Saturday, September 1, 2012

Panorama, 25th August

My family and my parents have been going to Notting Hill Carnival for years, but for some reason my parents never took it upon themselves to tell me about Panorama. No, I had to discover it for myself via Time Out’s 1000 Things to Do book.

But what a discovery. I can’t believe this feel-good night is so little known. I hadn’t been to Carnival for a few years now, and although we were going on Monday, I was worried it wouldn’t be as good as I had remembered it (this turned out to be a needless fear – if you stuck to following the parade and ignored the static sound systems, it was as if nothing had changed since I was 18). But after I went to Panorama, I realised it didn’t matter how good or bad Carnival was – everything I liked about it was to be found right here.

Every year,since 1978,  before Carnival (the exact date changes) the National Steel Pan Competition takes place. There are six finalists who are judged on a variety of factors on their ten minute interpretation of a steel pan classic. It has been held in Hyde Park a couple of times, but its ‘home’ is Horniman Pleasance Park in Westbourne Grove and that’s where it was this year. This year, it was taking place between 7 and 10 pm but it is sometimes held in the daytime.

We got to Westbourne Grove and made our way to the tiny Horniman’s Pleasance Park. There were people going in the same direction as us, but not enough to make it obvious that they too were going to Panorama, and not just residents going back to their flats, as the park is in the middle of quite a built up area. But soon we heard music and knew we were heading in the right direction.

In my head, I envisioned a little park, with a little bandstand, on which the bands would set up and play for a few people dotted around it. When we got there we were surprised by the charged, party atmosphere. We walked into the park and there was a huge screen showing photographs and music blaring. But we couldn’t see any sign of a live band. I noticed a little kiosk in one corner of the park and we went over there but they weren’t selling anything that took our fancy. We had arrived at 8:30 pm and were nonplussed to say the least that we couldn’t tell where the bands were. Surely they should have been in full swing by now – we were an hour and a half late!

After 10 minutes or so of the same song being played, the screen changed and a live video feed came on, with an MC welcoming you to Panorama. But where was he? He was gone almost as soon as he was on and the same song was looped again. Puzzled and slightly frustrated, we decided to leave the park and go for a walk around it to pass some time. And that’s when we discovered the food stalls! One one side of the park, several stalls selling just the kind of food you’d expect from Carnival were set up, their wares including curry goat, jerk chicken, patties and dumplings. We weren’t actually hungry but we made a mental note to be sure to buy something before we left. 

The food stalls

We carried on walking up around the park and discovered – the ‘stage’! The competition wasn’t taking place inside the park at all – it was happening behind it! Unfortunately, we had realised this quite late and there were plenty of people in front of us with better views. The public were only allowed to observe from the sides (or the big screen in the park). The best, front-on views were reserved for the judges. We watched one band, and when they were done the MC apologised for the late running and said that they were the second band on! God knows what we would have done had we actually turned up on time. (Gone to the pub.)

One band's finale from the first side

Knowing how long it seemed to have taken them to get even two bands on, we decided to investigate the other side of the park. And this is when it all became clear. When we went to the other side, we saw the next band ‘waiting in the wings’. Each band was set up on a truck as they would be for the Carnival, and after the previous band was done, would then drive their float through into position before the judges. Any extra pans needed were then set up in front and to the side of the float. What seemed to be hindering the whole night was that the road that the floats were using to get into place, was also where people were congregating to watch. Every time a band finished, the audience to the side had to be persuaded to move to the side to let the next band on. It was taking a while.

A band moving their drums in

Naturally we joined this crowd and when the next band were through managed to get quite a good spot to enjoy the music. 
Down this side was yet another set of stalls selling Caribbean food. We bought a selection to take with us – some curry goat, a couple of patties (Me: what’s in these patties? Stallholder: Meat. Me: I’ll take two.) and a dumpling. Didn’t think much of the dumpling which was a bit dry and chewy after having been reheated in the microwave, but the beef patty was deliciously savoury with just a bit of spiciness to it and a crisp pastry shell.

Better view from the other side

But before we went, we went back in the park to get a front view of one of the bands. People were constantly going back and forth between the big screen in the park and the live action at the back. Unfortunately, neither places provided a completely satisfactory experience. If you were at the back watching it live, it sounded great but you couldn’t see much. If you were in the park, you got a great view, but the sound was very poor. It sounded like they were playing miles away, not mere metres. Panorama has been going for years so perhaps this really is the best solution they can come up with, but it feels like there is room for improvement.

This aside, we were there for a couple of hours in the end, watched about four bands and got some great food. The atmosphere is really relaxed yet lively. Everyone is there to hear some good music and have some fun. It’s not widely publicised so it’s not crowded. People there seemed to be mostly residents of the area or people who knew a band. It had a local festival feel to it, and people had brought along something to drink and sometimes chairs as well to settle in for the evening. It basically combined two of my favourite things about Carnival – steel pans, and food, but without the crowds, litter, queues for toilets, and minor threat of violence. Even if I go to Carnival but once a decade from now on, I will head to this more regularly.

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Please feel free to add your views, or maybe suggest somewhere I should put on my list!