Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
Carnival Themes and Costumes

Carnival and Street Festival Music

Beating drums, blasting trumpets, ringing bells and shrieking whistles – street festivals are full of music. Traditional pipe and brass bands can be found to accompany some of the more traditional UK parades with the distinctive sound of steel pan calypso at the Leeds West Indian Carnival. However, there is a huge range of music that can be heard, including pop, rock, salsa, jazz rap and reggae.

Playing steel pans at Leeds West Indian Carnival

Following the marching bands the majority of participants in many smaller parades keep in a gentle marching step, with the occasional lazy stroller, and hand waving sways. The St Patrick’s parade has Irish dancing and majorettes feature in many events. For the West Indian Carnival the troupes often have elaborate dance routines, expanding from a basic left to right step to more complicated routines with swaying hips and rolling shoulders.

Many troupes, bands and DJ’s also choose to take part in the parade on a float which is often a flatbed lorry. It costs money to hire a flatbed lorry for a float, so sponsorship from lorry firms is a big bonus. Decorating the lorry can take almost a whole day. Having a lorry is ideal for letting youngsters sit rather than walk long distances, for bands to be able to concentrate on their music, and for presenting a large tableau.

At the Leeds West Indian Carnival the music that is played and performed 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 trade in enslaved Africans through the way in which the enslaved people 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.


Kaiso was the name of the songs sung on the plantations by the enslaved people.

Calypso is the sound of the West Indies. Created in Trinidad & Tobago with African and French influences it combines social commentary in the lyrics with big rhythms and soulful voices.

Steel pan is the only truly musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century. The pans were crafted from cut, shaped and tuned oil drums in Trinidad and Tobago.

Soca is the high energy music you’ll hear pumping from sound systems that accompany the Carnival Parade. It is a heady mix of calypso, electronic jazz beats, thumping bass lines, melodious horns and rhythm sections all mixed up with great harmonies. Listen to Kadijah talk about Soca dancing and its roots.


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 

  • Take a look at the Blue Peter clip, where Helen learns to play the steel pan (see 'Supporting Links'  in 'Resources') 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?
  • 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 Khadijah talk about Soca dancing and its roots.

    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 enslaved people to the Caribbean (during the trade in enslaved Africans) where they worked on the sugar and cotton plantations. During the trade in enslaved Africans, ‘Kaiso’ was the name given to the songs sung by enslaved people whilst they worked, and was a way for them to communicate with each other, and to find a sense of community despite their suffering. 

  • Calypso music grew out of this tradition of ‘Kaiso’, and after the trade in enslaved Africans 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.