Dear Notting Hill Carnival

Dear Carnival… 

I first fell in love with you on the corner of 7/11 year ninety-ninety something. Yeah that was back when the floats would still drive down the Harrow Road before turning right, up towards Westbourne Park; the good old days. It meant even from Gran’s house I could hear sweet sounds of soca music singing out from the sound systems calling me like the Pied Piper himself.  “Cent, five cent, ten cent, dollar;” Irresistible drum beats bounce down the street and ricochet into my chest, hypnotised instantly there was nothing I could do but follow the sound on into the celebration. Even Gran’s famous finger licking fried chicken couldn’t keep me away, like a hungry belly summoned by the scent of freshly baked bread I found my way to the source, only to be met with beautiful, brilliant, shining, shimmering costumes. Masquerade, music, magic, melanin; it’s like Disneyland had found its’ way to Paddington (West London) just for me! What a sight to behold…

After adorning myself with a new flag, whistle and horn (brought by mum, gran or whichever relative was on duty) I was appropriately dressed for the occasion; ready to join in the festivities. Not sure whether to move it to the left, do the butterfly or jump and wave your only option is to surrender and let Carnival have her wicked way with you. She was after all, irresistible… enchanting. “Get ready to wine!” Carnival is movement, not only did she have the power to physically move your body down the street, she somehow managed to transport you from the grey gloomy London roads all the way to the sunshiney shores of the picture perfect paradise that is the Caribbean (West Indies). 

When the British Government initially called our Grandparents (the windrush generation) over to help rebuild Britain after WW2 they were tricked and told the streets of Britain were paved with gold; propaganda at its’ finest. They arrived to find no gold, but one way or another they brought the glitter, the shine and the shimmer. Carnival was just one of many ways in which they did this and I for one am grateful. To me, it was the greatest show on earth; an explosion of colour and culture unlike anything I had ever seen up close. 

Fast forward from family traditions on August bank holiday weekends to growing up, making friends and finding fetes and freedom. Whether it was weekends at Tudor Rose or Thursdays at Corks Wine Bar – sweatbox or not – we would find our way to wherever the soca was. Black and British; here, stuck, on one cold island, yearning for the warm embrace of another, for the is-lands of our forefathers. We yearned for a taste of the home we barely knew, the home that often refused to claim us. Unwanted by both (the black and the british) sides, we were stuck. “British,” orphaned, alone and unwelcome. Soca helped us stay connected. 

Caribbean culture called us through the music, caressing our eardrums like colourful calypso whispers from the ancestors. We danced, we sang, we sweat, we smiled. I often wonder how many generations of my bloodline have done this throughout the ages. Dance. Sing. Sweat. Smile. Whether in the club or on di road I’m sure we’ve been doing it since the first days in Africa. Connected through culture, our traditions live on. Africa continues to find us through the beat of the drum –  whether we know it or not – we have and always will be one. As the saying goes “You can take the boy out of Africa. But you can’t take Africa out of the boy.” 

From fetes we would find our way to launch parties and eventually after a few years of separation me and Carnival reconnected (in 2008). Finally old enough to go on my own I couldn’t resist her call and came running. One of the DJs from Release Di Riddim announced we could buy a t-shirt to jump with the band. The year before I had just rocked up to Carnival in my own t-shirt and snuck in. The trick was to find out what colour they’d be wearing and hide in plain site, be a chameleon. I started off as a “stormer” an “invader,” can you believe it? Me! Years later I would learn just how disrespectful this was, you had to pay to be a part of the band! Two day tropical experiences don’t come for free, even if they are in London. I mean sure, it was fun sneaking under the ropes with Melz trying to get in with the masqueraders at judging point but this year I wanted to do it properly. Not quite ready for the whole costume ting, a t-shirt would do for now… baby steps.

There’s nothing quite like waking up on Carnival morning when your weeks, if not months of prayers have been answered because the sun is actually shining! Anyone who lives in London will understand that this is not only a big deal but a rare and wonderful blessing. Worse than a kid who still believes in Santa on Christmas Eve, sometimes I get so excited I forget to eat. And I never forget to eat! Trust me. H’angry belly Leian ain’t cute. But thanks to the Lover’s Rock and Rare Groove generation aka our parents, I knew better! Schooled in the art of “lining ya belly before the liquor lick you” I find something to fill my stomach. If I’m lucky, bakes are on the menu. Sustenance is required if you want to last hours on end chippin, dancing and palancing down the road. Carnival is not for the faint hearted. One must have “stamina for di road!” 

A shot of soca through the stereo to get the blood pumping; waistline ready to wine. How someone can listen to soca and not move I will never know. T-Shirt on. Belly filled. Flag, horn, whistle, rum punch, ready! Wait. Wrist-band, can’t forget the wrist band. Last year some other friends tried the ‘same colour t-shirt trick’ and got asked to leave the band! Aint tryna have no one rain on my parade like that, let’s not forget Carnival comes but once a year! Wrist band; Check. Now we’re ready! Ready for di road… 

Dull, depressing, dreary London is once again loving, lively, loud -er, than usual. Friendly faces on the train, fawning over colourful costumes and caribbean flags, smiling. For a change. Faces that usually frown find ways to smile again thanks to Carnival, my sweet love. Was it the music, the masquerade or the magic? Whatever it is has the power to transform, everyone and everything it touches. No matter your colour, cast, creed, size, shape, sex or sexuality Carnival would welcome you with open arms; she had enough love and hugs to give everyone.

I jump off the train at Kensal Green station, pass the Cemetery and down the Harrow Road to visit Gran before I start, “I’m fine” she says. She’s always fine, the strongest of us all. She wishes me well, tells me not to drink too much and to run in the opposite direction if I see any trouble. She calls me a “show-off” – as usual. I laugh, wondering where she thinks I get it from? She was a great teacher after all! With a final slap on the arm she sends me on my way. I head up over the blue bridge (ha’penny stairs) in search of the truck. Culture. Creativity. Collaboration. Togetherness. Freedom. “IT’S CARNIVAL!”  

It’s my first year playing Jab. Covered in a black baby oil like substance, swinging hips and shaking to sounds of soca I feel free. Covered, coloured, connected, to each other and to our culture. I didn’t know back then that the birth of Carnival was born out of protest, no wonder it called to me. More than the music and the masquerade there was something deeper drawing us in. In a time gone by our Caribbean – or displaced African – ancestors working on sugar cane plantations covered themselves in molasses to speak out against slavery, against their oppressors. After colonisers banned their drums and their traditions, carnival became an outlet to express themselves finally, fully, freely. Even in the midst of unspeakable horrors our ancestors found a way to put love and light into the world. Natural born creators, they told stories through music, dance and masquerade. What a peaceful people, even in protest! 

Caribbean Carnival Folklore leaves clues to our history. Whether it’s Jab Molassie – the spirit of a slave who died in a vat of molasses whilst working on sugar cane plantations –  or the Moko Jumbie – a healer spirit sent to watch over and protect Africans on the slave ships – Carnival keeps us close and connected, keeping the culture preserved and protected. Whether we know it or not.   

As a young black man living in London, Carnival is the only time and place I feel free. After constantly having to censor, suppress or shield so many sides of myself in so many spaces, carnival is the one weekend where that all goes out the window and I can finally just be. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Carnival called me home, what a shame it would be to miss out on this great gift given to us by our forefathers.  

Sunday is only half the fun. A few years later after my storming days were done, on Monday morning when Carnival has barely just begun, I get off the train at Kensal Green station and make my way into the  Cemetery. Gran is gone now but I still stop by to say Hi. I take a swig of her signature gin (Gordon’s of course)  and sing “would you like to rock it with me, baby.” I give her a little dance in my costume and hear her call me a “show off” just like old times. She was the first person to introduce me to soca. Dancing on the road I feel her and the rest of my ancestors dancing alongside me each and every time.

Ritual done I head over and up towards Sainsburys making my way through masses of feathers trying to find my mas band and fellow masqueraders. As I move through the crowds trying to find my troop I see familiar face after familiar face. Distant cousins whose names I can’t remember, relatives I don’t know but seem to know me stopping me for his and hellos. Primary school friends from times gone by, flash after flash, photographer after photographer, hottie after hottie. The only day of the year where you can see everyone and no one all at the same time. Like I said, magic. 

Wearing a costume you become something, someone else. The world never gave us superheroes to dress up as so we create our own, honouring ancestors, upholding traditions, showcasing beauty and speaking out against oppression and injustice. Playing mas is even better than your fondest childhood memory of dressing up as some character, celebrity or superhero who probably looked nothing like you. Carnival allows us to play make believe, step into a world of freedom, fantasy and transformation. Think of comicon or your favourite fancy dress party and times it by 100, then add your favourite concert or festival as the backdrop and away you fly. Because that’s what true freedom feels like, flying. Its’ own special medicine, a remedy to cure ailments you never even knew you had. Ultimate euphoria. By the time the day is done, everything is new. New aches, new pains, new muscles, new friends, new numbers, new memories, new you. The day after, like a phoenix you rise from the ashes. Refreshed, renewed, reborn, ready, waiting to do it all over again… 

Dear Carnival, thank you for the memories, the lessons, the friends, the family, the freedom, the feelings. Thank you for the culture, the creativity, the collaboration and connectivity. Thank you for liberating me and leading me home. Until we meet again… 

Written by: @leiandarell – Leian Darell

Photo credit: @creativecurls_

#blacklivesmatter #houseofblack #chooselove


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