Notting Hill Carnival ’83

CARNIVALS ARE crucial — all the best cultures have ’em. But the world has a way of perverting the simplest pleasures, and since 76, Carnival has become a euphemism for flashpoint; for the last couple of years, and this year too, the aggro has been postponed to a last-minute binge that takes place in almost ritual fashion, when the tourists have gone home. The trouble takes place among the problem professionals, who’ve been hanging around on the street corner outside the old Apollo pub, closed for months, that used to be a hopping centre for all forms of social exchange, till Bass Charrington closed it down after too many horrashocka stories in the Sunday Nasty. They watch the police go by in twos like the animals in the Ark, at five-minute intervals, cursing them and sucking their teeth in annoyance, vowing vengeance for this hampering of their street sales, come Carnival.

But let’s concentrate on the iry 95% of the event. It’s a hot crush of bodies, the smells of sweat and weed and coconutted corn on the cob as you join the conga line after your favourite float. The costumes and the floats show that they’ve been worked on and loved for months — the colours — turquoise, purple, red, yellow, green — no flower-bed can match, with floats that rival Cecil B. de Mille for extravagance, towers and arches of silver and gold. The staggering quality of the steel bands, with a pleasing proportion of women players, starting out in competition on Friday night, with the Glissando Steel Band (Capital Radio winners,) washing their big sweeping sound over the dancers, all wearing red T-shirts that say “Hands off British Telecom”, and the Ebony Steel Band mashing up the Lancaster Road schoolyard with their Afrikan rhythms and inspired arrangements.

Anticipating each new sound on every corner is almost the biggest thrill of Carnival. The biggest, naturally, is the adrenalin sense of adventure that tickles you as you squeeze your way through the rammed-up roads. You never know who you might meet in the street. Or who you might hear. The sole representatives of Afrikan music, Jumbo of Earthworks and the Sol y Sombra’s Dave Hucker, ambiance’d outside the new Rough Trade shop in Talbot Road, to the delight of all the robed Nigerians. But record-wise, I don’t think any Carnival has been so close to the Bronx. With its overhead Westway and railway, that section of Ladbroke Grove resembles Brooklyn and the Bronx, home of rap, more than most of London. Intergalactic Sound under the Westway, by the footbridge over the railway track, felt like New York’s Paradise Garage with Larry Levan, or the Fun House. People squeezed in so tight you had to feel intimate with everyone, rub-a-dubbing to ecstasy with any pretty stranger. All down Acklam Road, Jah Love sound and Shaka reverberated the Westway with roots, amidst stalls bedecked with icons of Marcus G and Selassie, and all those items of red/green/gold accessories the fashionable dread could desire. Incidentally, it was a peak Carnival for the positive face of private enterprise — were there ever so many households cooking for public consumption? Delicious, fresh, cheap patties, fish, chicken in abundance.

Tons of toasters. The different raps vying for your ears along the streets. Under the Westway, by Ladbroke Grove tube, tiny tot toasters (one of the finest was eight), and even a Pakistani tiddler toaster who had the crowd cheering.

The look — obviously — was sports. Athletic. The top T-shirt was definitely Gallini’s striped number in combos of blue/grey/yellow. Runners-up: Lonsdale and then Adidas. Shorts for both sexes, including some snazzy bloomer-bottomed shorts suits. For men: TCB wet look hair and headbands — if you’re not wearing some variation on the Weatherman peak. Top favourite headgear: definitely the vinyl plastic baseball peak, the Levis of the scalp. Any colour looks good. Feet: running shoes. Obviously.

The live groups playing in the pleasant bowl of Meanwhile Gardens by the canal, and under the Westway on Portobello Road, had exceptionally good sound this year. The locals, like Aswad (who slipped into an upful calypso groove that rocked the assembly), the Sons Of Jah, Spartacus, all had solid, commanding presence. It was Rip, Rig And Panic’ s final gig, and they went totally ape, a wild performance culminating in the sudden and surreal appearance of a careering baby carriage which involved the fabulous duo dancing of Neneh Cherry and Andrea Oliver into even more astonishing contortions. Reggae groups like Rema and Abakush proved that even if the media spotlight ain’t on home-grown roots, they’re working on their craft.

But Carnival isn’t all about standing and watching a group. It’s about that restless feeling, roaming the streets with a tingle in your spine and a hand on your wallet.

When the Sunday tourists had caught the last train home, we were still restlessly cruising, combing the streets for action. We moved in packs amid the sediment of litter on the deserted streets, connecting with another pack of strangers at every corner, till as we approached the Front Line of All Saints Road, what had been five people had become 50 midnight ravers, thrill-seekers who didn’t want to stop. The police this year appeared specially picked for their wimpish manner. All those capable of growing a beard to disguise their extreme youth had done so, and the over-20’s had, too, perhaps hoping to appear bohemian and thus merge into the Carnival ambiance. But despite their low-key behaviour, people were not happy to have their sounds closed down at 10.30. Still, all went well on Sunday night. We found a street sound that played out till 2.00 from a private house.

Before the sound closed down to Mtume’s ‘Juicy Fruit’ (a Carnival fave, along with endless Dennis Brown and a smaller smattering of Yellowman), body-poppers were roboting limbs as if they’d been born with mercury bones, in the middle of the street. No-one let the hovering police van put them off. Then we moved on to a blues dance round the corner, a living-room filled with home-made wooden speakers piled to the ceiling, and an I Love E.T. sticker on the wall.

On to the Mangrove, some serious close dancing to heavy dub. The action may not have been outside, but it could be found with ear power.

Not surprisingly, after a congenial day of dancing in the streets, with the only complaint being overcrowding, the last moments of Monday’s Carnival had to let out year-round suppressed violence, like pus from a spot. There’s a wind that blows down your neck when individuals organise into a mass attack. When the excellent Emotion sound at the top of Lancaster Road (Dread at the Control: Beans) announced they were playing their last tune, and appropriately played Culture’s ‘Stop This Fussing And Fighting’, the sticksmen — pickpockets and thieves — suddenly realised the party was almost over and they’d better move quick if they wanted (like most of the neighbourhood residents) to make a quick buck out of the Carnival. In the ensuing madness of darting hands and kicking feet, your reporter was knocked to the ground and sufficiently knocked about that I wouldn’t have been able to write this piece without a typewriter with light keys. (Thank you, the Brother portable EP-20.)

But even the excruciating pain in my chest doesn’t make me think Carnival is anything other than a crucial Nice Time, to be preserved and nurtured at all costs. The violence is no greater than at any Saturday football match, and happens with more reason (not that it’s justifiable, either), and without the breath of Carnival oxygen, the body of the community would be gasping for air.

Every town should have one.

© Vivien GoldmanNew Musical Express, 3 September 1983

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