The following is an extended and updated version of the article first published in Community Highlights magazine in August 2018.
My mother, Margaret, was the daughter of a farmer and had spent the early years of her life in Elvington, a village just outside of York. When my mother’s family first came to Leeds in 1965, my mother was still a toddler and had never seen a black person before. It was quite a shock for a little white girl to see a person with different coloured skin for the first time. She ran into the house to alert her mother. Since then, my family have become very diverse. I have two uncles from St. Kitts, one of whom was in the Carribbeans Steel Band and appeared on Opportunity Knocks in 1965, and one ‘uncle’ (actually my cousin’s husband) from Jamaica. These three men are just a small part of the ‘Caribbean side’ of our family, so Caribbean culture has never seemed ‘exotic’ to me, it was just another part of life.
I’ve never known life without Leeds West Indian Carnival. I was born in Leeds in 1986 and I attended my first carnival later that year but I like to tell people I’ve been attending Leeds West Indian Carnival since before I was born. My parents have been going to carnival together since 1983 and my mother even went to a couple before that. (Read their Carnival Story here.) She was pregnant with me in August 1985 but went to carnival regardless. She’s only missed one carnival since 1981. She was there for the 21st anniversary, the 25th anniversary, the 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries. She lived in Harehills in the 1970s and grew up jammin’ to the sweet sounds of Reggae being played by sound systems like Maverick and dancing the night away in the Blues clubs held in people’s basements in the early 80s.
My father, Duncan, came to Leeds in 1983 and attended his first carnival with my mother that year. He was also a fan of Reggae music and collected Bob Marley’s singles and albums. Before attending Leeds West Indian Carnival for the first time he had only ever seen Steel Pans being played on television. He would help pull the floats along from Potternewton Park, around the entire route and then back to the park. Back in those days out family’s spot was on the corner of Shepherds Lane and Roundhay Road. My grandmother lived on Bankside Street, just one street away. It was at this spot in 1988 that the first photo of me at Leeds West Indian Carnival was taken. I’m sat on the railings waiting for the parade to pass by. My mother is holding me up and next to me are my cousins and aunty. Leeds West Indian Carnival has always been a family affair for us. Other aunties, uncles, cousins were present that day. Not to mention my grandmother and a bunch of close family friends. 1988 was the year Michael Jackson performed at Roundhay Park the day after the carnival and there were Michael Jackson t-shirts on sale in Potternewton Park. My aunty, Hilda, spent a fortune buying Michael Jackson t-shirts for her children. Down the road from where we were stood a film crew was filming scenes for the TV movie Girl From The South.
In the 1990s and early 2000s our ‘spot’ changed to outside the Fforde Grene pub at the other end of Roundhay Road. My grandmother had passed away in December 1992 and we began watching the carnival parade from the Fforde Grene beginning in 1993. Most of my carnival memories come from this period. There was always a lot of West Indian men at the Fforde Grene pub. I enjoyed listening to them speak in patois and hearing some of the old sayings from the Caribbean.
Music has always been a big part of carnival for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the Steel Pans and I grew up with Soca in my blood. I remember hearing ‘Follow The Leader’, ‘Doggie’ and ‘Jump And Wave’ for the first time while dancing down Roundhay Road. Me and my sister Zoe were delighted when the Baha Men released ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ in 2000 because we had already known that song for a couple of years. We’d heard the Anslem Douglas version at carnival. We both loved Soca but we never really knew the names of the songs, they never got played on the radio and when we were really young we didn’t even know that this music was called Soca. We thought the line in ‘Follow The Leader’ was “we love soda” not “we love Soca”. I remember the first time my mum let me and my sister follow Godfather’s truck the entire route. I also remember how much my feet hurt by the time we reached Chapeltown Road. Before then we’d only been allow to go part of the way round. Sometimes as far as St. Aiden’s Church before having to turn around and head back down Roundhay Road, excited with tales of what we’d seen and heard on the road. Our favourite Soca songs were the ones that gave dance instructions in the lyrics – “Jump and wave, jump and wave. Everybody, jump, jump, jump,jump….” I remember my older cousins attending the first J’ouvert Morning in 1992. I remember them rushing over to us on Roundhay Road. “We’ve been up all night” they said. They’d been home to get dressed but had been partying in their pajamas. I remember when my sister and cousins, dressed as a pirates, were members of one of the troupes in 1995. That was also the first year I took my own photos of Leeds West Indian Carnival. I took photos of my sister and cousins in the parade and photos of my cousins in the car park at the Fforde Grene.
I remember hearing Reggae coming from cars parked in the Fforde Grene car park: Shaggy, Rayvon, Buju Banton, Dawn Penn, Chaka Demus, Pilers, and Shabby Ranks to name but a few. I remember the smell of cannabis and rum in the air as I stood on the wall, looking down Harehills Lane to see how far away the parade was and calls of “It’s coming! It’s coming!” as it drew near. I remember sitting on the grass and eating curry goat and dumplings in the park, the smell of jerk chicken in the air. I remember buying foam toy airplanes from a stall in the park and seeing all the other objects on sale: Reggae CDs, posters, T-shirts, and carved wooden ornaments. I remember how the bass from the sound systems thumped you in the chest as the green tractors pulled the floats down the road. I blew my whistle until I was red in the face and when we got home it would return to the kitchen drawer until next year. I remember my little sister’s first ever carnival in 1995. She was 11-months old and slept in her pram the entire time. Nothing could wake her! We would always rush home, dumplings in a brown paper bag, to catch the carnival on Calendar News. We’d watch closely to see if we could spot anyone we knew, we never did. The next day either mum or dad would go out and come back with a copy of the Yorkshire Evening Post. Sometimes we’d get one on the way home or my mum would ring my uncle to see if he still had a copy of the Monday issue.
Over the years I’ve missed around five carnivals. One year in the 1990s my parents took us to the seaside on Bank Holiday Monday and me and my sister complained the entire day because we were missing the carnival. Another year I missed was 2004 when I was in Liverpool with my father. I had to work in 2007 and missed the big 40th anniversary parade and I was working again in 2014. I also missed the Carnival in 2011 but managed to make it to Manchester’s carnival. In my early twenties I encouraged as many of my friends to attend the carnival parade with me and while they enjoyed it they didn’t have the same passion for carnival as I did. In later years I found friends who already loved carnival and I gained some great carnival memories with those people. I remember partying outside Dutch Pot on Chapeltown Road late into the night or ending up at a party held at the house of a friend of a friend of a friend. Everybody was welcoming at carnival time. It always reminded me of the Bob Marley song ‘One Love’ – “let’s get together and feel alright”.
I’ve been attending Leeds West Indian Carnival for 32 years now. It is an annual event that I always look forward to and is up there with birthdays and Christmas. In recent years, Pop-Up Carnivals have been a highlight of the Carnival Season for me. Since the first one in July 2014 for the Tour de France Grand depart I’ve tried to get to as many as possible. I even attended the Rio Heroes homecoming parade in 2016 to support Leeds West Indian Carnival who were taking part in the parade. A personal highlight was the 2017 Leeds Light Night parade in October when I got to dance with Arthur France down Briggate. In 2015 I helped three University of Leeds students with their research collaboration project on Leeds West Indian Carnival. I provided information and photographs that were displayed at the West Indian Centre in April. In 2017 one of my carnival photos was featured in the e-book ‘Carnival At 50’.
2017 was always going to be a big year for Leeds West Indian Carnival, the 50th Anniversary. In the spring I was part of the Carnival Chronicles team, researching carnival history and collecting oral histories. This work was used in a special exhibition at the Tetley in Leeds and was interwoven into the play ‘Carnival Chronicles’ written by Zodwa Nyoni. During the year, one phrase that kept cropping up was ‘half the story has never been told’. In September I set up a blog, Leeds Mas Media, as an attempt to tell the full story, a story I have known and loved all my life, a story I have lived. Since setting up my blog a year ago I’ve received love and support from across the community and beyond. Among those that have shown support for my blog are Leeds West Indian Carnival, Nottingham Carnival, Leeds Beckett University, Arts Council England, Heritage Corner Leeds, Community Highlights magazine, Wikipedia.org, the AAA Team and the Harrison Bundey Mama Dread Masqueraders. Leeds West Indian Carnival liked what I did so much that they asked me to write something for the Leeds Carnival website which can be read here.
In 2018, after watching the carnival parade for 31 years, I decided to join a troupe and became a last minute member of the Harrison Bundey Mama Dread Masqueraders. The troupe’s theme that year was Windrush Bacchanal, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948. My costume was made on carnival day with the help of Grace Hickson and two hours later I was in the parade, blowing my horn the entire way. I hadn’t learnt any of the dance routines but I must have been doing something right because Ruth Bundey asked me to come back next year.
Leeds West Indian Carnival is about much more than just a weekend every August. It is about the Steel Pan Bands, the Calypso and Soca stars, the dancers and the costume makers. My story is just a part of a much larger story that spans 50+ years.
Do you have a carnival story to tell? Were you in a troupe? Did you play steel pans? Get in touch to share your carnival story!