There is an explosion of colour as the parade weaves its way through the crowd. Steel drums echo through the street as dancers move in perfect synchronicity, their elaborate costumes shaking to the beat. You may be forgiven for thinking that you are in Notting Hill rather than Chapeltown, a relatively small suburb in the north-east of Leeds.
Despite the pageantry on display, Leeds Carnival started from modest beginnings. The brainchild of a group of West Indian Students studying at the University of Leeds in 1967, it was initially an attempt to combat homesickness and bring a little piece of their native St. Kitts & Nevis to West Yorkshire.
On arriving in Britain, Arthur France – one of the carnivals original organisers – couldn’t help but notice that Leeds’ Caribbean residents were isolated. Despite their best efforts to make a life in Britain, the new immigrants were facing hostility at a time when racism was very overt. Signs on buildings read “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs” making it difficult to find accommodation in anywhere but the most impoverished of areas. Ironic, seeing as many of these people had come to Britain at the behest of the British government.
He needed a way to bind them together as a community and immediately thought of Carnival, a tradition he had been fascinated by ever since watching the vibrant spectacle pass through his home village of Mount Lily in Nevis as a child.
The idea didn’t initially go down well with others in the community. With the ignorance and racial tension at a peak, they felt that the idea of dressing up in elaborate costumes to dance in the street could only draw attention to them and exacerbate things.
“When I left the tiny island of Nevis in 1957 heading for the UK like so many West Indians of my generation, I didn’t just leave my home and family behind. I left what makes the Caribbean tick, what gives the region such a pulsating heartbeat; I left my culture, my music, my art behind,” says Arthur, “We fought to make Carnival happen. You can only imagine the battles we faced, not only from the authorities of the day but from within our own community! I was known as ‘that crazy man from Nevis’!”
I felt we needed something to bind us more together, as a community. That, for me, is the burning passion in me that gave me the energy to drive carnival.
Arthur realised that in order to get people to embrace the idea of carnival, it was just a case of getting them to understand its meaning.
Carnival is a festival that celebrates the emancipation of our forefathers from slavery. For African people, carnival became a way to express their power as individuals, as well as their rich cultural traditions.
Fifty years on, the carnival is thriving. It now holds the prestigious title of being the oldest and longest-running Caribbean Carnival in Europe and each year it grows. Some things, as they say, just get better with age. Over 100,000 people are thought to have witnessed the event this year and it is beyond anything that Arthur could have imagined when he dreamt up the idea in 1967.
You can sense the carnival before you even set foot in Chapeltown. You only need to be half way along the uphill walk from the city centre before you begin to hear the deep, rumbling bass. Speaker stacks are piled high in gardens pumping out reggae as families mill around barbeques, grilling huge batches of jerk chicken to sell to passers by. Thousands of people are all converging on Potternewton Park, the epicentre of the celebrations, where DJs perform from an arched stage to the masses gathered on the grass. It is an atmosphere that is unique to this neighbourhood, just once a year on the August bank holiday weekend.
As the Parade files out of the park to begin its slow, two-hour riot of colour and choreography through the streets of Leeds, smiling faces gather along the perimeter of the parade route to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. It’s a display that has been a year in the making, the costumes and dance moves painstakingly planned out from the moment the previous years event finished.
Strangers dance, drink and laugh together as they watch the passing performance. This is a coming together of communities. People of all colours, religions and creeds make up the crowd lining the streets, unified in their goal to have one hell of a party.
“What I love about carnival is seeing people from different backgrounds (race, colour, religion) coming to take part or just watch. I know it’s is a colourful festival, but seeing people who originate from different ends of the earth standing side by side touches me greatly.” Arthur France
To some, the carnival is just that; an incredible party. To others, it is a chance to see their culture out on the street of Leeds and take pride in their heritage. For people like Arthur, it is a way to connect with those brightly coloured costumes that they saw parading through their hometowns in the Caribbean, over 50 years since they first experienced them. The fact is that from its humble beginnings as a way to stave off homesickness and bring a small community together, the carnival has become something to be cherished by everyone in Leeds.
It is, in Arthur’s own words “A mad idea that worked”.
Have you been to Leeds Carnival before? Would you like to go? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Keep Scrolling for more photos of the Carnival’s wonderful costumes and dancers
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