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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Marching through carnival's past
by Emma Griffiths
BBC News Online, London

Sterling Betancourt
Mr Betancourt was awarded the MBE for services to steel band music
When marching steel band Nostalgia jostle for space in West London this weekend they are continuing a tradition begun by their band leader at the first Notting Hill Carnival.

Steelpan pioneer Sterling Betancourt, 73, has never missed a carnival since performing at the first one held in Notting Hill in 1964.

These days the event is one of London's biggest weekends of the year, expecting to draw more than one million people over the bank holiday weekend.

It is a far cry from when the first event was held in Notting Hill and Mr Betancourt helped start the marching tradition which continues to this day.

Back then social worker Rhaune Laslett planned a small family festival to soothe tensions following serious race riots in the area.

Mr Betancourt and fellow musicians Russell Henderson and Mervyn Constantine were approached and asked if they would play.

A lot of people look forward to it and I wouldn't like to disappoint them, it gives me the incentive to go back
Sterling Betancourt
"It was a children's carnival, it wasn't a big thing," said Mr Betancourt, who lives in north London.

"There were lots of children with donkey carts, false moustaches and an African drummer by the name of Ginger Johnson with drums made from an elephant's foot.

"While we were standing there, Russell said: 'Let's all take a walk', we call it a road march, and we decided to move off.

"The crowd got bigger and we got crowds of people coming in with lots of different things - pots and pans, it was just like the beginning of carnival in Trinidad."

Nostalgia on parade at the 2001 carnival
Nostalgia is a regular fixture at Notting Hill
As the group walked down Bayswater Road, making up the route as they went, they caused some confusion among onlookers who thought it was a political protest.

"Some people didn't know what it was, they thought it was a demonstration, they said: 'What are you demonstrating about?," said Mr Betancourt.

"Why don't you go back to your own country? They didn't know it was just a carnival, that we were just having fun."

Since then Mr Betancourt has travelled Europe taking steelpan music to new countries.

But he returns to Notting Hill each year, along with many of his players from all over the world.

While other bands are carried through the carnival crowds on floats, Mr Betancourt's band members carry their steel drums around their necks and walk the length of the route.

Carnival's five disciplines
Mas (costumes)
Calypso
Soca
Steelpan
Static sound systems
But while he likes to stick to tradition, the noise generated by another of carnival's disciplines, the static sound systems, has forced the band to modernise in order to make itself heard.

So now Nostalgia follows a float carrying a bass player, drummer and amplifiers which accompany the band as it plays a mixture of calypso, hymns and old favourites.

"The sound systems forced us to get something so people can hear us a bit," conceded Mr Betancourt.

"If you are behind one of the trucks, you can't hear what you are playing because you just can't compete with electronic music."

At 73 Mr Betancourt cannot see a time when he will retire from carnival and will be celebrating his 40th appearance on its anniversary next year.

"A lot of people look forward to it and I wouldn't like to disappoint them, it gives me the incentive to go back," he said.




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