When it comes to Carnival, Rio and Notting Hill are global titans. The events of the last few weeks demonstrate the power of collective unity. Roll through Notting Hill with a smile on your face but don’t forget where its roots lie, and the reason it was established. Namely, as a bastion of culture and resistance in response to the brutal killing of Antiguan immigrant; Kelso Cochrane in 1959, and wider systematic racial oppression. The events of the last few weeks, the tragedy of Grenfell tower, and the annual pre-emptive arrests serve as pertinent reminders that such foundations must never be overlooked. Unfortunately, COVID-19 looks set to disrupt Notting Hill proceedings this year. We urge the HERD to use the time to reflect, educating ourselves on the central causes, the people Carnival represents, and how both can be actively supported. Equality, justice, togetherness: the values of RDJ + NH carnivals are the same. How do the parties themselves compare? We went to Rio 2020 to find out.
LOCATION. Running since 1723 with over two million partygoers each year, Rio De Janeiro has a heavyweight history. The Carnival has traditionally religious significance, marking the celebration before the fasting season of lent. Parades, parties, and open-air stages. Casual doesn’t cut it. Everywhere you look, your senses are feasted with brightly coloured floats, vibrant dancers, and flamboyant live music. Across the Atlantic, Rhaune Laslett was instrumental for Notting Hill Carnival kick-off in 1966, and with one million attendees each year, the story is similar. Real street food, banging soundsystems, carnival buzz; not much changes. The better party venue? It’s hard to argue with Rio De Janeiro’s breath-taking natural beauty. The backdrop is genuinely ridiculous. Hot rain dropping did anything but dampen Brazilian spirits, nor decrease their spirit consumption. Picture Christ the Redeemer towering over the city, endless golden sandy beaches, and a tropical mountainous terrain cradling the pumping metropolis beneath it. This place is special; the perfect party destination.
ATMOSPHERE. The arrival of Carnaval do Rio de Janeiro evokes a real sense of anticipation. Having said that, the blocos are dispersed across the city, so you are not always surrounded by it all. But when you step into the place, the place is popping. Like at Notting Hill, we see colossal float parades, talented samba schools, and deafening drum sets. Over the recent years, Brazil has undergone a socio-political renaissance and what really struck us was the open celebration of LGBTQ+ communities – it’s a stronger sentiment than in the UK and wonderful to witness. Deep inside the dance, it’s simple enough to smash your way through espetinho kebabs, sink too many caipirinhas, and, if you’re lucky, secure a whine from a Brazilian grandma. However, flooded across the space, I’d say Notting Hill wins for atmosphere because you don’t have to move anywhere to find pure noise. We like that. Sweaty bouncing crowds, the constant smell of weed, and hundreds of thousands of empty noss canisters all add to the character of the London party we know and love. With a sturdy pair of old creps and Red Stripe in hand, you’re set to soak it all up in your stride. Rio puts a lot into the ‘official Carnival’ at the Sambódromo, which is quite the madness, but you have to pay-to-enter. Put on by the people, for the people, Notting Hill Carnival is centred around the city streets. For me, that’s what it’s all about.
WARDROBE. Fact – the people of Rio de Janeiro know how to curate a showstopping wardrobe. Skin is the costume of choice: boob, butt, belly everywhere you look. Weaving through the streets of the old town, it’s easy to see that creativity is key. From traditional Masquerade outfits, dazzling jewelled headdresses, iconic Brazilian football legends et al, the aesthetic is impossible to fault. In Rio, every spectator is a performer and we were markedly under(over)dressed; Maharishi doesn’t cut the mustard when tutus are the norm. Thankfully, the girls we were with absolutely smashed it with their Carni garms. Widespread commitment to rocking head-turning attire is the Brazilian way; no complaints there. The attractive people of RDJ embellish themselves in paint, encrust their skin in rhinestone, and grow majestic wings. South America is brought to life. The look sets the scene for the prevailing party, and the seats of Rio subway are truly blessed to score a VIP view. Costumes are fire; confidence is king.
SOUNDSYSTEMS. These are the beating heart of Notting Hill. Since its inception, the event has championed Caribbean Culture. From rum punch to Red Stripe, to the five tonnes of Jerk Chicken knocked back every year; but the real focus is on the music. Silky soft soca sounds and velvety origins in dub, calypso and ska reggae are at the core of Notting Hill Carnival. Though, things have evolved over the years and, for better or worse, now we see more eclectic line-ups across genres. The music in Rio is more of an acquired taste. You have a choice: it’s Samba, or Samba. Percolating sounds ring through your ears into the night yet the acoustic focus still doesn’t size up against the West London daddy. Inspired heavily by Trinidadian Carnival, London sees soundsystem collectives coming together to shut the show down. The sound is so sophisticated: amplifiers, processors, turntables, mixers, amps, speakers (bass, mid, top); it’s just enormous! Food is an immense part of both carnivals, but only the London soundsystems will properly feed your ears. With a few tinnies and a positive attitude, you’re set for a legendary Ladbroke rave. The beats, they bang.
Perennial community atmosphere, cultural celebrations, sweat-licked day parties, aching legs, and hefty hangovers are characteristics of both carnivals. The annual festivals are quite rightly part of the DNA for those at the heart of carnival heritage either side of the Atlantic. So, who takes the crown? I have to say Notting Hill. With unbelievable soundsystems and stadium-like atmosphere, the West London two-day party produces every time. Head to Rio de Janeiro if you can, we loved it. The city is electric, and Carnival is the belly of the beast. It encapsulates everything magical about this special place. When things re-open here in the UK, the best party of the year will not fail to deliver. We need Carnival now more than ever. Educate, act, amplify: meaningfully get behind its root causes and the people at its core. Know that it will rain sunshine on the streets of Notting Hill once more.
By Zack Santos