If you have been on carnival scene in London UK for a while , then you must have heard of Mike Forbes and the huge Chocolate Nation band of Notting Hill Carnival; one of the (if not the) largest bands on the road on carnival Sunday. If you haven’t heard of Mike Forbes, then permit me to introduce to the man and his band. I have been wanting to talk with Mike to get his thoughts on many things within the London Carnival Community and the business of carnival. In the run up to his band launch, we meet at The Tabernacle one late afternoon and talk.
How did you get into this carnival business? Gosh, how many years have you got? Ok Carnival. Obviously I started going to Trinidad and doing the carnival thing as I am originally from Trinidad. And then I started DJing on the road in 1987 if my memory serves me right for Notting Hill Carnival for Mahogany Mas Band when they first started. I did about two or three years with Mahogany. And then after that I brought out my own band back then. And it was called Forbes Co. It was just a t-shirt band. We were sponsored back in the day by BWIA Reunion Club. That’s just to show you how far back I’m going. I did that for one year. After that, because I knew Dexter from Cocoyea and Dexter knew my mum and dad, he said to me ‘You’re coming with me next year.’ I thought ‘OK’. But I joined them as a DJ. So it was myself, Martin Jay, Smokey Joe, Vinny Ranks and Rude Boy Aaron. That’s a powerful group. So we were really then the core DJs on the carnival circuit apart from Soca Massive and others. So I got to carnival through soca on the road.
So how did you move from soca to having this big massive chocolate band? So many years obviously I played with different bands; Cocoyea, Poison, Burrokeets. Then in 2009, I said to myself ‘There has to be more than one chocolate band on the road for Notting Hill Carnival.’ There was only Pure Lime all these years. I went away on holiday with my kids and my wife and I said I’m going to do a chocolate band. That’s all I said. I put it up on social media, Facebook and the response I got was good. With the response I got, I thought ‘Hold on, there is something missing out of this’. This was two weeks before Notting Hill Carnival. I thought if I got 50 people on the road for Notting Hill I would be happy. I got 200 people that year in 2009. I was with another band then. I told them, ‘I am doing a chocolate section, do you mind if on a Sunday I do this?’ They didn’t have any objections. It was called Chocolate City then. But there was a Chocolate City in Trinidad. I went to Trinidad spoke to the guys there ‘Hi I’m Chocolate City from London…’ I didn’t get a good response to be quite honest with you, for whatever reason. I came back in 2010 and I changed the name of the band to Chocolate Nation. And as soon as I did that, it seemed like the whole nation jumped with us. The numbers jumped from 200 to 450. Why do you think that was? I think it was probably because we were cheaper. We were doing the same thing but without the breakfast. And we implemented breakfast later for the same price. So people looked at the cost factor. Because carnival weekend is a big weekend, a long weekend, money is tight. The numbers just grew by word of mouth. I always maintain that if you are going to do something, do it properly. So we just gave out chocolate like there was no tomorrow. And that’s how we started. Then we had all the other add ons, the band launches, Destra, all the artists, the boat parties.
What was your rationale for doing all the other add ons? Well chocolate nation on the road only happens once a year. So at the time I thought to myself ‘Let’s push it a little more and see what else we can get out of it’. I thought we can do a band launch although we don’t really have to do it as we are a t-shirt band, but let’s do it anyway. In 2011, we did the launch and invited seven other bands from Notting Hill Carnival to come launch our costumes. At the time Vinny Ranks was saying ‘Mike we need to do the Monday’. And in 2012 we took the jump and launched Eclipse Mas.
You’re probably one of the biggest bands on the road on carnival Sunday. What are your numbers? In my head, I always have 1200, 1500? We have at our peak which was about three years ago, we had 2500 people in Chocolate Nation t-shirts. Last year, we had 1975. So we have been bouncing on the door of around 2000 for the last three years.
Is that too big a band? No. Why Not? Because we have a very good infrastructure to manage it on the road. How do you manage it on the road? Ok. On the Sunday we have 50 security staff to start with. There are four people who are chocolate Nation. But there is a committee of 20 people including the four core people. On the bar team, there are ten people and then there are 20 stewards and 30 SIAs. And we have a road manager. Our infrastructure is very big and they work very hard.
Do you want to expand a bit more? No I would keep the numbers relatively the same as we have the infrastructure. If we had more numbers, then it would be more more staff more costs. In all the years doing it, we’ve never had an incident.
Who are the people that play with Chocolate Nation? We get quite a few flying in now especially from the US. We get the British Caribbean people and I think that is it.
Just thinking of the band launches, as yours is coming up, you have five bands under chocolate nation. How did that come about? Did you select them? No no what happened is, when we went on our own to do our costume thing on the Monday, we were approached by two other bands ; Mas with a Difference and Trinity Designs as they were originally with Poison as Poison has disbanded and they were looking for somewhere to go. We tried it for one year and it worked and the rest is history. Then we had Infinite Mas (Ms Desire) who joined us and Caribbean Sessions (CJ). We didn’t choose, we were asked and we decided.
What makes you band still such a force to be reckoned with on the road? And we’re getting stronger every year. I don’t know, is it Mike Forbes, is it the brand? It could be combination of both. It could be people like what we do and how we do it. It could be all of those things or any one of those things. But we do every year is that we sit down after carnival and look at the bad points. Like if we get the chicken was off in the food, we need to address it.
With a band a big as yours what are the things that you normally have to improve? Security one, and security two [laughter]. Cause everything else falls in place. But our main aim is to protect the members that are with us and to make sure that whatever they pay for on the road, they get the best of what they pay for. You have to make sure your customers are catered for.
In terms of you and your team, what do you do? Now? My role comes in all year round. I come up with the themes although now I say ‘You guys come up what the theme is for this year.’ I come up with all the adjustments, how I think should be done. We may have a discussion and we will decide on it. Our committee hasn’t changed much over the years. Obviously Vinny because he has his own band now. What do you make of that? I mean, if I rewind the clock, I came from Cocoyea, Martin Jay was in Cocoyea. Martin was in Burrokeets, I was in Burrokeets for many years. It’s called evolution. There comes a stage where we like it or not that one day for example AC will say ‘Mike, I’m leaving, I’m going’. So you just gave to embrace it or wish them well. If you stand up there and curse them and call them all the names under the sun, you not going to get any more customers and you are just going to create animosity.
Besides Chocolate Nation and your day job, do you do anything else? I DJ. I do corporate stuff. I still do my promotions. I have started back with the chutney events this year. Those are the things that I will do to keep myself busy outside of chocolate. But I must admit this year, carnival has taken up a lot of my time as I sit on two boards of carnival. And there are lots of changes going on. Are you happy with the changes? To a certain extent yes. Again it’s change, it’s moving forward. But sometimes it is hard for us to embrace change. We need to embrace it.
Thinking about you as a personality. What are you strengths and weaknesses? I think personally, my strengths are communication cause I sometimes love to speak, organisation. Since being on these boards, I have learnt quite a lot. I have gained a lot of experience on that side and it has made me a different person, a stronger person in how to deal with stuff in the carnival world.
You as Mike Forbes, there are people who love you and there are people who don’t like you so much. That is the nature of the beast when you are growing something and have to be business minded.
What do want you to do next? Sit down under a coconut tree… [Laughter] I think what’s next for me is to pass it on to the next generation. Cause I can’t see myself doing this for the next ten years. I’ll take a back seat. Cause it is changing and it is changing quickly this mas thing. How is it changing? Well obviously the young people are getting involved. And they are putting their elements into it. Me as Mike Forbes, band leader whatever you want to call it. My way of thinking is not their way of thinking. That’s my next move, to pass it on.
Have you ever consider taking Chocolate Nation internationally? Like in mainland Europe, the Caribbean? I’ll break it down a little bit. Chocolate Nation in Berlin? Political. We have thought about it. But rather than go along the political road, we stayed away from it. Chocolate in the Caribbean, they have it already and I didn’t see the need to go down that route in relation to the Caribbean and in relation to Chocolate. Now if you say to me, have you thought about Chocolate in Canada or New York or something, then I might have a different reaction. Cause the chocolate concept between everything, paint, powder mud, for some reason, people just love chocolate.
Do you think that there is anything special about Notting Hill Carnival? It’s unique in that we cater for everybody; Spanish, Italians, Brazilians, Cubans, Dominic, French..
Many people have said that the dutty mas have taken away from the kid side of things and it should be removed completely. What do you think? Yes and no. We’re all for the kids doing their thing. They are the next generation and had to take it forward when we are not there. But there is room for both disciplines to work on the same day as long as it is managed properly. So in the morning you have the kids. So when you think about it, kids range anything from 4 years old to 15, knocking on 16. So you have the kids start off in the morning. The main dutty mas bands like myself will come out afterwards. From my perspective, the authorities/community needs to put more into the kids. It takes money to go on the road for mas. Whether, we’re kids, whether we’re adults. And a lot of these kids are not funded. I think they can do a bit more the kids
Do you think the carnival world is business oriented enough in London? The carnival world is not business oriented. The carnival world in the UK needs to get business oriented because that is now how the carinival world internationally is going. If you look to Trinidad as the blueprint of all this, it is a business down there. Is that a good thing? As some people might say carnival is losing it’s soul because of this. I’ll put it another way. I started DJing and it was a hobby. I was a hobby and I got paid for it. Now it became a business because I got paid for it. Carnival has evolved that same way world wide. People are looking at it as a business. And if you stop that business, there would be a hell of a lot of people unemployed across the board, as far as China.
In terms of Chocolate, in terms of carnival, in terms of you, do you have any regrets? None, absolutely none. I am happy with the decisions I’ve made, I am happy with the direction of the band so far. Yeah I don’t have any regrets.
What advice would you give smaller bands or bands just starting up? I would tell them, they will get friends, they will get enemies. They will get people that come and they will get people that go. It’s the nature of the business. We all start these things and we mean well when we start these things. But at the end of the day it is how we control the things that we have started. If we have no control, it will go pear shaped. And the one thing that I will say is, be nice.
Mike Forbes is a business man. And he has grown Chocolate Nation, this huge band and brand that remains a force on the road at Notting Hill Carnival. He looks to the future of his band and carnival and acknowledges the changes necessary for growth and prosperity. He has quite a legacy with Chocolate Nation and with the input of younger generation, he has made steps to ensure that this will continue.
For more information on Chocolate Nation, please visit www.chocolatenationmas.com , Chocolate Nation Mas on Facebook , Chocolatenation mas on instagram. All Images were taken from instragram and used with the authorisation of Mike Forbes.