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Celebrating 50 Vibrant Years of the Leeds West Indian Carnival

50 Years of the Leeds West Indian Carnival

Head to the city and join the celebrations of the Leeds West Indian Carnival

Officially the oldest carnival in Europe, the Leeds West Indian Carnival is preparing to celebrate its gold anniversary in 2017 and it promises to be a street party like no other.

West Indian culture, music and food are celebrated in style every year and with crowds more than 150,000 strong expected to join this year’s celebrations, the 50th anniversary of the carnival promises to rival the best of the best.
Each year, a frenzy of costume designing and steel band music practice culminates in a wonderful mixture of colourful events. The eccentric sights and sounds ensure the Leeds Carnival makes it one of Europe’s most loved. Add street stalls serving fresh Caribbean food into the jamboree and you’ll be tapping your feet to the addictive rhythm in no time at all! 
Let us take you on a journey of the Leeds West Indian Carnival history. Plus, we’ve got the lowdown on what to expect during the gold anniversary’s celebrations, as we caught up with some of the organisers and revelers themselves.

A Brief History of the Leeds Carnival

To appreciate the enormity of the festival, we must first delve into its fascinating history. The first Leeds West Indian Carnival first took place back in 1967, after St Kitts and Nevis native, Arthur France, became homesick. Alongside Ian Charles, the duo organised Europe’s first open-air Caribbean carnival, after their initial proposal for the street party was turned down by the local Caribbean Association. 

According to Ian, Leeds quickly felt like home: “I immediately liked the culture here in Leeds. I would always go dancing with my friends.

The only thing that lets England down is the cold weather - hopefully the carnival helps to bring a bit of Caribbean warmth and sunshine each year! The community can all come together and have a great time, no matter who you are or where you’re from.” 

Despite initially being mocked for their plans, the friends formed an independent committee and as they prepared for the inaugural event and the first Carnival Queen Show, Ian’s home became an impromptu costume factory. Vicky Seal’s impressive sun goddess costume earned her the maiden crown, while dancers wiggled their way along the procession from Potternewton Park to Leeds Town Hall to live music played by local bands.

When asked about his inspiration for the carnival, Arthur explained: “For me it wasn’t about being the first. It was about bringing people of all races together and sharing Caribbean culture as widely as possible.”
Approximately 1,000 people attended the first carnival and just 10 years later in 1977, this number had increased tenfold as crowds enjoyed dancing their way along the new route that saw revellers head into the heart of the city centre. Wheeled platforms were introduced to host the magical sounds of the steel bands and by the early 1980s, the carnival followed a shorter route from Chapeltown to Harehills. 
By this time, local organisations had begun sponsoring the al fresco event and alongside the Carnival Queen crowning; Carnival Princess and Prince contests were introduced. By 1988, 40,000 people showed up for the street party and it had now cemented itself as one of Europe’s most popular carnivals. 
Arthur added: “For us, (the) Carnival is not just about putting on a street party – spectacular as it is! 
It is not just about sharing the sweetness of steel pan and soca music nor the magnificence of costumes. It is a serious business that needs great partnerships, and that creates a cultural and artistic legacy fuelled by the dedication, hard work and passion of our volunteers, contributors, artists and participants. Half a century later it is the best way I know to secure unity and harmony.”
In 1997, as a result of his arduous work in the local community, Arthur received an MBE and 10 years later Ian was awarded with the same deserved title. Bringing a little bit of the West Indies to Leeds didn’t just bring a smile to Arthur’s face but it also brought the city streets alive, with a plethora of beautiful costumes, vivid colours and upbeat music.

What to Expect at the 2017 Leeds Carnival?

With fantastic costumes, sunny weather and bustling city streets; the 2017 Leeds Carnival looks set to be a huge affair. 
Arthur continued to explain the origins of the carnival and its significant role it plays for the city today: 
“The Leeds Carnival has its roots in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. For 50 years we have brought the message of emancipation and multiculturalism to the city of Leeds.” 
When Are the Celebrations?
The Leeds West Indian Carnival will take place from August 25 to October 6th and the line-up looks like this: 
  • 20th August: Carnival Prince & Princess Show
  • 25th August: Carnival King & Queen Show 
  • 26th August: Soca Monarch Show 
  • 28th August: J’ouvert Morning (06:30-08:30) & The Big Parade (14:00-17:00)
  • 11th September: Carnival Chronicles
  • 13th-15th September: Queen of Chapeltown
  • 16th September: Carnival Messiah film screening
  • 5th-6th October: Light Night Leeds
The 2012 Leeds Carnival Queen Samantha Hudson gave us an insight into why the Carnival Queen Show is such a powerful addition to the line-up of events: 
“The Leeds West Indian Carnival is a big celebration of feminism, because if you think of all the big strong powerful men in the world, they all came from women, women gave birth to them. And think about the big strong backbone of the families, it’s the women, the mums, the grandmas, that raise the children. Behind every strong man is a woman and that’s why we have a Queen Show.”
Where Are the Celebrations?
If you want to catch the crowning of the prince, princess, king and queen, then head to the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Quarry Hill. 
The J’ouvert Morning shenanigans begin at the West Indian Centre on Laycock Place, then move onto Savile Mount, Chapeltown Road, Harehills Avenue, Spencer Place, Louis Street and back to Savile Mount before returning to the West Indian Centre. 
The main parade starts at Potternewton Park and will follow a route to Harehills Avenue, before winding its way back to the park for costume judging.
The Carnival Chronicles will be performed at the Courtyard Theatre, while the Quarry Theatre will host the Carnival Messiah film screenings. The Queen of Chapeltown theatre performances will also take place at the Quarry Theatre and tickets for all of these events are available on the official websites. 
You can join in the fun at the Night Light Leeds festival for free and this evening event will take place in Leeds City Centre.
What Do I Wear?
When it comes to what to wear, it’s entirely up to you! 
You can be as wild as you want, with many revellers opting to adorn flamboyant carnival outfits and others choosing to wear the colourful flags of their native countries. Dress up or dress down. Everyone is welcome but just remember: there’s no such thing as being ‘too colourful’ at this Caribbean street carnival. 

Carnival Headdress Design Ideas

If you really want to get into the festival spirit, you can put together your very own carnival costume. 
There are plenty of designers who will be happy to create a costume for you or you can put your DIY skills to the test and make your own. One of the most important parts of a carnival costume is the headdress, as entire outfits fail or succeed depending on the quality - or the extravagance of the headdress!
Good quality scissors, coloured material, glue gun, visor, bendy wire, strip of Velcro, decorative items such as sequins, glitter, feathers and rhinestones.
Method: Start by taking the visor and use the glue gun to cover it with brightly-coloured material. Then glue a few pieces of bendy wire to the top of the visor, so they stick upwards like antennas. Bend the wire into various directions and cover it with decorative items, such as rhinestones, feathers, sequins and glitter so the wire is no longer visible. Continue adding feathers and strips of sequins onto the material that is now covering the visor length-ways, stick some Velcro onto the back of the headdress so that it fits your head and voila - you’re ready for carnival time!
Be prepared to experience a vibrant event, as the streets of Leeds explode with a burst of colours. And if you really want to get into the happy spirit of the carnival, harness your inner glamourpuss and make your own glitzy headdress!

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