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Notting Hill Carnival was my farewell to the summer

One last hoorah before the seasons change, Carnival is a glorious light amid a backdrop of crises.

31 Aug 2022

Sweat ran down my face on Panorama morning. It took us three trips in total to roll our racks and floats from All Saints Road through the unsuspecting streets of Notting Hill, heading towards the Panorama ‘drag’ on Kensal Rise. In the distance, I could hear steel pans, with familiar colourful runs and harmonies filling the silence. The constant thud of heavy wheels against the road provided a rhythmic soundscape for the residents boarding up their houses before fleeing the area for the weekend. Car drivers beeped their horns at us – some out of frustration because we were holding up the traffic, and some out of support, but they all understood what was going on. When you see a mass exodus of the Notting Hill rich girls  escorting their suitcases to the tube station, you know that carnival is approaching.

The August bank holiday marked Notting Hill Carnival’s (NHC) long-awaited return to the bouncing streets of west London after a Covid-induced hiatus. The return felt like a homecoming, after two years of doubts, trials and tribulations of the carnival world, and uncertainty over whether it would survive. As masqueraders and carnival goers chipped up Ladbroke Grove for the first time in three years, I felt like NHC was one last hoorah before the impending doom of winter; the colourful, glorious light amid the backdrop of multiple, existential crises

For myself and many other steel pan players, the main event of Carnival is the Panorama competition. Panorama is a steel pan competition that takes place in many countries across the world, originating in Trinidad. The UK’s edition typically hosts five or six large steel bands playing elaborate and dynamic 10 minute long arrangements of soca songs from the year. The instant sense of community that pan playing offers me has always been difficult to describe. It’s a feeling I have all year round as part of my own band, Phase One based in Coventry. But Panorama? That is my superbowl. My season finale. My safe space. 

“Preparing for the competition with this band has filled a gaping hole in my heart that the pandemic left”

This year, I played in Panorama with Mangrove, as my own band sat out the competition. It’s always been strange to be so connected to a group of people that I really don’t know that well. My first ever Panorama was with Mangrove back in 2015, so it was special to be reunited with them, recognise old faces and make new friends too. I’ve practised with Mangrove, a band of about 115 people, until the early hours of the morning for most nights over the last two months, yet I don’t even know what most of my fellow pannists do for a living. 

Preparing for the competition with this band has filled a gaping hole in my heart that the pandemic left. Tearing through various factions of the arts and culture sector, the pandemic left many steel bands and carnival organisers faced with uncertainty of NHC’s position. My own band is still recovering; we have learnt to deal with the aftermath of lockdowns and restrictions that meant many of our bookings were cancelled and we were unable to practise. Limited financial support from the government and the local council offered temporary relief but long-term solutions were rare. And Notting Hill Carnival’s precarity is multifaceted. With questions of financial viability repeatedly raised and calls for the event to be ticketed for crowd control purposes, concerns over crime rates so often reported by mainstream press, and the co-opting of the event by culture vultures, NHC and its associated traditions are under threat from all angles. 

I’ve been attending NHC ever since I was a toddler. My family would make the two-hour trek from Coventry to west London almost every year, and sometimes I was lucky enough for my birthday to fall on Carnival weekend. Our two-car convoy would journey in with a quick detour to stop by and see some of my grandparents’ old friends who still lived in the area.

“Carnival is in jeopardy, but remembering what it means to so many people and why it began is the push we need to fight for it”

Growing up biracial outside of London offered little opportunity for me to engage in my culture outside of the comforts of my family and sporadic trips to Trinidad. I often felt confused about my place in between different cultures and where I belonged in a world full of binaries and boxes. To some extent, I am still figuring this out. I was born into a Trini pan-playing family, with a grandad who manufactures and tunes steel pans. He has made steel pans for the majority of the West Midlands and beyond and has taught most of Coventry how to play. He founded my steel band Phase One, which is now run by my dad, who also teaches and tunes pans. I’m pretty sure leading Phase One is in my future too. 

This year’s Panorama and Carnival were my farewell to the summer. A summer that has been fruitful and wonderful, spent with family and friends, but also jaded by the climate and cost of living crises, and the shitstorm of a winter we are about to have. Yes, Carnival is in jeopardy, but remembering what it means to so many people and why it began is the push we need to fight for it. 

Playing pan always brings me back to family and my Trini heritage. The months of literal blood, sweat and tears preparing with Mangrove for the competition has been no small feat, and the feeling of pride and passion when we knew we nailed our tune on the stage was second to none. We go again next year.

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