Selwyn Baptiste

A cultural icon and leader on a quest to represent the pannist, define Trinidad culture and educate others.

Selwyn Baptiste was born 10 July 1936 in La Romaine, San Fernando, Trinidad.

He was a keen pannist who displayed all the hallmarks of becoming one of Trinidad’s great musicians. In 1960, he won the title of ‘Best Pan Soloist’ at Trinidad Carnival. This success led him to move to the United Kingdom in that same year to study music at Dartington College of Arts, Devon. However, before completing his course, Selwyn moved to Ladbroke Grove (London) to embark on an alternative musical career thereby making England his new home.

Ladbroke Grove is an area of London where many Trinidadians had settled on coming to England. Here, Selwyn could not escape his love for his native homeland so he set about sharing his culture with the wider Notting Hill community.

He got involved in community educational work teaching young children about carnival and steelpans. His passion for sharing his knowledge was spotted by community leader and social worker Rhaune Laslett, who asked him to teach children from the Notting Hill adventure playground how to play steelpans. This adventure playground was also known as the Wornington Road adventure playground (now known as the Venture Centre) and is the oldest of its kind in the UK.

In 1967, Selwyn entered the adventure playground steelband into the Notting Hill carnival. At that time the steelband was one of only two that participated; the other being led by Russell Henderson. After many months of practicing almost every night, the children made an immediate impression on carnival day and continued to share in the carnival pageantry until 1973 when there was an influx of steelbands joining in the carnival. 

In 1970, he became a recording artist displaying his skills on the tenor pan with his rendition of ‘Montego Bay’ under the United Artists Music record label. In the following year his single was also featured on the Trojan Records ‘Club Reggae’ album compilation.

Selwyn had a good relationship with many steelbands and d
uring the mid to late 1970s he played a major role in bringing Carnival and steelpans to the Tabernacle - a Grade II listed building in Notting Hill. In the months leading up to carnival calypsonians and steelbands would regularly practice in the main hall. At this time the Tabernacle was in a poor state of repair and was being used as a community centre. Soon the Tabernacle was receiving notoriety as being a landmark for carnival goers and organisers, and Selwyn along with many of his compatriots set about reviving the building.

In 1975, Selwyn founded the Carnival Development Committee (CDC), located at Acklam Road, North Kensington to formally promote all aspects of carnival. As director of CDC, Selwyn gradually evolved into being the official spokesperson for carnival and steelbands, often featured on radio and television. In 1977 he was famously quoted as saying:

"Carnival is not a political event. Carnival is a cultural event. It is something which supersedes political ideologies. Carnival is something that's big enough to accommodate all forms of thought, all sorts of themes. Politics is part of it, but it is not an exclusively political event."

To many, he was seen to be continuing the vision of the late Claudia Jones by highlighting and celebrating the fusion of Caribbean and British culture as one cosmopolitan community. His commitment to the future of the Trinidad culture in London was regarded as being relentless.

In 2010, Selwyn along with Lennox Mohammed and Allan Bishop adjudicated the Pan Trinbago South Region Carnival Night Baron and Carnival Tuesday Night Bomb Competitions.

In 2011, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Tabernacle.

On 5 January 2012, Selwyn Baptise passed away. Such was the impact of his work, his death was acknowledged by the British Broadcasting Committee (BBC) on television and the BBC website on the day of his passing (BBC website).

On 26 January 2012, a memorial service was held at All Saints Church, Powis Square and also a celebration of his life at the Tabernacle.

In 2014, a BBC film titled ‘Who Started It?’ explored the origins of Notting Hill Carnival. Throughout the film reference to Selwyn’s contribution to the art forms of carnival and steelpan were acknowledged by his peers and the current generation.