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King of Carnival

Pax Nindi speaks to Maxine Betteridge-Moes after the much-anticipated return of Notting Hill Carnival – discussing topics of community, culture and music
words – maxine betteridge-moes
photography - pax nindi
location – london, uk

Pax Nindi, master of African reggae and highly respected ‘king’ of carnival, has a lengthy list of accomplishments. As one of the world’s leading carnival experts, he consults, mentors and creatively directs carnivals globally – shaping an artform that relies on traditions of masquerade for social commentary and critique of power. In September, he self-released his sixteenth album, titled ‘KUSHI’ [slang for ‘home’ in the Zimbabwean language, Shona], while also writing a book and preparing for a two month US tour with Ghanaian musician Ata Kak. Prior to that, he organised the live streaming of carnival festivals around the world and launched an online channel to promote sustainable and eco-conscious celebrations of carnival.

“I get pleasure in starting new things, connecting communities,” says Nindi. “Things like that are what make me tick.” Nindi, also known as Harare Dread, migrated to the UK from Zimbabwe in 1985 at the age of 27. At the time, Zimbabwe had two record labels – Teal and Gallo – both of which were South African and established during apartheid. In the wake of Zimbabwe’s newly won independence from British colonial rule in 1980, Nindi was ruthless in his critique of neighbouring South Africa’s then-President, P.W. Botha.

“[I’m] singing about Botha as a vampire blood sucker, destroyer of the human race… I take that to this record label and say, ‘can you publish this?’ They are from South Africa. The person I’m singing about is their boss. So, of course, the record labels were not interested,” he recalls. Working as a professional printer, Nindi eventually saved enough money to move to England by himself to learn how to produce his own music. The first single he released and sent home to Zimbabwe from London was called Inner Vision. It hit number one for two weeks before it was unofficially banned for its social and political criticisms.

Says Nindi: “What was happening in Zimbabwe is they [the authorities] would say to the DJ, ‘if you play the song again, you’re fired.’ So I can’t say my music was officially banned, but all of a sudden, [my] music stopped playing.” Nindi eventually started his own record label in the UK called Nindi Music [formerly Pax Vision], to enable him to release his music on his terms.

“Most of my songs are about social issues… but they’re always done in an abstract way,” he says. “Each album has a different meaning to me,” he says. “This particular album, oh my God. This one is even heavier than normal.” KUSHI pays tribute to the motherland of Africa and spans rhythms from the Caribbean and Brazil, transmitting positivity while touching on various social issues such as race, protest, freedom and unity in English, Ewe, African Shona, Chichewa and Ndebele dialects. The album also features a number of special guests, including the recently departed Dito D’oxossi Neves, spiritual leader of Brazilian percussion group Afoxé Ylê de Egbá.

“There’s a song called African Kushi, which sort of says, Africa is very strong, people undermine it, but it’s very strong,” explains Nindi, who does most of his touring in Brazil, where he lives for several months of the year. “I’m singing in Shona, but it’s something that I want the Brazilians to understand. So I got Dito to say the same thing, but in Portuguese. So there’s African Kushi and Brazilian Kushi.” Other special guests on the album include Ghananian legend Ata Kak and Pernambuco musician and accordionist, Daniel Bento. “In Brazil, I put some musicians in the studio with a proper live kit and brass,” says Nindi, whose many musical collaborators are also close friends. “It’s more of a musical family when I go to Brazil.”

Ideas of community and collaboration have always been central to Nindi’s work as both a musician and a carnival consultant. A Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts (FRSA) and the founder and Chief Executive of Global Carnivalz Ltd, he regularly organises carnivals and other community events that celebrate diverse cultures and create space for cultural exchange and social commentary. In the past, however, Nindi has been challenged for involving himself in something not historically seen as an African tradition.

“If you talk about the history of carnival, people have got different definitions. In my country in Africa, most of us only recently started calling what we do carnival,” says Nindi, referring to local celebrations surrounding the ordination of new chiefs. “We never used to call it [carnival], but culturally here now people are beginning to identify it [as such]. Most of the African countries are now packaging some of the traditional things as carnival.” But for Nindi, carnivals today go beyond local celebrations of history and origin.

“If you bring a carnival and say anybody can come, make costumes, go to an event… you’ll find different people together who don’t even speak the same language. That’s what carnival is, really,” he says.

This year’s Notting Hill Carnival was a perfect example of diverse, cross-cultural celebrations, particularly as it was the first in-person event since the pandemic. “It was truly two days of nonstop music… soca, reggae, all sorts of things like that,” Nindi said. “The vibe was very, very good. People haven’t been out for two years, so it was very much like ‘ahh, we are back again!’”

Over the years, Nindi has been involved in various judging panels at carnival, which are key to the social commentary element of the masquerade. Each carnival has a theme – such as nature, peace or motherhood, for example – and the most crucial aspect of judging is how participants have interpreted the theme through costume and float design. “These are people trying to make statements if they’re not happy about the system,” says Nindi. Politicians are often the subject of satire and ridicule, with former US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsanoro particularly popular targets of critique. In addition to judging costume design and function, Nindi says the judges also consider an element called ‘mas’ participation’ – ‘mas’ as in masquerade – to evaluate how communities work together to make a statement and produce their costumes and props.   

Before COVID hit, Nindi was busy organising the Hackney Carnival, as well as other carnivals in the UK, Ghana and Kenya. Like many freelancers, Nindi worried about how he would survive during lockdown. “So I spent two weeks on YouTube learning how to livestream,” he recalls. “Then I went to the bank, I borrowed some money, and I bought all the equipment for live streaming. I didn’t have a particular plan, I really just wanted to occupy myself.”

Soon after, Nindi started Junkanew TV, an online channel that engages artists and educates people about environmentally-conscious creativity. He hosts guest artists in the weekly programme to discuss sustainable solutions to costume design and how to celebrate carnival while also protecting the environment. “Carnival has always been about recycling… you take parts of a float and create something else [the next year],” explains Nindi. “But there are people who are serious about the competition, so they are the ones that go out and buy [new things]. The other thing that I find very annoying is people using massive generators to play music. I feel it’s not necessary, because you can make as much noise as you want, using other ways.”

Nindi was challenged again for his stance against generators and amplifiers, but explains that this is where Junkanew aims to adapt cultural and artistic practices from the Junkanoo masquerade tradition in the Bahamas. “Junkanoo is also about using acoustic. They have massive sound [and] costumes all made out of cardboard, glue sticks and feathers.

That has been my argument: that you can still have a spectacle without damaging the environment.”

The project also borrows other global carnival traditions, and music and dance from Africa. As the program gained popularity, Nindi was also called upon to live stream other carnival events around the world during lockdown. “So for two years, I was very busy doing something I’ve never done in my life and being paid for it!” he laughs. As Nindi prepares for his upcoming American tour with Ata Kak, he has several other projects in the pipeline. One is to set up a national carnival union, for which he has already applied for funding and is working with Westminster Council. He is also writing a book about the late Trinidadian carnival designer Lincoln Rahamut, founder of Masquerade 2000 – a community based organisation linked to carnival.

Before he passed away, I spent a bit of time writing about him,” says Nindi, who will be releasing the book towards the end of October as part of Black History Month. “So there’s a lot of things to look forward to.”

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