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Carnival crusader Sonny Blacks: 'It's less authentic now'

CARNIVAL VETERAN: Musician Sonny Blacks

WHEN MOST people think about Notting Hill Carnival, flamboyant costumes, floats, jerk chicken and sound systems probably spring to mind.

Still, Sonny Blacks – an original member of the first carnival committee launched in October 1968 – recalls an entirely different chain of events to how it all began.
According to the Trinidadian musician, it was Russian/Native American social worker Rhaune Laslett who was the main organiser of week-long Notting Hill Fayre.

Hitting the streets of west London in 1966, this event had the aim of introducing the various cultural groups within the area to each other’s customs, and bringing some life to a notoriously ‘run down’ area.

“People would pile into the streets and participate,” Blacks recalls. “A lot of West Indians didn’t have anywhere to go, particularly with the racism that went on at the time”.

Trinidadian steel pan musician Russell Henderson was a part of the procession, along with Agnes O’Connell and her Irish Girl Pipers, a white New Orleans-style marching band and Nigerian maestro Ginger Johnson with his Afro-Cubans group, who’d play on a truck.

This was a diverse framework upon which our modern day carnival was built.
Though there is a blue plaque on the corner of Tavistock Square commemorating her early conception of carnival as we know it today, Laslett-is not widely known for her contribution to carnival’s foundation. Instead, journalist and activist Claudia Jones is broadly regarded as the ‘Mother of Notting Hill’.

As a response to the Notting Hill race riots in 1959, Jones organised an indoor Caribbean Carnival at the St. Pancras Town Hall, to celebrate the culture at this racially turbulent time. This was televised by the BBC and has been argued to be the nucleus for Notting Hill Carnival. Blacks refutes this suggestion.
“That’s an erroneous lie,” he exclaims. “I knew Claudia and she was a brilliant lady who did a lot for black people. [But] carnival is a street parade – her thing at St Pancras was a masque ball, which is very different. A true carnival cannot be in a hall.”

Another figure who is often praised for his work in the implementation of Notting Hill Carnival is former Mayor of Southwark, Sam King MBE, who died in June. King had assisted Jones with her event at the town hall and as such, Blacks holds the view that King played no part in the development of the carnival we know today.
“There’s absolutely no way,” he insists.

Despite his long association with carnival, Blacks expresses his dissatisfaction with the direction in which the event is currently heading.

“It’s less authentic now,” he says. “For instance, traditional mas-making has been sidelined in favour of imported costumes or just plain bikinis and beads. There’s no more live music. The creative processes have been thoroughly watered down.”
Still, Blacks declares that the annual event is very much a part of who he is.
“That’s why I still go. When I came to England, I stayed in Ladbroke first and I was here from the beginning.”

Asked why he hasn’t been more vocal about correcting the widespread inaccuracies about the birth of Notting Hill Carnival, Blacks explains that he has imparted all of his knowledge to the book, Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival by writer and filmmaker Ishmahil Blagrove.

“Everything is in there,” Blacks assures.

Carnival: A Photographic and Testimonial History of the Notting Hill Carnival is out now

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