Jamaican Twist at Notting Hill Carnival
London’s Notting Hill Carnival has its roots firmly in the culture of the West Indian island of Trinidad, but since 2003, Jamaican Twist – the only Jamaican float to take part – has been an integral part, winning no less than six awards in the last three years.
There was some talk this year that Carnival would be cancelled in light of the London riots, but the mayor, Boris Johnson argued that to do so would have been an admission of defeat. For him, it seemed a question of bravado, but for many of the young, black and mixed race participants, the Carnival is so much more – it is a unique chance for them to express themselves and their culture.
Feisty, busty, tattooed Natalie (21) has been involved with Jamaica Twist since she was 13 and has been the float’s own Carnival Queen many times. I ask her if it’s just Jamaicans who can join the float. “Nah, nah, we are Brazilian, Jamaican, Scottish… we come from all over. And Jamaicans come from all over. It is like we say, ‘’Out of many, one people.’ ”
This is the fitting national motto and one taken up by the Jamaican Tourist Board, which sponsors the float each year. In true carnival spirit, Jamaican Twist collaborates with other musicians representing other islands and countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and the South Pacific islands. Each year has a new theme representing a key part of Jamaican culture. This year it was Bob Marley, marking the 30th anniversary of the reggae legend’s death.
I couldn’t imagine a better and stronger expression of community. And it is a particularly powerful statement when you remember that the first Notting Hill carnival was born out of a deeply racist and divided neighbourhood where signs saying: ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs’ were commonplace.
Veronica, a charity worker, who volunteers with Jamaican Twist, explains that there are a lot of second and third generation Jamaicans who have never even been to Jamaica. The organisation, which also puts on events throughout the year, works very hard at to engage youngsters and to engender a sense of pride in their community and in where they come from. “We have a very good Facebook page and we try to keep them interested in their culture, their music, dance and give them a bit of history. I do hope they dance decently today”, she says nervously.
They don’t. For a white middle class English girl like me, the grinding is shockingly sexual and I was surprised to see youngsters drinking brandy neat from the bottle at 11am. One young woman who had been to Jamaica on holiday was skilfully grinding with the security guards, but at the same time three youths danced sweetly to a highly choreographed routine.
The carnival, despite what you might think, is not actually a spectator sport. Participants are not only of a mix of cultural heritages, but of all ages, backgrounds and dancing ability. So I did my lame best to join in. We were issued with tee-shirts (which the girls quickly customised to reveal more flesh) and with much-needed ear plugs. The sounds from the three metre high wall of speakers that lined the Jamaican Twist truck were deafening. A tiny space in the middle was given over to a fridge, microwave and DJ. After a truly Jamaican start, we set off two and a half hours late, fortified with the best jerk chicken I’ve ever eaten, and the strongest rum and coke I’ve ever drunk.
Notting Hill may now be one of London’s most desirable areas, but as recently as the 1970s it was described as ‘a massive slum, full of multi-occupied houses, crawling with rats and rubbish. Home to large communities of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, it was in this part of West London that Britain’s first race riots occurred in 1958. The Carnival was the community’s joyous and peaceful response, and though it initially took place indoors, by 1965 it had taken to the streets. The mult-cultural celebration has grown each year since and now welcomes around two million visitors over the two-day event.
Alexander D Great, the UK Calypso Monarch explained: “That procession declared to the British public how Caribbeans celebrated – with joy and with laughter and with jumping and dancing – an event like this, and the carnival is also representative of the same thing. And maybe this was the first time that the British public saw the Caribbean spirit in Britain in the open air.”
For just £15 (for a t-shirt and to follow the float) anyone can join the carnival. If you want to wear a costume, it is £85, which also includes a meal, drinks and patties (see www.jamaicantwist.com/membership).
What the carnival has done over the last 50 odd years is to highlight a community and its enormous contribution to British culture. What it has also done is to create an event that brings together hundreds of thousands of people to London to enjoy the fun and the fantastic floats and costumes – and all for free. Out of literally nothing, a hugely popular tourist attraction has been established that is known and admired throughout the world.
The Notting Hill Carnival in London is second only in size to the Rio Carnival in Brazil. And my advice to enjoy both is the same: join in. See you next year!