Behind the Masquerade: The Return of Notting Hill Carnival

This year, Notting Hill's Caribbean community was more determined than ever to exude positivity and resilience, an act of resistance central to Carnival’s history.
The Passistas of the Paraiso School of Samba perform in the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
The Passistas of the Paraiso School of Samba perform in the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost

For the first time since 2019, the biggest Carnival event outside Rio returned to the streets of Notting Hill in London, emerging from darkness in a flurry of color and revelry. For three days, spectators from around the world wine alongside a bustling parade with elaborate floats and vibrantly costumed performers and masqueraders, celebrating the rich return of Caribbean culture to the streets.

A fanfare of mas bands, floats and dancers weaved its way through a small corner of West London to the sounds of steel pan and Soca music, surrounded by the welcome aromas of jerk chicken and rum punch, enveloping us with a sense of joy, unity and celebration. This year, more than ever, the Carnival community was determined to exude positivity and resilience, an act of resistance that is central to Carnival’s history.

For many, Notting Hill Carnival is a chance to celebrate summer’s end during the U.K.’s final holiday weekend. For those within the Caribbean community, though, Carnival is a way of life all year-round — a ritual that is ingrained in their identity, connecting them to each other and their ancestors. From the electric Panorama Steel Band competition that opens the festivities to the colorful oils and powders of J’ouvert and Dutty Mas painting the skies, the Notting Hill Parade closes off a weekend of elation and freedom.


Behind the Masquerade, a photographic tribute to this past year’s festivities, pulls open the curtain to reveal the Carnival community that makes it all happen. I spent the month leading up to Carnival photographing Mas Band designers such as Cee Bolakee from Vibrance Band, who embellishes her intricate costumes with gems and feathers; the Paraiso School of Samba as they rehearsed their fast-footed routines to the sound of their bateria, the accompanying percussion band; and the members of the Mangrove Steelband rehearsing their show-stopping number ahead of this year’s Panorama competition.

This series includes portraits and interviews that highlight the importance of this year’s big return to the streets of Ladbroke Grove and Portobello Road, and what it truly means to the Caribbean community in the U.K.

Cee Bolakee is pictured in her home studio, where she makes all of her intricate and detailed Carnival costumes. Her theme this year is inspired by the effects of climate change on coral reefs around the world, particularly her home island of Mauritius. The costumes are named after notable coral reefs to advocate for environmental sustainability, and are made of recycled materials such as plastic bottles and paper plates. <br><br>“I get to express myself and see people enjoying themselves, and I have a part to play in that,” Bolakee says.
Cee Bolakee is pictured in her home studio, where she makes all of her intricate and detailed Carnival costumes. Her theme this year is inspired by the effects of climate change on coral reefs around the world, particularly her home island of Mauritius. The costumes are named after notable coral reefs to advocate for environmental sustainability, and are made of recycled materials such as plastic bottles and paper plates.

“I get to express myself and see people enjoying themselves, and I have a part to play in that,” Bolakee says.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Left: Model Rochelle Davis poses while wearing her Carnival 2022 costume during her fitting at the Vibrance Mas Band costume workshop. Right: Davis laces her golden heels during her Carnival costume fitting.
Left: Model Rochelle Davis poses while wearing her Carnival 2022 costume during her fitting at the Vibrance Mas Band costume workshop. Right: Davis laces her golden heels during her Carnival costume fitting.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Rishelle, a designer for Funatik's Mas Band, adjusts a costume for her Carnival section, "Cloud Nine." <br><br>"My design is inspired by the feeling of coming out of lockdown," Rishelle says. "We were stuck, we couldn't see friends, we couldn't go anywhere, and then we came out and we could finally be somewhat normal again, it made me feel like I was on cloud nine."
Rishelle, a designer for Funatik's Mas Band, adjusts a costume for her Carnival section, "Cloud Nine."

"My design is inspired by the feeling of coming out of lockdown," Rishelle says. "We were stuck, we couldn't see friends, we couldn't go anywhere, and then we came out and we could finally be somewhat normal again, it made me feel like I was on cloud nine."
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Top left: Orange gems are glued onto a Vibrance Mas Band costume. Top right: Caroline, a team member, glues feathers with the help of scissors onto a Funatik Mas Band costume. <br><br>Bottom left: Orange gems are added to the Vibrance Mas Band costume. Bottom right: Pink ribbon is added to metal rods to create a back support for the children's Carnival costumes at the Funatik Mas Band costume workshop.
Top left: Orange gems are glued onto a Vibrance Mas Band costume. Top right: Caroline, a team member, glues feathers with the help of scissors onto a Funatik Mas Band costume.

Bottom left: Orange gems are added to the Vibrance Mas Band costume. Bottom right: Pink ribbon is added to metal rods to create a back support for the children's Carnival costumes at the Funatik Mas Band costume workshop.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Team member Caroline glues gems onto costumes ahead of Notting Hill Carnival.
Team member Caroline glues gems onto costumes ahead of Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Martin Jay is Funatik's Mas Band leader, Caribbean music specialist and DJ. <br><br>"My parents' generation [came] over from the Caribbean, and brought Carnival with them," he says. "That has been transcended down to my generation, which we now transcend down to our children. It's more than a two-day festival; it's a way of life."
Martin Jay is Funatik's Mas Band leader, Caribbean music specialist and DJ.

"My parents' generation [came] over from the Caribbean, and brought Carnival with them," he says. "That has been transcended down to my generation, which we now transcend down to our children. It's more than a two-day festival; it's a way of life."
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Students rehearse in an advanced Samba class at the Paraiso School of Samba ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival.
Students rehearse in an advanced Samba class at the Paraiso School of Samba ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria accompanies Samba dancers as they rehearse ahead of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria accompanies Samba dancers as they rehearse ahead of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Rhona Ezuma has been a dancer with the Paraiso School of Samba since 2014.<br><br> "To me, this year's carnival represents resilience, and the ability to bounce back with a force," Ezuma says. "It represents a hopeful return, and I hope it will represent the original meaning behind Carnival, which is about bringing people together, resistance and celebration."
Rhona Ezuma has been a dancer with the Paraiso School of Samba since 2014.

"To me, this year's carnival represents resilience, and the ability to bounce back with a force," Ezuma says. "It represents a hopeful return, and I hope it will represent the original meaning behind Carnival, which is about bringing people together, resistance and celebration."
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Students rehearse at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Students rehearse at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Students in an advanced Samba class rehearse at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Students in an advanced Samba class rehearse at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Amber Ogunsanya-William (20) is this year's Porta-Bandeira, meaning Flag Bearer, for the Paraiso School of Samba — a role that is considered royalty in Brazilian culture. She is accompanied by Chirag Goyate, the Mestre Sala, and together they will open and lead Paraiso in this year's Notting Hill Carnival Parade.<br><br> "This year’s Carnival represents happiness," Ogunsanya-William says. "I haven’t been happy in such a long time. You get a special spiritual energy when you parade, and you really feel the ancestors walking with you."
Amber Ogunsanya-William (20) is this year's Porta-Bandeira, meaning Flag Bearer, for the Paraiso School of Samba — a role that is considered royalty in Brazilian culture. She is accompanied by Chirag Goyate, the Mestre Sala, and together they will open and lead Paraiso in this year's Notting Hill Carnival Parade.

"This year’s Carnival represents happiness," Ogunsanya-William says. "I haven’t been happy in such a long time. You get a special spiritual energy when you parade, and you really feel the ancestors walking with you."
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Amber Ogunsanya-William and Chirag Goyate kiss the Paraiso School of Samba flag, a tradition in Brazilian culture.
Amber Ogunsanya-William and Chirag Goyate kiss the Paraiso School of Samba flag, a tradition in Brazilian culture.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Samba instructor Leila leads an advanced rehearsal at the Paraiso School of Samba ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival.
Samba instructor Leila leads an advanced rehearsal at the Paraiso School of Samba ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria accompanies Samba dancers as they rehearse ahead of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria accompanies Samba dancers as they rehearse ahead of the Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria prepares for the Notting Hill Carnival.
Paraiso School of Samba's Bateria prepares for the Notting Hill Carnival.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Andre White, the Mangrove Steelband's arranger, conducts the band's rehearsal on All Saints Road.
Andre White, the Mangrove Steelband's arranger, conducts the band's rehearsal on All Saints Road.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A woman grills jerk chicken on All Saints Road as the Mangrove Steelband rehearses.
A woman grills jerk chicken on All Saints Road as the Mangrove Steelband rehearses.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Romaya rehearses as part of the Mangrove Steelband. This is the band's first outdoor rehearsal this year, performing in front of a crowd on All Saints Road. On this night, the band's competing song, "Mash Up" by Blaxx, is revealed ahead of the 2022 Panorama Steel Pan competition. <br><br>"Carnival is a place where I know I can truly be myself, wear what I want, dance when I want, without being judged," Romaya says. "I have the utmost respect for the people who make Carnival happen every year."
Romaya rehearses as part of the Mangrove Steelband. This is the band's first outdoor rehearsal this year, performing in front of a crowd on All Saints Road. On this night, the band's competing song, "Mash Up" by Blaxx, is revealed ahead of the 2022 Panorama Steel Pan competition.

"Carnival is a place where I know I can truly be myself, wear what I want, dance when I want, without being judged," Romaya says. "I have the utmost respect for the people who make Carnival happen every year."
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Amelia Karlsen, this year's Rainha, or Queen, for the Paraiso School of Samba, rehearses ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival parade. Paraiso School of Samba will open this year's parade and be the first to walk and dance down the streets of Notting Hill on Carnival Monday.
Amelia Karlsen, this year's Rainha, or Queen, for the Paraiso School of Samba, rehearses ahead of this year's Notting Hill Carnival parade. Paraiso School of Samba will open this year's parade and be the first to walk and dance down the streets of Notting Hill on Carnival Monday.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Amelia, this year's Rainha for the Paraiso School of Samba, during the school's final rehearsal before the Carnival parade.
Amelia, this year's Rainha for the Paraiso School of Samba, during the school's final rehearsal before the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Students from the Paraiso School of Samba rehearse the day before the Notting Hill Carnival parade, as onlookers watch.
Students from the Paraiso School of Samba rehearse the day before the Notting Hill Carnival parade, as onlookers watch.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Paraiso School of Samba students rehearse the day before the Carnival parade.
Paraiso School of Samba students rehearse the day before the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Amber Ogunsanya-William gets ready, with the help of her mother, for the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Amber Ogunsanya-William gets ready, with the help of her mother, for the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Dancers and the school's Rainha, Amelia, get ready at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Dancers and the school's Rainha, Amelia, get ready at the Paraiso School of Samba.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba applies makeup ahead of this year's Carnival parade.
A dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba applies makeup ahead of this year's Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba prepare to join the Carnival parade.
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba prepare to join the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A passista dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba makes adjustments to her Carnival costume.
A passista dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba makes adjustments to her Carnival costume.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Costumes are laid out for the Paraiso School of Samba Passistas.
Costumes are laid out for the Paraiso School of Samba Passistas.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba get into costume for the Carnival parade.
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba get into costume for the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A passista dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba makes adjustments to another dancer's Carnival costume.
A passista dancer for the Paraiso School of Samba makes adjustments to another dancer's Carnival costume.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba prepare to join the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Dancers at the Paraiso School of Samba prepare to join the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A costumed masquerader participates in the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
A costumed masquerader participates in the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
"Not many people have the chance to go to Brazil, so sharing a snippet of Brazilian culture through Samba has been a privilege," says Miriam, a dancer from the Paraiso School of Samba.
"Not many people have the chance to go to Brazil, so sharing a snippet of Brazilian culture through Samba has been a privilege," says Miriam, a dancer from the Paraiso School of Samba.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
The Paraiso School of Samba Bateria performs during the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
The Paraiso School of Samba Bateria performs during the Notting Hill Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Passista dancers for the Paraiso School of Samba make their way to the Carnival parade.
Passista dancers for the Paraiso School of Samba make their way to the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Left to right: Rochelle from Funatik's Mas Band participates in the Notting Hill Carnival parade. Leila poses for a portrait on her way to the parade. A dancer from the Paraiso School of Samba performs during the parade.
Left to right: Rochelle from Funatik's Mas Band participates in the Notting Hill Carnival parade. Leila poses for a portrait on her way to the parade. A dancer from the Paraiso School of Samba performs during the parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A sea of masqueraders walk along the route of the Notting Hill Carnival parade down Ladbroke Grove.
A sea of masqueraders walk along the route of the Notting Hill Carnival parade down Ladbroke Grove.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Onlookers watch the Notting Hill Carnival parade go down Ladbroke Grove.
Onlookers watch the Notting Hill Carnival parade go down Ladbroke Grove.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
The Passistas of the Paraiso School of Samba pose for a photo.
The Passistas of the Paraiso School of Samba pose for a photo.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A young girl perched on a man's shoulders wears bright butterfly wings and observes the first day of the Notting Hill Carnival parade. The first Carnival parade is described as family-friendly.
A young girl perched on a man's shoulders wears bright butterfly wings and observes the first day of the Notting Hill Carnival parade. The first Carnival parade is described as family-friendly.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Bianca Wardally participates in the Notting Hill Carnival wearing a Vibrance Mas Band costume designed by Cee Bolakee. The outfit is inspired by the effects of climate change on coral reefs, particularly Bolakee's home island of Mauritius.
Bianca Wardally participates in the Notting Hill Carnival wearing a Vibrance Mas Band costume designed by Cee Bolakee. The outfit is inspired by the effects of climate change on coral reefs, particularly Bolakee's home island of Mauritius.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Millions of attendees walk along the parade route at Notting Hill Carnival, alongside floats.
Millions of attendees walk along the parade route at Notting Hill Carnival, alongside floats.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
A woman covered in paint and colorful powder participates in Dutty Mas, which takes place on the second day of Notting Hill Carnival and signifies the start of the Carnival parade.
A woman covered in paint and colorful powder participates in Dutty Mas, which takes place on the second day of Notting Hill Carnival and signifies the start of the Carnival parade.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Colorful powders and paints are released in the air during Dutty Mas.
Colorful powders and paints are released in the air during Dutty Mas.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Women covered in black paint attend Dutty Mas.
Women covered in black paint attend Dutty Mas.
Clara Watt for HuffPost
Spectators raise their hands as they watch bands perform at the Panorama Steel Band competition.
Spectators raise their hands as they watch bands perform at the Panorama Steel Band competition.
Clara Watt for HuffPost

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