Tuesday, 12 January 2010
MAS AND THE MOTHER COUNTRY
Here is an article written by a Carnival Legend Ray Funk that I came across in the Caribbean Beat Magazine on the early days of the Notting Hill Carnival, with particular emphasis on the woman whose contribution to the start of NHC has gained her above most recognition as the mother of the Notting Hill Carnival the late Claudia Jones....
MAS AND THE MOTHER COUNTRY
by Ray Funk
It's Europe's biggest street festival, but it got off to an unlikely start – indoors, in winter, with a crowd of a thousand people. Ray Funk looks back at the early days of London's Notting Hill Carnival
Fifty years ago, England’s first real Trinidad-style Carnival took place – indoors, in the middle of winter, at St Pancras Town Hall.
The vision of Claudia Jones, this was the precursor to Notting Hill Carnival. It came to an end after six years, but in 1967, it was followed by the first Notting Hill Carnival, which took to the streets and followed the Carnival traditions first advanced in England by Jones.
In the wake of the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, Jones had wanted to put on display for the British that unique Caribbean explosion of joy and culture, carnival. She and her newspaper sponsored the carnival each year until she died. Although it was based on the Trinidad Carnival, and a large number of Trinidadians participated, Jones wanted the event to be like the West Indies cricket team, a pan-Caribbean institution. She wrote in the souvenir booklet of her desire for the carnival to evoke a “wholehearted response from the peoples from the Islands of the Caribbean in the new West Indies Federation. [T]his is itself testament to the role of the arts in bringing people together for common aims, and to its fusing of the cultural, spiritual, as well as political and economic interests of West Indians in the UK and at home.”
While little remembered for many years, Jones (1915 – 64) is gaining recognition for her activism. She faced jail and exile for her political beliefs while living in the United States. Later extradited to Britain, she founded the first weekly black newspaper in England, the West Indian Gazette.
Born in Trinidad, Jones moved to Harlem with her family when she was eight. As she grew up, she became concerned about working conditions for the poor, and this led her to join the Young Communist League of the Communist Party of the USA, becoming a writer and later editor of a party newspaper. As a leading speaker for the party, she was alone in presenting the perspective of a black working woman on labour and discrimination. During the McCarthy era, she was jailed four times, and in 1955, she was deported to England, where she founded her newspaper to serve the Caribbean immigrant community.
After horrible race riots in the central England town of Nottingham and then the Notting Hill area of London, Jones organised a meeting to discuss what could be done. Donald Hinds, a writer for the Gazette, recently recalled what happened next: “Claudia asked for suggestions which would wash the taste of Notting Hill and Nottingham out of our mouths. It was then that someone, most likely a Trinidadian, suggested that we should have a carnival – in winter? It was [November] of 1958. Everybody laughed, and then Claudia called us to order. ‘Why not?’ she asked. ‘Could it not be held in a hall somewhere?’”
Jones went to two leading Trinidadian artists to put the show together. She chose as director Edric Connor, already a prominent actor and singer, who was having great success in feature films and had just been the first black actor to appear in a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford. As choreographer, she chose a talented Trinidadian dancer who had moved to England only months before, Stanley Jack
The main event was a beauty contest with 12 contestants, six from Jamaica, four from Trinidad, and one each from British Guiana and St Vincent. The winner got a free round trip to Trinidad for Carnival. Corinne Skinner-Carter was blunt at the 1996 symposium in stating the importance of this.
“This was before the Black Power days. This was before we all knew that we were beautiful. We might not have known it, but she knew that we were beautiful, and she started this beauty contest.”
Also featured were Boscoe Holder and his troupe, performing “Carnival Fantasia”. There were exhibitions of limbo dancing, tamboo bamboo, and bongo. Fitzroy Coleman performed on his guitar and the young jazz singer Cleo Laine performed with Guyanese pianist Mike McKenzie and his trio.
It was appropriate that Terror was the first calypsonian featured, since in 1955 he had recorded a calypso decrying the lack of mas, “No Carnival in Britain”:
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