Words and Photos by Ravi Lloyd
This is Part 2 of a two-part series exploring the culture and traditions of Notting Hill Carnival, and Caribbean identity in London. Read Part 1, ‘Sound,’ here.
Playing mas is a celebration of freedom, with a bit of satirical irony. What began among Caribbean slaves as a way of imitating the European elite class, with their costumes and revelry, developed into a common person’s party post-Emancipation. For a couple days, one could let loose from all those days spent labouring on the plantation, in the factory or (nowadays) at your office job, and get pissed and dance in the streets. A purge of freedom from the shackles, if only for a day.
Just as it imported the sounds of the islands to the streets of London, Notting Hill Carnival brings the tradition of mas as well: The dancers, the masqueraders and all the people on the road in between. With two million people, sometimes you can’t even get a breath in the middle of it all. Along with Ebony Steel Band, who we got to know in Part 1, the Heritage Dance group will be among the outfits taking to the road at this year’s Notting Hill Carnival.
Members of Heritage Social, Arts, and Dance group preparing their costumes for Carnival.
There are so many dance groups in the parades every year, and anyone can join. You just have to reach out, even in Anguilla, where I’m from, it is like that. Sometimes people think it is an exclusive thing, but really everyone can jump up.
Heritage is based out of Tower Hamlets in East London and has people from all over the Caribbean: Grenadians, Lucians, Jamaicans, Dominicans and even Africans that want to join in the vibe. The group has been getting together for Notting Hill Carnival for over 15 years and are a champion group from 2017. Their section won children’s day on Sunday, as well as Monday’s historical section.
Group leader and choreographer, Rhianne, leading the steps for this year’s routine.
Along with dance groups are the masqueraders with the big elaborate costumes everyone thinks of then they think of carnival. Many cultures carry practices like this, but when it comes to Notting Hill Carnival it is coming from the Trinidadian idea of playing mas.
When I pulled up on Mas Arts over in Walthamstow, I knew I had made it to the source for mas in the UK. Lincoln Rahamut is a legend when it comes to making masquerade costumes for carnival. Trini born, he has been in London since the 70s and is one of the only people in London (and possibly the UK) that still bends wire for masquerade costumes. Everyone and their mother comes to Lincoln to execute their design. He is busy year ’round, bringing mas to the world.
“Everything must be measured,” Lincoln tells me.
Lincoln tells me he gets calls not only from London but T&T, NY, Barbados, St. Lucia. Just everywhere you can imagine. He doesn’t advertise his services, because he doesn’t even have time for all the work.
“You can make mas with anything, it is about being resourceful and creative.”
Here he is bending the wire and sizing up a bra for one of his costumes. It’s cool to see the resourcefulness that he uses in his practice. Like using the bottom of a bowl to get the round shape to make a cup for the breast. Something my dad would definitely do back home, as creativity is definitely a trait of island culture.
People send him designs, and he is constantly in production. Boss man was telling me he doesn’t even do shipping. Anyone with an order has to come to his workshop all the way in London to pick up their costumes, and figure out their own way to get it where they need to go.
Notting Hill Carnival takes place from Saturday the 25th of August to Monday the 27th. Full details can be found at the Notting Hill Carnival homepage. And if you aren’t into massive crowds, but still looking for Caribbean vibes in London, there are plenty of pre-Carnival bashes and afterparties to go to. Trini Jungle Juice has a comprehensive list.