Celebrating community: The lead up to Leeds Carnival
Journalist, BBC Radio Leeds
Forty-seven years ago a young man from St Kitts and Nevis – recently settled in Leeds and homesick for the sights and sounds of his home – had a grand plan. To create a colourful carnival on the grey streets of Leeds for an emerging Caribbean community. That fledgling idea – hatched in a tiny bedsit in the city – has now turned into one of the most spectacular street festivals in Europe, attended by over 150,000 visitors – the Leeds West Indian Carnival. And its 79 year old founder Arthur France is now an MBE, awarded the honour in 1997 for his services to carnival and the community.
I've lived in Leeds for 15 years and I've often been to carnival - but it's only in my role as a reporter for BBC Radio Leeds that I've come to understand what it all really means to the community. I’ve spent hours talking to Arthur and his carnival cohorts who, 47 years ago, came up with the original idea which now sees the modern streets of Leeds awash with noise, music and colour and unites communities across West Yorkshire in a spirit of celebration and fun.
But it wasn’t always so. Arthur talks of a time when black faces were still a novelty in West Yorkshire. When the wider community regarded the new arrivals with suspicion. A lesser man may have been intimidated at the thought of approaching the local authorities but not Arthur.
He went to the Council, the police and local businesses and told them what he wanted. They listened and in 1967 the first carnival parade took place. It's taken place every year since. Arthur tells stories of working through the night to make costumes. Of corralling local seamstresses to fashion the elaborate costumes. Of women and children plucking chickens so they had feathers for those costumes. Of the men who complained that their wives and girlfriends were threatening to leave them because they spent so much time working on carnival. It’s been a privilege to spend time hearing about these early days which everyone involved remembers with such clarity.
Just don’t get them started on which came first, Leeds or Notting Hill. Everyone here is adamant it’s Leeds. They remember the rainy day in 1967, weeks after the Leeds Carnival, when they took a steel band and costumed troupe down to London – at the invitation of Londoners - to show them how to put a carnival together.
These stories are told with great pride. The one thing that I'd never really appreciated was how carnival for the community is above all else a chance to celebrate the sacrifices of their forefathers. It's about emancipation from slavery. It's about trumpeting with colour, music and energy the fact that the Black community is here today and that they are free.
And it is about COMMUNITY. Many of the founder committee members are still at the forefront of the event but a younger generation is emerging and bringing its talents to the party. I recently spent an evening at Carnival HQ. In the office downstairs volunteers worked on the admin and paperwork, the largely teenage steel band practised upstairs while in a room next door kids were making costumes alongside their mothers who had come straight from work to help out. The building was buzzing - and orchestrating it all is Arthur France. At a time in life when some people would be thinking of slowing down, his passion for carnival is as strong as ever. Leeds Carnival today brings together not just the Black community but people from across the city and across the country. It is truly a multi-cultural extravaganza and everyone is welcome. The carnival founders wanted to show the rest of Leeds who they were and what they can do. They're still doing it today and they're confident they'll be doing it for another five decades too.
From Monday 18th August BBC Radio Leeds is broadcasting a week of special features, live reports and a specially commissioned short film about Leeds Carnival. We’ll look at the history and the community behind carnival but also its economic impact and how it’s helped forge relationships with organisations like the police and local authority. We’ll also explore the food, music and creativity of the event. It's just the start. Carnival celebrates 50 years in 2017. We are hoping to be there alongside them to celebrate the event, its people and what it does for our city.
We’ve been warmly welcomed by the community and the Carnival committee have been pleased to work in partnership with us on our project. Not just for our radio coverage but for our short film too. Made by young filmmaker Jonnel Benjamin, with the support of the BBC, it celebrates the history of carnival and premieres at the colourful crowning of the carnival King and Queen event at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 22nd August.
As the carnival climax draws near, it’s been a real joy to be invited to work on something that means so much to so many people. Carnival HQ almost feels like a second home now – I’ve lost count now of the times I’ve been almost forced into a skimpy sequinned costume. Maybe next year. Whatever happens you’ll hear it on BBC Radio Leeds!
Abigail Jaiyeola is a journalist at BBC Radio Leeds
- BBC Radio Leeds’ Carnival Stories coverage starts from Monday August 18, culminating in regular live updates from the climax of the carnival itself on Monday August 25.