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The annual Leeds West Indian Carnival has been running since 1967, with the main street procession on Bank Holiday Monday at the end of August. Attendance at the event can number over 150,000 people who line the streets around Potternewton Park in Chapeltown. Many different carnival troupes participate, including those visiting from other cities.
Carnival processions have a range of different historic influences. Hundreds of years ago, Catholics in Europe celebrated the start of Lent with an elaborate costume festival. The festival tradition was then taken to the European colonies where the slave trade was established, including parts of the Caribbean. West African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks were also practiced in the Caribbean by enslaved Africans wishing to preserve their culture. They combined this with music, dance and storytelling.
The Carnival is a
celebration of emancipation.
It’s not just the music and beautiful costumes, it’s the passion behind it
Established by migrants from the Caribbean in the mid-20th century, the Leeds West Indian Carnival was intended as a celebration of Caribbean culture and way to express emancipation from slavery and colonial oppression. While cities such as Bristol, Birmingham and London also have a tradition of carnivals, Leeds was the first to incorporate all three traditions key to carnivals from the Caribbean islands. These are costumes, music and a masquerade procession.
The street processions are the main focus in Leeds, led by the carnival king and queen. Decorated floats and elaborate costumes add to the colour and vibrancy. Costumes can take months to design, make and fit and sometimes involve last-minute adjustments. They can often incorporate materials traditionally found in south Asian clothing such as silk, plastic beads and sequins. Costumes can be inspired by historical events, national flags and West African textiles. Steel pan players also contribute to the celebratory atmosphere, as well as sound systems playing the latest popular music from the Caribbean.
The result today is a rich expression of artistic achievements and a flamboyant spectacle on the streets of Leeds.
Arthur France grew up on the Caribbean island of Nevis and moved to Leeds in 1957. He was the driving force behind the Leeds West Indian Carnival. Shine spoke to him about his memories of the first event 53 years ago.
Why did you come to Leeds?
Around that time a lot of people were emigrating to England for various reasons. I wanted to get higher education. I was 22.
Why did you start the carnival?
Growing up in the Caribbean, I was always fascinated by the culture of the carnival; the costumes, the team behind the whole thing. As a child I wanted to take part but my parents wouldn’t let me. So when I came here, I looked around and there were a few people from the Caribbean around. From different parts, different
islands. I thought, “we need something that binds us together”. We had christenings, weddings but you have to be invited to them. I thought we needed something where you didn’t need an invite.
So I thought about it and discussed it with a few friends. One or two agreed with me. But some people abused me. They thought I wanted to make black people look like fools. But what they didn’t know is that I’m a very charming person. Full of good energy! I’d already worked out what needed to be done. You need police, the city council on board. I had a meeting with a local organisation. They thought I was mad! I soon realised it was a waste of time working with them. But I’m not one to give up on an idea.
There were a few of us who used to meet up with students and at the weekend we used to have house parties. We were in a house near Roundhay Road and I brought up the idea again. And they said I was f***ing crazy! But one of the guys, Willy, said to me, “Don’t take no notice of them, I’ll give you a hand.” Once he said that I lit up because I had a friend who was committed to help. We met again with a few more people. Willy Robertson, Calvin Beech, George Archibald, Ken Thomas, a lady called Mrs Gordon. We thought if we don’t do it now we’ll never do it. None of us had ever had anything to do with Carnival. And none of us had any money either!
The perfect team!
This was the fun of it. We were just enthusiastic. We sorted out the idea and set to work. Nobody believed it could happen. People were laughing at us, thought it was a joke. We decided to have a Carnival Queen show and a Calypso show. People set to work planning, designing costumes, advertising, getting a committee to pull the Carnival together. We had 5 queens. There were some young guys from college, we trained them.
What was the first Carnival Queen Show like?
I remember it as if it was yesterday. Quite a few people turned up – but they turned up to laugh at us. It surprised them that we had a very notable person as the MC. A guy from Trinidad who was an announcer on Tyne Tees television. When the curtain went back and they saw him there, the crowd went numb. They couldn’t believe what was happening.
And the street parade?
The following week was the Carnival on the Bank Holiday Monday. We had the street parade. It was quite busy. We had to get the police’s permission.
What changed over the years?
We developed more skills in costume design and manufacture. We have more material. It’s quite amazing to think what we did with relatively little back then.
Why is Carnival important to you?
My main passion is about my culture and heritage. I’m an African, born in the Caribbean. I take my African roots seriously. In the Caribbean we had emancipation. This is why Leeds Carnival was the first and why it lasts. Because it has a meaning. Emancipation. I look at the millions of our forefathers who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. The Carnival is a celebration of emancipation. It’s not just the music and beautiful costumes, it’s the passion behind it. And a deeper meaning.
Why is important to you that it’s called the Leeds West Indian Carnival?
People believe [West Indians] are very disorganised and we cannot do anything positive. And that’s what drives me. I get very upset when people hear about us in a negative light. To run a very successful event for 52 years – it’s very positive. And what it has brought to the city of Leeds. We made London sit back and listen! On the 50th anniversary we had a quarter of a million people!
What is the plan for 2020?
The Carnival won’t happen this year. If you’d have told me a year ago you’d have to stay in your house for weeks I would have thought you were crazy! So we are spending a lot of time on our mobile phones talking to family all over the world. We might make a film of the 50th Carnival, to keep the memory and passion alive. And we’re planning for next year. The 53rd Carnival.
Were you at the first Carnival in 1967? What are your memories of it? Do you go every year? Share your thoughts with us.
The Carnival has become an integral part of the community
More Memories of Leeds.
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