Notting Hill Carnival: behind the sequins

Stephen Rudder shows the hidden heart of Notting Hill Carnival in a new film, Sequins, Soca, and Sweat

  • Stills from Sequins, Soca, and Sweat. Photograph courtesy Sequins, Soca, and Sweat
  • Stills from Sequins, Soca, and Sweat. Photograph courtesy Sequins, Soca, and Sweat

“A lot of people don’t know what goes on in the background of Carnival. The costumes look pretty on the street, but they don’t really know what goes into actually making the costume and everything that it takes to get that group on the road.” So says veteran bandleader Lawrence Noel in the opening sequence of Stephen Rudder’s new film, Sequins, Soca, and Sweat. Subtitled “The Hidden Heart of Notting Hill Carnival”, Sequins focuses on the mas camps that are truly at the core of the event, yet whose role is often overlooked by those that attend the Notting Hill celebrations.

“Until a few years ago, I didn’t really know much about Carnival,” confesses Rudder, an award-winning filmmaker best known for a dramatic short called Ruby’s Slippers. “My brother is a calypsonian in Dominica, and my mum knows all about Carnival, but it just wasn’t part of our household in England. We didn’t really grow up with it, so when I was going to Carnival before, I was just going to the sound systems.”

A major strength of Rudder’s film is its intimate portrayal of the leading lights of London mas, such as Noel, who initiated costumed mas at Notting Hill in 1973 with the Trinbago Carnival Club; his son Roland, who now runs a rival band called Inspiration Arts; Clary Salandy of Mahogany Arts; and Martha Fevrier of Flamingo. All are allowed to tell their stories in their own words, unencumbered by intrusive narration. In addition to illuminating the tensions that exist between different generations of mas makers, and referencing the recent emergence of commercially driven bikini bands that use mass-produced costumes, the film reveals the mas camps as crucial focal points for London’s Caribbean communities, where youth from harsh environments marked by urban deprivation are given constructive outlets for creativity while upholding cultural traditions — something immensely significant for people of Caribbean origin in Britain.

“It is more important to us as a race than most people understand,” says Salandy. “It’s not about fun. Fun is a by-product of what this is . . . this isn’t about a flippant bunch of black people on the street. The struggle of a race of people who had been taken from one place to hang on to what was left of their heritage — that to me is very important.”

Perhaps because of its assertion of “otherness”, Notting Hill Carnival has endured a troubled relationship with the mainstream British media, despite being part of London life for over forty years. Although Notting Hill is the largest street festival of its kind in Europe, making it a major source of revenue that draws over one million spectators each year, most press reports focus on disturbances and arrests, or reduce coverage to contextually void images of bikini-clad revellers dancing with policemen or politicians. “There’s a huge amount of negative portrayal of Notting Hill, along with media stereotypes,” says executive producer Carole Morrison, who commissioned Sequins while working at the Arts Council. “Everything that’s reported is about the police saying how many people were arrested, but there’s never really anything about the organisation or content, why all of these people do this thing every year, and when it is touched upon, it’s always done in a comical or shallow way, so you don’t get a proper understanding of what this phenomenon is and how it has changed. I wanted to expose that world, so that people would understand that mas is like producing a play or a piece of song, that people had choreography roles and stage managing, all these different roles in Carnival which we’re just not seeing, because it’s normally seen as an exercise which the police conduct. So it was very much about peeling that away to show a positive experience, which is the experience I have with Carnival.”

Ultimately, Sequins, Soca, and Sweat emphasises that the Notting Hill Carnival has all kinds of hidden resonance for those that participate in the mas. “One of the things that really struck me was a young boy who must have been about thirteen years old,” Rudder explains, “and he might have been with his grandmother; they were jumping up together in the road, and I thought, that’s quite a rich image that you don’t actually see anywhere else, because most kids that age would be embarrassed. Carole wanted to do a piece of work that conveys that bridging of the generations, as well as to document some of the key people who needed to be documented before they aren’t with us anymore. So the strongest element that I wanted to put forward was the generational thing, because it’s three generations involved, which I think is quite an amazing thing in itself. Lawrence and Clary would always say it’s all about the young people, making sure it continues.”


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