Leeds West Indian Carnival

Carnival music and dance

A huge part of the rich culture of the Leeds West Indian Carnival comes from the music that is played and performed there, and this covers a wide range of different types of music, all of which have an important significance to the history of the Caribbean. There is a strong tradition of Caribbean music linked to the West Indian slave trade through the way in which the slaves of the plantations used music as a way of communicating, of making their situation more bearable, and of bringing about a wider sense of community.  

This page looks at the importance of steelpan music and calypso in particular, and their connection to a Caribbean heritage, and how this relates to the significance of music in celebrating and remembering the culture of the Caribbean in Leeds. It will also touch upon soca dancing, and the traditional ‘Kaiso’ songs sung by slaves as they worked on the plantations. 

Curriculum links:

Music  - developing an understanding of the history of music, improvise and compose music, understand and explore how music is created. 
History (Local Study), Science, Design & Technology , Literacy

Aim of resource 

The aim of the resources on this page is to give children an understanding of the roots of Caribbean music and dance and why it is significant to Leeds West Indian Carnival. 

Learning objectives 

  • Knowledge of the different kinds of music that make up the Leeds West Indian Carnival music scene, and where these music traditions come from. 
  • Understanding of why music is so important to Carnival, and how it is significant in celebrating and remembering Caribbean history and culture. Understanding how different materials make different sounds. 
  • Skills – recognising different types of music, interpreting music, making a musical instrument, playing steel pans, song writing, story writing, creating a glossary, creating a quiz. 

Discussion ideas:

  • Why do you think music is an important part of Carnival? Is it just a way of making people happy, and getting everyone to dance? 
  • Why do you think the music at the Leeds West Indian Carnival might sound different to a carnival from a different culture, such as the carnivals of Brazil? Why is it important to recognise the differences between the types of music found at different carnivals?
  • What types of music do you know and listen to? Do you think these genres of music will be included in the Leeds West Indian Carnival?  Explain why they may or may not be included. Do you know any types of music that are traditionally associated with the Caribbean? Name them if you can 
  • What does music tell us about a culture? How? What can the music played at Carnival tell us about the history of the Caribbean and the people who lived there? 

Activity ideas (for 'Audio' clips please see links below):

  • Listen to Max Farrar talk about the tradition of using steel pan music at the Leeds West Indian Carnival (click here to listen at Sonic City). The traditional steel pan – traditionally made out of Trinidadian oil drums – is a really important part of Caribbean music tradition, and was developed during the 1930s. They were made out of improvised objects, such as frying pans and oil drums, and beaten with hammers in a certain way so that they would make the sounds of different musical notes, but now they are made out of sheets of steel.

    Take a look at the Blue Peter clip, where Helen learns to play the steel pan ( see 'Related Links' at the bottom of the page) and listen to the unique sound that the steelpan drum makes. Could you make your own improvised musical instruments out of found or natural objects? Think about ways you might use small pebbles or other found objects inside a tin can, for example, or tapping the outside of different sized cans with a stick – what noises do they make, how can you make them even better? What does your instrument sound like alongside those that other have made? Do they sound good together?

    Learn how to play the steel pans in school by booking a steel pan workshop through ArtForms music (see 'Related Links' at the bottom of the page).

  • Design your own musical instrument, using an item that you might find in your kitchen at home. What would it sound like, how could it be used in Carnival? Could it be used as part of a larger group, or an orchestra, like a steelpan band?

  • Listen to a clip of the Leeds West Indian Carnival from 2007 (click here to listen at Sonic City).   See how many different types of music and sounds you can identify – children’s voices, adult voices, whistles, horns, the beats from a sound system overlaid with more traditional songs.

    Close your eyes and play the clip again – imagine that you are there amongst all these sounds and voices, and that you can see where all these sounds are coming from. Write a letter to a friend or a relative - or to another child at a school that hasn’t learned about Carnival! Describe the noises you can hear, and the atmosphere that all these sounds make when they’re mixed together. How does the music make you feel? What are the people talking about – are they celebrating, cheering, chatting – how does the music impact the atmosphere? 

  • Listen to Khadijah talk about the history of dance in Caribbean heritage and the movements that go into Soca dancing (see 'Audio' links below)

    - What different moves does she talk about, and what do they represent? 

    - Think about how the movements of soca dance relate to the human body, and the ideas of ‘grounding’ ourselves to the earth. Do you think there is a connection between nature and the body being created here? Why?

    - Khadijah talks about how the music traditions of the Leeds West Indian Carnival come from a Calypso music, which finds its roots in Trinidad in the 17th century, from the West African music brought by African slaves to the Caribbean during the slave trade where they worked on the sugar and cotton plantations. During the slave trade, ‘Kaiso’ was the name given to the songs sung by slaves whilst they worked, and was a way for them to communicate with each other, and to find a sense of community despite their suffering.  

    To learn more about the slave trade itself, you can go to the School Run website (see 'Related Links' below) which has timelines, facts, and resources about the slave trade. 

    - Calypso music grew out of this tradition of ‘Kaiso’, and after the slave trade was abolished, it became a way of telling funny stories, talking about local news, or discussing politics through music. One of the earliest recorded pieces of Calypso music was ‘Iron Duke in the Land’ by Julian Whiterose, and recorded in 1914. The song is about self-praise, and celebrating how great the band he played in at the Trinidad Carnival was. 

    Taking inspiration from Julian, write your own calypso song about the Leeds West Indian Carnival – think about everything you have learned so far about the crowds, the music, the people, the dancing and the costumes, and tie them so that anyone who hears your song will understand what Carnival means to you! You can use the keywords help sheet from the Leeds West Indian Carnival website to help you, or you can come up with your own list of keywords and important things to remember when writing your lyrics. Alternatively, you can take inspiration from the subject of Calypso music, and write a song about a funny story, or a subject that is important to you.

    - Create a glossary of the terms that you have learned – calypso, steel pan, Kaiso, Soca – and explain what each word means, as if you have never heard them before! You could use this glossary to write a quiz about music in Carnival, and make a list of five questions from the facts you have learned.  

Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Museum Discovery Centre |  ArtForms Artemis | 
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