The UK carnival season reaches a double peak on August Bank holiday in London and Leeds. Being a northern lass I am heading to Yorkshire for the golden jubilee of Leeds West Indian Carnival (LWIC). I played mas in Leeds back in the 80s and it’s always pleasure to visit this vibrant event, with its strong traditions and great family-friendly atmosphere.
Leeds was the first Caribbean-style carnival in the UK (the opening parade for the 1966 Notting Hill Fayre was multicultural, not specifically Caribbean). From its start in 1967 LWIC incorporated all three essential elements of authentic West Indian carnival – costumes, music and a masquerade procession. Its claim of being Europe’s longest-running Caribbean carnival parade was endorsed by Notting Hill Carnival chair Pepe Francis and author Michael La Rose at the Power, Performance and Play International conference on Caribbean carnival cultures hosted by Leeds Beckett University in May.
LWIC was started by a group of students who missed the mas from their islands and shared a dream of bringing carnival to the streets of Leeds and Chapeltown. Arthur France MBE, Ian Charles MBE, Hyacinth and Calvin Beech, Rashida and Willie Robinson and Professor Patrick Watson were the original founders. At the time they were considered young rebels, as some within Leeds Caribbean community doubted that a carnival was appropriate. Now, 50 years on, they’re still “on de road”.
Leeds West Indian Carnival is the biggest carnival in the north of England. Thanks to financial support from Leeds Council and Arts Council England (ACE) via Yorkshire Arts Association, the carnival has become a core event in the city’s cultural calendar. The council has made the carnival a key part of its campaign for European Capital of Culture 2023.
This year the carnival season began in May with a launch and civic celebration at Leeds Town Hall followed by an international carnival conference at Leeds Beckett University. LWIC ran a free touring photo booth, “I’m carnival happy”, where visitors could have their portrait taken wearing one of four spectacular carnival headdresses designed by artists Hughbon Condor, Lorina Gumbs, Melissa Simon Hartman and Renata Gordon.
Other activities have included open carnival workshops in the city and Leeds carnival troupes touring to carnivals in Preston, Derby, Leicester and Manchester. Plus there have been mini pop-up carnival events and a carnival choir initiative.
These activities all benefited from grants from ACE, which has also supported many individual artists and troupes, bands performing at pre-carnival shows, the park and parade events, and those working with local communities beforehand.
Three Arts Council national portfolio clients are supporting LWIC50: West Yorkshire Playhouse hosting shows and community workshops; RJC Dance, whose young performers regularly jump up in the parade and park stage; and EMCCAN, which will present touring work by carnival artists from the East Midlands.
LWIC’s heritage is being celebrated in a Heritage Lottery Fund-supported exhibition at the Tetley Gallery from 12 August to 29 October. Carnival Chronicles gathers the reminiscences of local mas pioneers and participants, collated by acclaimed writer Zodwa Nioni, and will be performed at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Renowned Leeds carnival artist Hughbon Condor will be re-creating LWIC’s first carnival queen costume, Sun Goddess.
The main celebrations started with the Carnival Prince and Princess Show on Sunday 20 August at the LWI Centre. The Carnival King and Queen Show at West Yorkshire Playhouse on Friday 25 August is already sold out, and the following day it’s the Soca Monarch Show at the LWI Centre. Bank Holiday Monday kicks off at 6am with Jouvay morning events at the LWI Centre, followed by the parade and events at Potterton Park, Chapeltown.
Don’t think it stops there. LWIC50 continues celebrating with activity in the autumn: West Yorkshire Playhouse 11-15 September, Leeds Light Night illuminated carnival on 5 October and the Tetley Gallery show continues until 29 October (www.thetetley.org).
More details of Leeds West Indian Carnival events are available at www.leedscarnival.co.uk on 0113 3070001 and Twitter @CarnivalLeeds using #CarnivalHappy