A large majority of the people involved in the founding and development of the Leeds West Indian Carnival were migrants from the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Others were from Trinidad and Tabago, Jamaica, and Barbados. Traditional West Indian Carnival has its origins in Trinidad and Tobago. From there, the idea of Carnival spread North across the Caribbean islands. Each island has its own traditions that predate the arrival of Trinidadian Carnival. This includes the Crop Over in Barbados, Junkanoo in Jamaica and Christmas Sports in St. Kitts and Nevis.
In St. Kitts and Nevis the tradition of Christmas Sports dates back to the days of slavery. People celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Day by taking to the streets dancing, singing, playing music, and performing. The Christmas Sports have their roots in the British tradition of the Mummers’ plays. Mummers’ plays are folk plays performed outside by amateurs, often at Christmas and other religious holidays. Mummers’ plays in England date back to the 13th Century and are still performed in some parts of the country today. The tradition came to St. Kitts and Nevis with the arrival of the English in the 17th Century. In St. Kitts and Nevis, enslaved Africans added African traditions to the Mummers’ plays and they became known as Christmas Sports.
During the Christmas period, troupes of performers would don costumes and travel from village to village, performing. The Christmas Sports include Bible stories such as David and Goliath as well performances based on religious literature such as the Giant Despair from The Pilgrim’s Progress. Shakespeare Lesson used speeches from Shakespeare plays including Richard III and Julius Caesar. Other performances were based on the Mummers’ plays known as Mummies. The Mummies have a cast of 13 characters including saints, knights, kings, dragons and giants. There were also performances based on local stories and histories such as the Bull and The Mongoose Play. Others took their inspiration from American culture such as the cakewalking Millionaires and Cowboys and Indians. Neaga Business mocked the white elite. Some Christmas Sports such as the stilt walking Moko Jumbies have their roots in Africa while others like the Clowns and Masquerade are a mix of African and European traditions. Other types of Christmas Sports included Sagwa, Actors, and Soldiers. These performances would be accompanied by music. Several types of music were popular at the Christmas Sports. They included String Bands, Big Drum and Fife Bands, Quadrille music, and Iron Bands. Alan Lomax’s field recordings made in June 1962 (and available on CD) gives the listener an idea of what the Christmas Sports sounded like during the period when Leeds West Indian Carnival pioneers were migrating from the islands to England. Iron Bands first began forming in St. Kitts and Nevis in the 1940s. These bands were similar to the early steel pan bands formed in Trinidad around the same time. They used makeshift percussion instruments such as car rims, oil drums, and spoon and grater. String bands also included makeshift instruments including the Baha, a long metal pipe that is blown, and the Shack-Shack, a milk tin containing beads.Each neighborhood had its own big drum and fife band, each one with it’s own name. There was revivary between the bands, the same way there was revivary between the steel pan bands in Trinidad. The revivary between the bands could become violet and clashes would occur.
The Alan Lomax recordings also include examples of Calypso music which had originated in Trinidad and had become popular across the Caribbean in the 1950s. Calypso music could be heard on imported records but was more commonly heard on radio or jukeboxes. While Trinidadian calypsonians like Lord Kitchener and The Mighty Sparrow were popular on the islands there was local calypsonians too. The 1950s saw the rise of stars such as Mighty Kush, Lord Mike, Lord Harmony, and Mighty Saint. The popularity of calypso on the islands was down to, in part, the similarities it shared with the pre-existing folk music written and performed by musicians knowns as troubadours. As their name suggests their origins lay in the troubadours of Europe, a type of musician whose influence can be seen across the Caribbean. (In Haiti they called Twoubadou in Haitian Creole). The troubadours of St. Kitts and Nevis were solo performers who, for a price, could be hired to perform their latest tunes in your home. They performed self-penned topical songs, sometimes with serious lyrics and other times with comical but always clever and entertaining.
Steel pan bands were introduced to St. Kitts and Nevis in the 1950s by Education Officer Lloyd Matheson. The island’s first steel pan band was the Wilberforce Steel Pan Band led by Roy Martin. Other pioneers of steel pan music in St. Kitts and Nevis include Cecil ‘Moonlight’ Roberts who brought steel pans from Antigua in 1952, which increased interest in the instrument. Steel pan bands in St. Kitts and Nevis during this period included The Invaders, The Boston Tigers, The Eagle Squadron, and Casablanca.
Trinidadian-style carnival was introduced to St. Kitts and Nevis by Basil Henderson in 1957. He formed the first carnival committee whose members included Agnes Skerritt and Doris Wall. Cromwell Bowry, Cyril Frederick, and Chief of Police Major Leonard Alphonso also made significant contributions to the carnival during its early beginnings. St. Kitts and Nevis also adopted The Calypso King contest from Trinidad Carnival. The first Calypso King of St. Kitts was Mighty Kush. The 1960s saw the introduction of Brass Bands to the carnival, however, string bands, steel pan bands, and calypso music remained a popular part of the proceedings.
Memories of the Christmas Sports and carnival in St. Kitts and Nevis acted as the foundation on which the Leeds West Indian Carnival was built. Many people who were later involved in the Leeds West Indian Carnival were involved in or witness to the Christmas Sports and carnival in St. Kitts and Nevis. For some, involvement in the Christmas Sports went back generations. Reginald Challenger’s father was a member of a troupe of Masqueraders in St. Kitts. St. Clair Morris’ grandfather had been a drummer with a troupe of Masqueraders in St. Kitts. In Nevis, Mitch Wallace’s father had played the Big Drum and his grandfather had played fife. Mitch Wallace was a member of a troupe in Nevis from as early as the age of eight. He recalls performing in David and Goliath and reciting lines from the Bible in-between dance performances. Mitch’s cousin, Felina Hughes would help with costume preparation but was too shy to take part herself. She enjoyed watching Mitch perform but admits being afraid of the Mocko Jumbies. Hughbon Condor, on the other hand, was fascinated by the Mocko Jumbies and attempted, unsuccessfully, to build his own stilts. Arthur France also recalls being wary of the Christmas Sports as a child but later enjoyed watching David and Goliath. His parents allowed him to watch the Christmas Sports but refused to allow him to take part. He developed a lifelong passion for steel pan music. Artie Davies was too young to take part in the Christmas Sports but grew up enjoying the music of St. Kitts and particularly enjoyed calypso. Under the name Lord Kingston, he performed calypso music on street corners with a cuatro. Rex Watley played with a steel band in St. Kitts and Henry Freeman and Albert Henry learnt to play Big drum and Kettle drum (respectively) in Nevis. Reginald Challenger has memories of homemade instruments. Calvin Beach was a member of the Eagle Squadron Clown Troupe. He remembers the troubadours in Nevis and the revivary between the big drum and fife bands. He also recalls a Christmas Sport called Sagwa. In 1957 he took part in the first carnival held in St. Kitts as part of the Arabian Nights troupe.
Leeds carnival pioneers came from other parts of the Caribbean too. Their memories and experiences were vital to the founding of the West Indian Carnival in Leeds. In Trinidad, Ian Charles had been a member of a Sailor Band since the age of 16, although his dream was to be a Midnight Robber. He recalls witnessing the violent rivalry between steel bands that was common in Trinidad at the time.
Mass migration, first to other Caribbean islands and later to England, was one of the main factors behind the disappearance of some of the Christmas Sports during the 1950s and 1960s. Among those lost was David and Goliath and Millionaires. The introduction of Trinidadian Carnival, large steel bands and recorded Soca music also contributed to the Christmas Sports’ downfall. Despite this Christmas Sports have survived in St.Kitts and Nevis and their influence can still be seen at Leeds West Indian Carnival, especially in the performance of the Masquerade which are a common sight at Leeds Carnival. (Often performed by a group from Montserrat). Over the years The Bull, Moko Jumbies, Neaga Business and even David and Goliath have been performed during the carnival celebrations in Leeds.