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Caribbean

Published on August 31st, 2015 | by David Kalloo

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A Tribute to Russell ‘Russ’ Henderson MBE – Founder/Pioneer Notting Hill Carnival

I was toiling with the idea of how to write a tribute to Russell Henderson MBE. Most people would be writing tributes to the great man of music, charting his achievements and I did not want to follow this norm.  Out of the blue, Vernon ‘Fellows’ Williams voice, echoed in my ear.

Vernon and Lincoln Rahamut were the first two people I knew in London’s carnival arena and it was while at a function ‘ole talking’ with Vernon, he turned to me and said. ‘This is Russ Henderson, the man who started carnaval.’ At that time I had no idea what Vernon was talking about for as far I can recall, everyone and, all that I had read said something different.

Russell Henderson greeted me with a warm handshake and a captivating smile beamed on his face and he spoke only three words: ‘Hello young man.’ His smile lingered on his face, a genuine smile as he disappeared into the crowd chatting and being jovial with everyone.

Many years later when I went to interview Mr. Henderson at his home, I was in awe that he remembered me.  Here was a man in his 80s, ambulant and a memory as sharp as honed blade. His smile still warm but not as lingering and his face more weathered.

Sitting in his room was like being in the presence of a king. I felt privileged to be there, in the house of a truly great Trinidadian, a man who had sowed the seeds of our culture into a soil that resisted its growth since the days of colonial dominance.

Looking around the room, I felt I was transported back in time.  Russ, as he’s affectionately known sat at his piano and started caressing the keyboard producing a jazzy rhythm. I sat and absorbed the music.  While his fingers danced on the keyboard, he said, ‘I still play at the 606 you know.’ He switched from the piano to the lone tenor pan at the other end of the room.  That moment was magical to me and one I will never forget, just Russ on the pan and me the audience. The sweet sound that emanated from the pan filled the room with a joyful vibrance.

After the musical interlude he opened the door that led to a small garden and introduced his chickens to me and said; ‘So young man, what you want to know?’  As the interview progressed, it became clear to me that the man sitting in front of me dressed in jeans, Ben Sherman shirt and braces was indeed, Mr. Carnival. Here was a man, humble to the point where he said. ‘It’s the people who started carnival, not me.’

This humble individual who, not only did he produce mellifluous music, he also transformed the tapestry of London’s culture that is today hailed as the ‘biggest street festival’ in Europe and, which is known the world over as the Notting Hill Carnival.

Born in Belmont, Trinidad, Russell Henderson came to Britain in 1951 to study piano tuning.  Instead, he etched out a vibrant pan Jazz culture with his Jazz quartet.  It was through his stint at the Colherne Pub in Earls Court, London that Rhuanne Laslett invited him to come along and play at her Children’s Carnival.  The sound of a single steel pan was enough to entice West Indians out of their homes and into the streets and thus Notting Hill Carnival was born.

Russell Henderson’s contribution to music in the UK has earned him an MBE in 2006 and a commemorative Blue Heritage plaque, presented by the Nubian Jak Trust.  The plaque was unveiled on 24 August 2012 by the former Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner to London, HE Garvin Nicholas.

It was with some irony that the last time I saw Russ was at a farewell function. It was a beautiful moment to savour as I watched the great man, absorbed in the music coming from the tenor pan of Brent Holder. He smiled, that warm smile, he touched the brim of his hat to Brent and, his smile lingered.

Russell ‘Russ’ Henderson MBE

7 January 1924 – 18 August 2015

 


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