fights around sound systems, boys kicking each other and throwing drinks around, cops plunging in to make arrests.

I felt moved to intervene. But I did not. I just sat there, thinking, yes, there's  too much corporate involvement now, the floats and the song systems are all sponsored, licensed, and yet - there is still room for a bit of private enterprise, whether the young couple with a soul sound system outside their flat in Ledbury Road or all this epeople flogging tins of drink from their front room windows. Or letting out their loos at a pound a pee.

No, no  intervention. The odd thing about this London Carnival is that it is so easy to understand why it is the best possible thing for some people and the worst possible thing for others.

Close friends, impassioned lovers, can so easily be torn asunder by their views on this event. It makes no sense really - what could there be to like about wandering around a former slum quarter of west London, now largely occupied by a particularly ostentatious breed of the super-rich, in filthy weather, with head-splitting noise emanating from huge sound systems, static and mobile, every few yards? Being pushed and shoved and getting into almost insanely dangerous crowd conditions? Tripping over bottles and splashing though pools of urine, vomit and worse?

And all of this in driving rain?

And not being able to escape quickly because the cops shout the road, and the tube's closed?

I'm not just a lover of Carnival, I am an addict. I have to get my fix of it. Once a year, two full days. Back against a bass stack in Ledbury Road, my vital organs being bounced out of their normal locations by absurdly heavy baselines.

Knowing how stupid I look trying to dance, when some of the most beautiful dancers in the country are dancing nearby, not caring, and even getting some positive feedback. The thing here is that you do have to dance: the resistance, so strong, so understandable, has to be jettisoned. In my case it can take a whole day of carnival, three or four tins of Red Stripe, a great deal of passive smoking to get to that point where I can't help it, I have to dance.

Once that happens, you will be on the open road to becoming a carnival lover.

Following the floats - it was all steel pan the old days, Trinidadian, calypsonian, St Kitts and Nevis, quaint and sort of Commonwealth. Then came soca and it all changed, Hot Hot Hot, the real hard sounds of Caribbean Carnival blast the soot off the wall of the crumbling stucco terraces of Ladbroke Grove and Chepstow Road,  this music much dirtier than grime, beautiful rough filthy dirty music that cleanses the soul.

I bore my daughter and her friends to death with talk of how Carnival was in the 70s - how Aswad used to play here and Burning Spear played there, and that's where I saw Neneh Cherry in her Rip, Rig and Panic days.  I hope they'll bore their kids to death with tales of Carnival from the 2010s….how they just wouldn't believe how crazy it used to be.  And I hope their kids say back to them, "Well, it's just as crazy now, just a lot bigger and louder, but just as crazy….if only you knew".

Please god.

Jeremy Corbyn visits Notting Hill Carnival, 29 August 2015  Photo: Bill Hicks
Have to report that not even the Notting Hill Carnival can claim to be a Jeremy-free zone. It was nice to see him but wish he looked happier.

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