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Europe's 'Biggest Street Festival' Rocks London

  • Selah Hennessy

LONDON — During a summer dominated by the Olympics, Europe's largest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, gave London revelers another thing to smile about Sunday and Monday. The carnival is an important cultural event led by the West Indian community in London.

About 1 million people poured onto the streets of west London during the two days of the Notting Hill Carnival. Swamped on all sides by massive crowds, hundreds of groups took part in the parade, dancing to the beat of pounding music that pumped through loudspeakers.

Their costumes ranged from the colorful and extravagant to the surprising and surreal. The members of a group called "Chocolate Nation" arrived splattered head to foot in melted chocolate.

VOA accompanied one band, called Jamboulay Carnival Arts, along the route. It is run by Francesca Bailey, who said getting ready for Carnival takes her the whole year.

She has to raise the money, around $10,000, to run workshops, build a float, and get the costumes ready. But she says she does it to keep her culture alive.

"We do it every year because for us it is a very cultural thing, and it is important that we continue with our culture. Carnival is something that began many years ago in Trinidad and Tobago, and it was based on the emancipation of slavery and it has over the years, it has progressed and evolved. So, it is nice to see that it has come to Britain and really evolved over the years," Bailey said.

The first day of the carnival, Sunday, is dubbed "Family Day" and is especially for young people.

One of Bailey's sons, 17-year-old Bami Bailey, has been coming to the Carnival with his mother since he was a small child. He told VOA it has been an important relief from his day-to-day life.

"A lot of us "black kids," shall I say, we live in London ... we live in not poverty, but we live in the bad, terrible areas. And just a place full of crime and stuff like that. And carnival is a place where you are always happy, you get a good feeling and everything," Bailey said.

Notting Hill Carnival originated about five decades ago, in part to improve race relations in London. It is led by the West Indian community, but also incorporates communities from all over the world.

Participants raise money from various organizations, including local councils, and much of the work is done voluntarily.

Tailor Thomas Benjamin, who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, has been volunteering his services for the past 10 years, helping to make costumes for the Carnival. He says he does it to help young people.

"If we are able to reach children before they are exposed to negative things then you save one child from going to jail, you save one child from being in the grave. The minute the youth, he reaches 14, 15, 16, if he does not have a Carnival background, if he did not have something positive to turn to, then most of the time it is a dead-end situation," Benjamin said.

He says it is an important diversion for young people in his borough, Hackney, one of a number of London neighborhoods that was rocked by riots last year; vehicles and buildings were set on fire and shops across the city were looted.