The Practice of History

The History of Radical Mas Bands at Notting Hill Carnival

In 1983, a new type of Mas Band graced the streets of the UK Notting Hill Carnival. Mas Bands form part of the beating heart of the parade, peopled by Maskaraders. Maskaraders are an African-descended and creolised carnival practice in which people wear handcrafted and tailored-made costumes. This experience for Maskaraders is both ancestral and spiritual, and they are central to the participatory and spectated aspects of the carnival parade. These practices originated with enslaved Africans mocking white slave owners; prohibited from attending enslavers’ balls and parties, they started their own costumed events in their quarters. It is also a continuation of West African spiritual practices of masquerade brought over by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. These masqueraders embody and represent different spirits and the dancers usually appear during festivals, ceremonies, or rituals. 

The People’s War Carnival Band was founded with the distinct aim of radicalising the masses into the Black Radical Tradition through storytelling and consciousness-raising. For fifteen years, from 1983 until 1999, the band practised a decolonised approach to teaching history. As many institutions think through what it might look like to ‘decolonise’, I believe we have a lot to learn from the practices of African descended peoples and their community-based approaches to sharing, preserving, and learning history.

People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1985: ‘ “None but ourselves”: people who struggle against oppression’. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.

The People’s War Carnival Band was created by Michael and Keith La Rose, whose father founded the UK’s first Black bookshop, New Beacon Books. A description of the band, written by Michael La Rose, states that it ‘prides itself on its satirical and commentative themes. People’s War Carnival Band is a masquerade band that “Says Something”. The band believes in making a statement, in making Radical Mas.’ This radicalism was reflected in the name the La Rose brothers chose for the band. The phrase ‘People’s War’ referenced a poster supporting fighters in the war against Portuguese colonialists in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Buissau, showcasing their Pan-African approach to Black liberation.

The People’s War Carnival Band used art as a medium to tell history and to put forth cultural critiques. By centring African gods and traditions brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans, the band continued a tradition of reaffirming people’s identities and resisting colonialism. African people and diaspora use oral folklore as a means of cultural preservation and knowledge dissemination. The very survival of this Afrocentric folklore, despite the horror and terrors of transatlantic slavery, is a form of resistance.

The tale of Anansi the spider is illustrative of the preservation of this tradition. Originating in the villages and forests of West Africa, Anansi is an Ashanti Spider God with supernatural powers who uses his cunning to overcome others. In the words of scholar, Leota S. Lawrence the ‘Nancy stories explain why many things in the world are as they are: why wasps sting, why dogs’ bellies are hollow, why the spider lives in a web, and why the monkey is a follow fashion’. These stories and historical events were told in community and the commitment to orality ensured that anyone, and everyone, could be involved in accessing and preserving knowledge.

While the Caribbean versions of the stories share many similarities with those that originated across the Atlantic, innovation and local influences abound. Cherry Ann Smart, a Jamaican scholar, notes that ‘enslaved Africans embodied within their physical frames, transported a repository of indigenous knowledge and skills which they transmitted to subsequent generations through oral and epic traditions, many of which are still in practice today’. Continuing folklore served as a means for enslaved people to create familiar spaces in the new world of the Americas. Moreover, telling these stories served as momentary escapism from the horrors of the plantation as people gathered together and took part in Black joy. Through folklore, enslaved people disrupted the oppressive European cultural forces that did everything it could to disconnect them from any recollection of home. In the words of ground-breaking Jamaican theorist, Sylvia Wynter, African folklore retention reveals how ‘the cultural resistance to colonialism in this new land was an indigenous resistance… that humanize[d] the landscape by peopling it with gods and spirits’.

The People’s War Band was drew upon this long tradition. Michael La Rose noted that the band produced masquerade with a view to educating, informing and challenging both masqueraders and spectators. The band’s theme in 1985 was ‘ “None but ourselves”: people who struggle against oppression’.

People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1985: ‘ “None but ourselves”: people who struggle against oppression’. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.

Costume was key to the band’s storytelling and consciousness raising.  The figures celebrated in People’s War Carnival Band costumes crossed the centuries and the globe, from the Soweto Uprising in 1980s South Africa to Nanny Maroon in 1720s Jamaica, reflecting the transgenerational and transnational reach of Black liberation. The costumes also recognised unknown historical figures and Black community liberators- acknowledging that the names and victories of many who fought for freedom were not documented. In 1995, with the theme ‘Haiti: Let Freedom Rain’, focus was placed on African spirituality and liberty in the world’s first Black republic. One of the central costumes was the Yoruba orishas, a reference to the use of African spiritual practices to aid uprisings against enslavement in the Caribbean.

We can see through the themes chosen over a 10-year period that the Band practised what the historian and activist Walter Rodney described as African history in the service of liberation. For Rodney ‘African history must be seen as intimately linked to the contemporary struggle of Black people…The African historian, to me, is essentially involved in a process of mobilisation, just like any other individual within society who says I’m for Black power.’ The People’s War Band were African historians serving the masses; by using decolonised methods of information dissemination, they used history as a means to invoke the revolutionary process. In 1986, the Mas Band theme was ‘There is a problem in Paradise’ highlighting a number of issues faced by Caribbean nations: US imperialism, exploitation of the islands in the service of tourism and the intervention of new western organisations like the IMF. Each of these themes were detailed through satirical mas designs.

People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1986: “There’s Something Wrong in Paradise”. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.

Many of these critiques are still valid today.

The People’s War Carnival Band serves as an important reminder of what a decolonial and culturally specific approach to historical learning looks like. It shows us how cultural spaces can be sites of direct radical resistance. Those of us creating worlds centring Black futures can take two things away from the work of People’s War Carnival Band: firstly, as a community, we need to revisit and cultivate the practice of telling history in our cultural spaces on our own terms. This is of particular importance as UK schools remain white spaces that continue to fail Black children. Secondly, as radical disrupters, we can sustain traditions, rooted in ancestral practices, to spread our historical narratives among ourselves.

Decolonising the curriculum is not just about what history is taught, but also how history is taught. Educators can re-enact the methods of the People War Carnival Band through role play, to convey the spirit of carnival and as a way of learning the history of key figures and events of Black people. This is an approach we have embodied at BLAM UK through our school-based Black history programme with primary and secondary students, called the Grounded Project.

Much history writing and teaching remains rooted in colonial approaches, which replicate assumptions of white supremacy and encourage disengagement from Black students. In our desire to liberate ourselves as global oppressed peoples, we must continue to use methods unique to our ways of knowing the world to raise our consciousness of struggles for freedom and joy, in the past and in the present.

People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1994: “Back to Basics Britain”. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.
People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1995: “Haiti: Let Freedom Rain”. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.
People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1998: “After the Windrush”. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.
People’s War Carnival Band Programme, 1986: “There’s Something Wrong in Paradise”. Reproduced with the permission of the George Padmore Institute.

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