Thursday, 21 June 2012

Don't Scrap My Soca

Growing up in Tottenham was unique and for me a truly privileged experience.  In school nobody had even heard of my father’s birthplace, Mauritius, but in Tottenham this was completely different.  One road seemed to be Rue Ile Maurice: my dad, the next door neighbour and another across the road were all from our tiny island!

Therefore it was no surprise in 1985 when a Mauritian man from Enfield decided to open a nightclub just next to South Tottenham railway station called the “Sega Club”. For the next seven years, this was the heartbeat of the Mauritian community in London.  Its legacy has continued to live on thanks to the number of functions which continue to take place in the area.  This was no normal nightclub.  This was somewhere where Mauritian families would converge on like some kind of religious sacrilege.  Trust me; the Port Louis bar on West Green Road was not a patch on this place.

There’s a debate to be had about whether it’s acceptable for children as young as 3 or 4 to be in an environment where alcohol and cigarettes are openly being consumed on the premises.  Personally speaking, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

The name Sega Club stemmed from the local music of Mauritius, Sega, which as any listener will tell you,  is not too dissimilar from two Caribbean brands of music called Calypso and Soca.  But the similarities do not end there.  One of the biggest musical genres in Africa, Zouk, was born not in Africa, but on the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which as any resident will of course confirm, speak the same creole dialect as that which is spoken in Mauritius, Seychelles, Rodrigues and Reunion Island.  The Sega Club would never play anything but zouk, soca, calypso and sega.

It was surreal. Whilst most kids of my age were learning words to songs like “star trekkin” and “when will I be famous” I was too busy memorising the lyrics to “Nani wine” and “ton polo”.  I learnt so much from the whole Sega Club experience, as young as I was. It was to leave a significant footprint in my life and without doubt shaped me into who I am today.  It showed me how music could unite a community far away from their origins and share magical aspects of their culture.  That and my passion for soca music which continued long after the Sega Club had closed its doors. 

That road would lead me to Notting Hill carnival on the August bank holiday of 1998.  I had an incredible time singing along and impressing everyone with my near-perfect karaoke of “Who let the dogs out”.  The track had been heavily plugged during the West Indies v England cricket test series earlier that year. The weather was rubbish but it hadn’t detracted from my enjoyment and I immediately decided I had to return the following year.  And the year after that.  In fact since blowing my very first carnival whistle I have missed just three: 2004, 2006 and 2007.  My ex-fiancee hated it, she had nothing like the appreciation for soca I harboured.  She would tolerate it, but it was no coincidence that the three carnivals I missed all occurred during my six year relationship with her.  For anyone who loves soca music as much as I do, carnival is our event.

However sadly I have encountered much criticism for my love of carnival over the years.  Back in 2001 I probably met my strongest resistance to my intentions, which was the year after two people had been murdered.  What ultimately convinced me to attend that year was a good old touch of sentimentalness.  The event was taking place barely a few weeks before I would be moving to Derby.  My friends attended almost out of loyalty to me, a testimonial like ritual, as if it was going to be my last ever carnival and that life would never be the same once I had left London.  It was another resounding success.

When I left London I still did return for carnivals, with the exception of those mentioned earlier.  But I now wanted to find out how people interpreted carnival in other parts of the country.  So in 2002 I did Derby carnival and in 2003 Nottingham carnival.  They are very different from the Notting Hill carnival and I do believe what spoiled my enjoyment of those initial events was my insistence on making the comparisons.  They are staged in parks, albeit with a street procession, but it’s a much lower key affair.  I regard them as being warm up events before the main act at the end of every August.  They have previously raised ideas to put Notting Hill carnival in Hyde Park, but what makes Notting Hill so special is that it is on the streets of London.  I would be horrified if that ever changed.

People find it difficult to believe that in all my years of attending carnivals I have never seen so much as a slap across anyone’s face. I am not disputing that there are some undesirable elements to carnival; I know it happens, I am just saying it never happens anywhere near me.  I know where to go, where to avoid, where to find everything I need.  I know who to go with, who not to go with, and most of all I know what attitude to bring.  It’s a winning formula, it works, and it serves me well while ensuring I always leave carnival desperate for more.

In 2008 I was actually caught up in the beginning of the disturbances.  Me and my friend were following behind the final soca sound system truck heading back towards the garages when suddenly the crowd seemed to be separating. There was no huge fuss, just a human Mexican wave. I arrived home and switched on the TV and then pieced the puzzle together.  But at no time during any of those moments did I ever feel in danger, threatened, intimidated or scared.  Nor did anyone around us. 

There would have been some that night who wanted to find out what the fuss was about, to follow where the people were running towards behind us.  Maybe they were involved with some of the disturbances that night, maybe they were just curious.  But the point was all of the rest of us had no interest in finding out what was going on.  Our agenda was simple: to wave our flags, blow our horns, and sing soca songs very loudly.

The summer of 2011 was as we all know a difficult one.  With the Hackney carnival cancelled, the Nottingham carnival was next on the calendar and was under the spotlight amid intense pressure from all sides to cancel the event.  The event was subsequently scaled back to one day, but amidst tight security, the carnival went ahead.  Considering the event was staged just days after a Nottingham Police station had been firebombed as the riots spread their way from Tottenham, it was a bold move. 

I was in no doubt it was the correct decision. On a personal level it had been an awful week due to my own connections to north London.  But also for the people of Nottingham, we needed a community event to lift the city.  The event was a huge success with just two arrests for minor offences.  In doing so it delivered a firm signal of defiance against those who had tried so hard to get the event cancelled.

When the Notting Hill carnival arrived I was very relaxed.  I had seen it all before.  The majority were begging me not to go, and I just shrugged my shoulders as I knew there was nothing that would stop me attending. What concerned me if anything was if others held the spirit and determination of me and my friends.  When we left the tube station on the Saturday evening of Panorama I will never forget the moment of being pushed aside as a military style train like procession of police officers barged past us heading towards where the carnival warm up party was taking place.  My heart sank and I feared that this over zealous approach would scare people away.

Yet when I turned a corner and saw the trucks, the crowds of revellers who had defied the appalling weather to defiantly come to save our event, I broke into the widest smile possible.  It was a smile of relief, but also of immense pride.  Pride; that on the back of the biggest press campaign against the event in a decade, there was nothing that would stop us coming out to keep our event alive. I bumped into a lot of old faces that day and we all said the same thing: this is our carnival and we need to protect it.

This year I felt a moral obligation to attend the Tottenham carnival. I was extremely disappointed when I learned that it had been cancelled.  The full reasons will no doubt become clearer in the days to follow, but it would appear that Tottenham has missed an opportunity.  An opportunity to bring a community together, through music, to create some positive images of a part of London which will always be close to my heart, farcical football club excepted of course.

Tottenham; the place that gave me my first introduction to cultural pride, the appreciation of soca music and experience how a community can come together to build something special.  I hope the carnival does return to Tottenham again.  I want to experience the pride of carrying my Mauritian flag through the streets of Tottenham, blowing my horn and singing my soca.  Most of all I want to witness the sea of happy faces in a place that probably deserves more than most to smile again.

So with a nod to Desmond, I plea to the good people of Tottenham: we need our carnival back.  Please don’t scrap my soca.