King of Carnivals

King of Carnivals

Move over Notting Hill, Leeds is home to the longest running West Indian carnival parade which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Tina Walsh finds out the secret to its success.

The sun is beaming out across Potternewton Park where the scent of jerk chicken and Jamaican patties fills the air, while rum punch and Red Stripe are being sunk to the sound of reggae and calypso music. Three-feet high feathered headdresses float past gravity-defying “dragonflies” and a woman on stilts towers over groups of children holding cheerleader pom poms. The park is a sea of colour, costumes, sounds and smells, with a crowd of 160,000 bouncing, whistling, singing and dancing to the beats booming out of giant speakers. Welcome to Leeds West Indian Carnival – the longest running West Indian Carnival in Europe. With a quarter of a million visitors expected for this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations, its success continues to soar.

“The reason it’s lasted so long is that it’s part of our African heritage and history. It’s about our emancipation. Plus, we’re still family friendly and authentic. It’s not just a street party, carnival is an art form but also serious business that’s good for our city.”

Arthur France MBE is the founder of Leeds West Indian Carnival which is now worth some £10 million to the local economy. When the 80-year-old arrived in Leeds in 1957 he found himself longing for his beloved Saint Kitts and Nevis. To assuage his “crippling” homesickness he decided to get together with a group of other like-minded West Indians and, in 1964, in his cramped bedsit, they hatched a plan. Their dream became a reality when the first Leeds West Indian Carnival took to the streets in 1967.

“Most people thought I was mad to be thinking of starting a carnival in England. Some even said it was low-class and degrading,” says Mr France, who remains at the helm of the organising committee. “But I believed in the power of networking, taught myself how to design costumes (he made his first designs from chicken feathers) and it just took off from there.” Mr France has received numerous awards in recognition of his contribution to the local West Indian community, including an MBE in 1997. A long-standing lover and champion of steel pan music, he founded the Gay Carnival Steel Band in the 1960s (later known as the Boscoe Steel Band) and, in 1984, the New World Symphony Steel Orchestra, which encourages young people from Leeds and the North of England to take up the cause.

Fast forward to 2017 and it’s a special year for organisers with a programme to match. Proceedings start with the Carnival Prince and Princess Show, a family orientated extravaganza that sees junior partygoers show off their finery in the hope of being crowned.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse in central Leeds, costume designers from across the UK, who will have been feverishly working away for the best part of the preceding year, will vie with each other to win the title for the Leeds Carnival King and Queen 2017. The event is invariably packed with live entertainment, steel bands and Caribbean food and drink.

On Bank Holiday Monday, the main event will be kick-started by J’Ouvert Morning, a traditional early morning soca music jam. Originating from the French for ‘opening day’, J’Ouvert is also known as ‘pyjama jamming’ so expect to see people in nighties and onesies, as well as fancy dress. The parade route is currently confined to the streets surrounding Potternewton Park – the communities of Harehills and Chapeltown – but talks are under way with Leeds City Council to take it all the way into Leeds city centre for 2017.

Local costume designers are already busy making colourful headdresses, which will trace the carnival’s journey from the West Indies to Leeds. Touring schools, community centres and local businesses will be accompanied by a professional photographer, who will document participants willing to pose in the flamboyant feathered headgear. The project aims to capture 500 portraits from across the city.

In October, Carnival Ballet, a world-class dance production, funded by Arts Council England Exceptional Awards, premiers at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in partnership with Phoenix Dance Theatre. Written by renowned author and BBC radio producer Colin Grant, the ballet will feature carnival music and costumes

“We anticipate huge participation and attendance figures,” says Carnival spokeswoman Susan Pitter. “We’re already receiving requests for details and hotel deals from all over the world and it appears that lots of former Leeds residents are planning to ‘come home’ for Carnival 2017.” Who could have predicted all those years ago that the fledgling celebration would be one of Yorkshire’s most anticipated annual events half a century down the line.

This article was taken from This is Y 2017