PULL on your dancing shoes, pour yourself a drop of your favourite tipple and limber up, because it’s almost time for Oxford’s biggest party of the year.

Today, up to 50,000 fun-lovers would have been descending on East Oxford for the Cowley Road Carnival.

The event, one of the biggest of its kind outside London, is a much-loved free celebration of music, dance, food and of the many cultures and nationalities which make up the rich tapestry of the city’s most colourful road.

While this year’s public event has been called off because of coronavirus, a ‘virtual’ event, to be broadcast on the day will see performances by surf-rockers Quatermelon, electro-pop act Little Brother Eli, singer-songwriters Patrick Griffin and Sarah Derrick, Brazilian-style carnival crew Sol Samba, fun brass band Horns of Plenty and Ran Kan Kan.

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There will also be DJ sets from perennial favourite Count Skylarkin’ with ska, reggae and dancehall, soulful house from DJG, beats by DJs Tiger Mendoza and Yaya, and the screening of a sublime film with compilations from some of the city’s most popular bands and artists and their friends.

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Count Skylarkin

And while the popular carnival procession will not be winding its way up from The Plain this year, we are still encouraged to put on a show by sharing our own locked-down carnival parties, and showing off our singing and dancing skills, online.

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“We are totally thrilled to be going ahead with our Virtual Carnival Day Live on Sunday,” says Clare O’Hara, director of Cowley Road Works, the charity which organises the carnival.

“We have an amazing line up of musicians, dancers, performers, and activities for you to watch – and most importantly – to join in with.”

She added: “We always ask for donations and this year we are splitting the funds raised with Oxfordshire Mind and Restore. We work closely with both organisations which are based on the Cowley Road. In this most challenging of times, with so many people struggling and needing mental health support, we are delighted to help.

“We urge anyone who enjoys this unique virtual carnival day to donate if you can.”

Organisers hope to get the community involved by submitting music, dance, photography, film, recipes, and other carnival fun to share and videos and pictures of themselves joining a ‘virtual’ procession – dressed in their finest carnival attire in decorated homes or gardens.

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Little Brother Eli

People have already been encouraged to record themselves singing a special carnival song which has been written by musician Benjamin Turner. The results will be broadcast on Sunday.

Those who fancy channelling the spirit of Brazil by learning samba skills, can join a workshop by Ed Finch of the Larkrise School Samba Band, with tips on selecting instruments – from drums to wheelie bins.

Artist, promoter and Cowley Road ‘face’ Autumn Neagle, who usually manages the line-up of performers at the Restore Garden, is inviting revellers to a Virtual Chill Out Zone featuring a gorgeous soundtrack by friends, collaborators and past carnival performers, to raise funds and awareness for Mind, Restore and Cowley Road Works.

Her film, The Longest Day – A Lockdown Odyssey, is a two-hour lyrical journey through one day in lockdown from dawn to dusk, mainly recorded over the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

It features contributions from musicians Piney Gir and Garo, Jonny Payne, Nick Cope, Roguey Roads, Jamie Hyatt’s bedd, Wednesday’s Wolves, Ags Connolly, Lisa Fitzgibbon, Scott Gordon, Cigani Knees Up, Jali Fily Cissokho, Julian Wagstaff of The Jerichos, Premium Leisure’s Chris Barker, Bronte Shande, Max Blansjaar, Alex Train of Quartermelon, The Deadbeat Apostles, The Epstein, Ride drummer Loz Colbert and and poet Owen Collins.

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Autumn says: “Artists recorded themselves, without fancy cameras or technology, from kitchens, bedrooms, gardens, fields, parks or sheds – and even from Senegal, where Jali Fily is waiting out lockdown until he can return to his hometown of Witney.

She adds: “We begin with a beautiful music video featuring Oxford band bedd whose song Auto Harp was recorded at sunrise on a beach at the start of lockdown in March.

“Owen Collins performs a stirring poem on the socially-distanced solstice, followed by a chorus of bands through to the end, where we encounter bedd’s Jamie Hyatt once again, as lockdown starts to ease. He sings poignant new single You Have Nice Things in the dark night of his kitchen – with considerably longer hair.

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Ride's Loz Colbert

“Our finale features Ride’s Loz Colbert reciting a passage from Ulysses to beats he created, invoking hope for the future and new beginnings.

“What started as a bit of a daunting task, as everyone has been going through the challenges of life in lockdown, together has created something quite courageous and captivating, almost by accident.

“Capturing the emotions we’ve all been feeling – introspection, fear, missing loved ones, laughter, tears, dancing round your living room, sandwiches, Zooming, birdsong, loneliness, solitude, missing the hustle and bustle of ‘normal’ life, or just needing a hug – and sometimes all in one day.”

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She said it was a particular coup to get Piney Gir, the Kansas-born singer-songwriter, rock and pop artist, Gaz Coombes and Noel Gallagher backing singer and Oxford Times columnist.

“She is so brilliant,” says Autumn. “Her last gig in Oxford had to be cancelled just before lockdown, and she has personally recovered from Covid-19, so it felt fitting to ask her.

“She sent me three fabulous tracks: Puppy Love, Peanut Butter Malt Shop Heartthrob and Little Cop. They created a mini pop video in their London flat surrounded by all her quirky, kitsch, cool stuff and with coloured lights and spinning cameras, a cactus-filled desert backdrop scene, with gig posters on the wall and loads of band equipment stacked up – welcome to the Technicolour world of Piney Gir!

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Piney Gir plays along with Garo

“One upside of lockdown has been peeking into people’s houses and having a nose around on Zoom. It’s interesting to see everyone’s personal spaces becoming part of their public lives, and Piney’s is just as you’d expect – totally rock & roll.”

Autumn says she is delighted to still be involved in carnival, despite the very different circumstances. She says: “I’ve seen everyone’s favourite party grow and transform through many incarnations to the amazing diverse cultural celebration we all know and love

“From street to park, dancefloor to balcony, pub to road – no year has been so unusual or challenging as 2020.

This line up would normally be set in the sunshine and flower-filled oasis of Restore’s garden stage, but even so, we’ve created something special that I hope we can hold as a memory of these strange days.

“A huge thank you to the creativity and time given by the performers. And please donate. I was so happy to get involved, as one of my close family has been suffering in London in lockdown, which is frustrating with me so far away – and Mind and the NHS have been helping.

“Creating this film has made me feel like I have done something, somehow. Pop it on at home, pour a cool drink, have a dance – or even a cry; I know I did!

“As Ulysses, performed so movingly by Loz says, ‘Come, my friends…Tis not too late to seek a newer world’.”

  • Revellers can tune in via the Virtual Carnival Live page of the website cowleyroadworks.co.uk.
  • Carnival song lyrics and details of other activities have been posted on the site for download.
  • Participants using social media can use #VirtualCarnival and #CowleyRoadCarnival
  • The organisers are asking for donations, with funds split between three Cowley Road charities: Oxfordshire Mind, Restore and Cowley Road Works – which stages the event. There are donate buttons on the website or you can go straight to the fundraiser at JustGiving.