Celebrating 50 years of Ebony, Notting Hill Carnival’s iconic steelpan band

As adidas and Footpatrol launch their Carnival-inspired reiteration of the Torsion shoe, we trace the vibrant story of one steel band at the heart of an enduring community

Weaving through west London on Carnival day, from Chippenham Mews to Berwick street, dancing down All Saints Road and stopping for cans and rum punch top-ups among the heaving crowds that dominate Earl’s Court, the percolating sounds of steel pans will ring in your ears. The racing metallic drum beat embodies London’s renowned Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street party, as much as the technicolour costumes of Mas (masquerade), a scotch bonnet-spiked cut of jerk chicken, or the whipcrack of a Red Stripe ripped open. The Ebony Steel Band have been soundtracking London’s most prolific and loved celebration of Caribbean culture for 50 years. Dub, reggae, and steel pans rule Carnival. 

With a new short documentary directed by filmmaking creative collective 33Bound, with Dazed, adidas Consortium, and Footpatrol, they embarked on a mission to champion those integral to carnival culture. Celebrating adidas’ revival of the iconic, culturally-defining ZX Torsion shoe with their Footpatrol collab sneaker, we follow Ebony on their own soul-affirming journey, from dedicated rehearsal sessions to the pulsating, sun-dappled carnival day, documenting the power of community and devotedness to a culture and craft.

Exactly 30 years ago, the Torsion System became one of adidas’ biggest breakthroughs and remains an enduring mainstay. The rebooted Torsion uses the latest in BOOST cushioning, displaying a Carnival-inspired colourway with neon stripes and accents, and a vibrant marble effect; the FP gas mask logo has been redrawn with traditional mas headdress, and the tongue is stamped with the west London postcodes Carnival takes over. Now, we delve inside the workings of Ebony, as they celebrate their mammoth 50th anniversary.

Across the upbeat film, we meet a few of the band’s expansive, diverse line-up; there’s veteran pan player Pepe Francis, who joined in 1969; Albert Faustine and Steve Lewis, who joined in 1983 and 1986 respectively, representing the enduring community guard. We see them in action and in candid moments across the years, will technicolour present day shots, and personal archival footage of the band’s earliest days too.

“I never thought I’d see 50 years in anything,” says Pepe, who describes Ebony as a “family-orientated” group. Albert and Steve recall their earlier years gigging around the world, and how pan gave them opportunities their peers couldn’t conceive. We see vintage images of the pannists as eager teens, the world at the end of the pansticks. 

The band was founded in 1969 by a group of Caribbean and British men and women with a shared love of steelpan music, with a dream to see it championed across the UK and Europe. The group has won the prestigious National Panorama competition at Notting Hill Carnival a record 22 times. As well as the original members, we’re also introduced to Ebony’s new and emerging generation of pan players in the film.

“We’ve got a lot of younger people in the band now, who have never had to go through any sort of struggle to just be who they are,” Pattrina Quashie, who joined in 1999, says. 

 “They (Ebony) let you know there’s no discrimination, there’s no judgement here,” says Marcus King, a young bandmember who joined in 2014. Ebony’s pulsating spirit, with its generations of families involved and people from all walks of life, continues to thrive with community and people as its lifeblood.

“Ebony is all about the music and vibes… community resembles togetherness, acceptance, regardless of wherever you come from or your faith… Ebony is all about that.”

With a new generation has come spectrum-tracing changes in style and aesthetic, most recognisable in the costumes, known as mas (short for masquerade). Whether feathered or sequined, seafoam blue or gold lamé, they’re unapologetically bold, proud, and beautiful. Anthea Turner, an Ebony member since 2015, asserts this simply: “Everyone can feel like they’re on top of the world in mas… we’re the new generation of it all.” 

In these recent years, Carnival remains fiercely about community and human connection; spiritually, creatively, and culturally. With that, comes the profound connectivity of those remembering the Grenfell Tower fire in 2016, that took 72 of the west London area’s own. In the documentary we see the reverence given to the tragic deaths and misdeed done to the community; members proudly wear Grenfell shirts and stand in silent solidarity in an important, thoughtful moment among the celebrations.

33Bound director Dan recalls a statement Pepe made during filming, that “Ebony was built on families, and has always been about family”. 

“Regardless of if you are actually related to anyone there, it was clear that Ebony moves as a family unit,” Dan adds. “At no point did we feel like we had to tip-toe around people. From the start, everyone was really welcoming and allowed us to get as involved as possible.” 

“The band members continue to drive the legacy of Ebony,” Dan says. “The older generation want the next generation to be involved, and everyone at the band makes it that kind of an environment that you want to.”

To celebrate the collaboration, we held a screening last night at London’s Yard Theatre – while guests drank Wray and Nephew rum cocktails and ate Mamas Jerk food, they danced to DJ sets by Hipsters Don’t Dance, Touching Bass’ Errol Anderson, and Lil C.

The Footpatrol x adidas Consortium ZX Torsion is now available at Footpatrol and will launch worldwide October 11