BEAT Carnival – the community arts organisation known for its impressive St Patrick's Day parade floats in Belfast – is celebrating 30 years of bringing communities together in the city.
David Boyd, founder of Beat Carnival, said he had always envisioned art as a way of shaping society and to change the perception of Belfast, which by the end of the 1990s was a "bleak and divided" society. By using artists and art to bring about community development, as well as events such as parades, festivals and workshops, David said he believes the arts can help communities let in some light and celebration.
Speaking on the history of the community arts group he said he firmly believes that the arts can be at the forefront of society and community development.
“I finished art college and many of my friends left Belfast for elsewhere but I wanted to create a way for artists to be able to lead what happens on our streets and be able to create a different picture of this place for ourselves and others.
“When our first parades began in 1995 Belfast was seen abroad and on the news as being grey, bleak and full of division and confrontation. We wanted to bring together artists and people of all ages, backgrounds and communities and to celebrate together who we are, what we want to be and to present the city in a positive way which didn’t focus on the negative aspects.
David said that Carnival had helped change the impression of the city centre into a more welcoming and open space.
“30 years ago many people wouldn’t go to the city centre, they said it was dead and it wasn’t safe and we wanted Carnival to be symbolic, to allow people to express their alternative identities. When we started in 1995 we had a 100 drummers parade and brought samba drumming to Belfast.
“We had a big contingent of musicians from England, the South, Scotland and the famous Brazilian band Olodum. People initially thought it was another Twelfth but soon realised it was drumming you could dance to!"
David explained they have had a lot of strong international support over the years from artists and theatres in Ireland, across the UK, France, Italy, Belgium, Brazil and even in Ukraine before the war began.
“In the early years we got a lot of help from an English theatre company and Macnas down in Galway. French puppeteers taught us the methods on how to make our famous massive carnival heads. We make everything in-house for our parades and carnivals, from the costumes to the floats to the music and dancing. We design everything too and it’s been brilliant creating a place as well where we can get the community to join us in this.
“Beat was always intended to be a mix of creative arts and community development. We began in East Belfast and I wanted to expand arts and creative opportunities here after working as a youth worker there. I was told ‘what’s art got to do with us?’. I also wanted it to be a place that could pay artists and provide them with a space to carry out their work and projects."
Beat Carnival are well known for their St Patrick's Day parade but they also have hosted several parades and carnivals including the East Belfast Lantern Parade which spread to involve a lot of the city including areas of West Belfast. Speaking on the St Patrick's parade David said: “Our biggest parade of the year is the St Patrick’s Day parade and we had over 1,000 people involved in this year’s parade in front of 40,000 people. We have had to cap the parade at 1,000 people because any more would be too many to manage and we also provide all our own changing places, transport, stewarding and safety. In recent years rising costs has affected our ability to employ as many artists as we want to but we still provide Belfast with great value for money, with our parades costing far less than others in England or Ireland."
David said one of the biggest successes had involved getting cross-community involvement in the design, planning and participation of the parade, which sees many groups from the Shankill, for example, come in to help design, make and present the costumes and floats.
“One of the biggest successes over 30 years has been involving members of the PUL community in the St Patrick’s Day parade. We have many groups who come in to help us make the costumes and the floats and then they wear them on the day. It has really turned the day into a celebration for all communities."
For their big 30th anniversary celebration Beat Carnival have several events planned including a music night with Brazilian and Irish traditional musicians and also a large event with musician Katie Richardson who has prepared some unique music to celebrate the day.
David said: “We are really looking forward to celebrating our 30th anniversary with a large selection of community carnival arts workshops, an Ireland meets Brazil musical performance in The Sunflower bar on Tuesday 26 September, and our main exhibit will feature the Electro Carnival at the MAC on Saturday 30 with specially created music from Katie Richardson and other up-and-coming bands, dancers and musical artists. It will be a brilliant night.”
Tickets can be purchased from The MAC's website and cost £10.