Rotherham’s first Carnival, The People’s Parade: “This is us”

A panoramic shot of the parade as it circles around the Minster Gardens.

Sitting on the steps of the Minster Gardens in Rotherham town centre on Saturday, people slowly started to gather in preparation for something, an event that had never been seen in the town before. There were some who asked me if I knew about it, of course I did, I had chatted to Ruth Cummins, one of the primary organisers of Rotherham’s first ever Carnival, before the event.

“It’s really about Rotherham people coming together and saying, ‘this is us’”, she said. Although not wanting to dwell on the negativity that Rotherham has seen over the last couple of years, some of this background forms the context of why the Carnival has been assembled.

Two years ago in 2014, after the release of the “Jay” report as it is shortened, a group of EDL supporters camped out outside Rotherham’s police station, demanding the Crime Commissioner Shaun Wright resign. It was an act which drew in various other right-wing groups.

In amongst all this, both Ruth and Vicky Hilton of Open Minds Theatre Company decided to physically take their message of opposition to the streets, facing the EDL crowd with their own banners promoting creativity and unity. This act was in many ways a trigger, as Ruth told me: “a two woman counter-protest turned into a Carnival.”

In every way though The People’s Parade is not a simple protest, but a celebration of creativity, bringing together a plethora of national groups including Mas Rampage and Handmade Parade, as well as local organisations who crafted a variety of spectacles for the event.

And after two years of preparation, the day finally arrived. I asked Ruth if there was any significance in the chosen date- the 24th of September- and she responded “not really, but it is the day after Bruce Springsteen’s birthday.” As a fan of The Boss, I understood.

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The sound of distant drumming was all we could hear for a while as I stood part of a long row of spectators eagerly lining Church Street at midday on Saturday, waiting for the parade to emerge from the corner of Market Street.

I heard a group of people deliberating where the sound of the Mosques call to prayer, part of the Symphony of Rotherham which kick-started the event, was emerging from. We all looked up and around in curiosity.

Batala in action!

Merseyside’s Batala kicked off the parade in style with their high energy percussion, in many ways the beating heart of the Carnival, really revving up the audience. They were followed by a sea of colours and creations, including a lively group of dedicated RUFC supporters, and the wondrous creations of Handmade Parade whose bold pieces really captured the crowd, especially the younger children.

Creations of the Handmade Parade

A personal favourite was Rotherham’s very own Mama Africa group, whose positive rhythm and enthusiasm was not only brilliant to watch, but instantly made you want to dance along, something great for the creating the vibrant atmosphere of the Carnival.

The parade finished in a beautifully art-bombed Clifton Park. With the sun beaming down, a number of different and varied acts took to the bandstand. It was great to see some of the young talent the town has to offer, including the magnificent drumming of Farhaan Butt and impressive singer-songwriter Tom Jane. Rotherham’s own Papa Legba’s also brought a healthy dollop of bluesy rock to the audience.

On top of the live acts, a range of stalls were held by different sections of the community and local Chantry Brewery hosted a bar, all contributing to the positive, unified ambience.

Knowing the context of an event of course gives a different weight to it and the fact that The People’s Parade was established in the first place is important. But putting that aside, the atmosphere the Carnival managed to create was brilliant and demonstrated how powerful the arts can be in building connections and uniting the community.

The festival in Clifton Park

To help make the carnival an annual event organisers have asked people for donations.

To put a few pounds in the virtual tip jar visit http://tinyurl.com/rotherhamcarnival or text CARN16 £ and an amount to 70070 (e.g. CARN16 £5).