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Notting Hill pioneers take centre stage
By Stephen Spark
United Kingdom
Wednesday 28 November 2012 : 9:00 GMT

Carnival royalty assembled at the Yaa Centre on 22nd November for the Pioneers of Notting Hill Carnival. The invitation-only event was organised by the Carnival Arts & Masquerade Foundation (CAMF) as a preview of three exhibitions being run in 2013 to raise awareness about the people who laid the foundations for Europe’s largest annual carnival.

The idea for the exhibitions came about, we were told, because Elma Betancourt, one of the doyennes of Notting Hill Carnival, was turned away from the seating area at the judging point as the people on duty there did not know who she was. That incident highlighted the lack of knowledge about the carnival’s origins and the pioneers who worked so hard to build it into the world-famous event that it is today. And we were reminded – though few at Yaa would have needed reminding – that Notting Hill Carnival was created and sustained in the face of considerable adversity and opposition.

The focus for this preview was on mas, so there was a small display of some of Carl Gabriel’s evocative photographs of Notting Hill Carnival in the 1970s and 1980s, captioned by Ruth Tompsett, and many more views of both Notting Hill and Trinidad projected on to a screen. Several of Carl’s wire sculptures were also on display, a source of wonder in their precision and intricacy.

Two special guests were present from the world of steelpan – Russ Henderson and Sterling Betancourt. It was a real pleasure and privilege to see the two of them honoured in front of several generations of carnivalists. For Russ Henderson, though, Notting Hill Carnival came rather late on the scene, for his involvement in carnival in the UK began in Cambridge as far back as 1952, he told us.

Recognition was also given to the family of the late Vernon Williams, founder of Genesis. Smokey Joe, the DJ for the event, interviewed his widow Allyson, daughter and Genesis band-leader Symone and son Kevin. Watching from the sidelines was the pioneer of soca deejaying, Lord Sam.

We could hardly leave Yaa – for so many years the cauldron of UK calypso and home of the ABC tent – without hearing calypso, and De Alberto and Alexander D Great both obliged. The evening ended with Smokey playing a wonderful selection of old soca hits that took this reviewer back to nights long ago at Swiss Cottage and the Emerald Centre.

The exhibition series will run as follows:
• 17th to 27th January 2013
• 16th to 26th May 2013
• 17th to 27th October 2013.
The CAMF website,, will feature a webpage on mas pioneers and the history of Notting Hill Carnival.

The overall aim, according to CAMF, is to “promote pride and a renewed enthusiasm in our Carnival and Mas heritage”. And who can argue with that?

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