Local Lives 18

For the children
Rosalind Gabriel’s 26 year romance with Children’s Carnival

“I ain’t able,” Rosalind Gabriel declares, staring helplessly at the bolt of cloth.
The bandleader is at Yufe’s in Maraval cradling the book for this year’s production, a huge white binder with illustrations of each section, and the material she’s being offered doesn’t match the weight and colour she’s looking for.

In her estimation, the materials available to designers and costume creators for carnival has dropped by as much as 50 per cent in this decade and matching existing material to costume needs is becoming more of a challenge every year.

Gabriel also has a problem that few of her colleagues producing large adult bands generally don’t have. She wants to dress children in the elaborate costumes she recalls so fondly from her childhood, and making sure they are comfortable is a big part of the decision-making process.

This year’s band, Play One for Cito, recalls the bold and determinedly top-heavy signature style of Cito Velasquez in designs by Follette Eustace, so the weight of cloth stretched across large wire frames rests heavy on Gabriel’s mind.

It all began in 1989 with the band Court of the Mythical Fire Opal, the end of a long flirtation with mas that included making costumes with Wayne Berkeley, the Harts and creating costumes for her children.

“I wasn’t allowed to play mas when I was a child,” Gabriel says, wistfully, “So I designed and created costumes for my children.”
It was the late Lil Hart who encouraged her to take it to the next level.
“Why don’t you bring a band,” the legendary masmaker told Gabriel, “Bring it and I will help you.”

Over the 26 years since, many people have stepped in to help.
“My two daughters keep asking me every year, “Mum, don’t you think you’ve had enough of this?”
“It’s like having a baby, you know. Every single year at one point I say to myself, there’s no way I’m doing this again.”

“But then I see a person looking at the band with a smile, I see a photo of children in the band having fun…those sights are priceless.”
“I think of the children from the home (Gabriel has offered a free section for orphans from the start), and it’s huge. It’s big, bigger than me.”
“Almost all of Michael Padia’s family work with me. So many people pitch in to make it happen.”

“I just want to put on a show that makes people happy.”

Collaborators in costuming
Most Carnival bands are produced at a sprint, with Carnival Sunday as the breathless finish line. Children’s Carnival is, in comparison, the unhappy love child of a marathon and a relay. Bandleaders face three weekends of competition, with the number of competitive appearances in a single day multiplying as the climax of the festival grows closer.

On Carnival Sunday, Play One for Cito has three parades scheduled before appearing on the road on Monday and Tuesday.
Gabriel can’t even begin working on the adult section of the band until two weeks before Carnival.

To make that level of production happen, she depends on solid collaborators in the creation of the costumes, which were still being tweaked and improved a month before Carnival.
Marlene Greaves is based in Trincity, some distance from the band’s camp in Woodbrook, but the flow of her work, the seamstressing that is at the heart of Gabriel’s well regarded costumes continued right up to the festival’s start.

Greaves has been with the band from its very beginnings.
UK trained, she is precise in conversation and in her expectations of the work she produces. Apart from her work with Gabriel, she also sews for Karen Hart and for large groups like the UWI Choir, but takes a very special joy in the work she does for the children’s band.

Richard Leera has been wirebending for Carnival for the last 27 years, starting in the craft working on Titanic with Wayne Berkeley and continuing with the designer until his passing.
Like Greaves, he likes Gabriel’s certainty about her band’s designs.
“She knows what she wants,” he says with a smile.

Much of Leera’s work underpins the gravity defying shapes that are the hallmark of Play One for Cito.
“The key is to build something that will last for six days,” he explains.
“The biggest problem is getting materials.”

The half-inch RHS metal piping that he uses for the backpacks is getting hard to find, and without it the backpack and design would have to be made as one unwieldy part instead of something that can be separated.

Gabriel sounds her horn.
Originally published in the Guardian Carnival Souvenir, 2015.

“You can tell them I’m a rebel,” Rosalind Gabriel says.
She’s a matronly woman, with hair streaked with slivers of silver and cheeks rosy with a quiet fire.

She’s just returned from one of the many meetings she attends during the season with other Carnival stakeholders, and the NCBA’s insistence on a rule forbidding children in bands parading on Carnival Monday and Tuesday has left her angry.

The rule hit other small masquerade bands in 2014 hard.
Original Whipmasters from Couva, a band that’s paraded with multiple generations of players for more than four decades found itself disqualified last year even after removing children under 18 from the band when it crossed the stage.

For Gabriel, it’s not an issue, nor is it something she can readily change. Her band is built around the participation of children, with adult assistance a crucial aspect of the band during its route of appearances during children’s Carnival and then there are those who choose to play with the band on Carnival Monday and Tuesday out of admiration for its insistence on old-school mas craftsmanship.

Rosalind Gabriel still adamantly builds the band on a model that’s almost disappeared in modern Carnival.
The designs, a tribute to Cito Velasquez created this year by Follette Eustace, are fully rendered as illustrations and sold on that basis at a small, hugely energetic children’s party that masquerades as a band launch.

Prototypes are created based on materials available at local cloth stores and refined until they meet the bandleader’s discerning eye.
It’s an approach that draws other mas craftsmen to work with her, creating a band that stands out in the highly competitive world of kiddie mas, where many classic designers find a receptive audience for their vision of Carnival.

Children’s Carnival is subtly different from the grown-up version of the festival. There is fierce competition among bands to win prizes, but it’s the competition of school’s football, not the angry battles of a World Cup.
These are families brought together in the heat of the day and united in their love for the festival and for their children.

Since Gabriel began her band, she’s had a free section for the children of the St Mary’s Children’s Home, offering 25 children, and not always the same ones at each band appearance, a chance to participate in the festival. A sponsor pays for the material, and the band provides the rest.

It’s an extended family more than it is a business and the bandleader’s fierce defiance of the edicts of the Carnival bureaucracy are the responses of a mother defending her children.
For 2015 she paraded on the route, but did so expecting to be disqualified automatically and it’s a freedom she welcomed.

As incongruous as that maternal fury might seem, most quickly discover it’s the most remorseless kind of civil disobedience to face.

Local Lives 17

Tribe at 10
An update on the occasion of their tenth anniversary to my 2009 story on the Carnival band Tribe, published in the Trinidad Guardian on March 03, 2014. The PDF of this published story is here.

Ten years is a long time for any business. For one that caters to thousands of people at a time, it’s a challenge that few will ever face.
Marry that experience with the world’s fussiest customers, the masqueraders who choose a premium, all-inclusive band with heavily decorated costumes for their Carnival experience and the mix is potentially explosive.

The band’s story in that time is a publicly acknowledged success story of satisfied customers, colourful presentations and feathers aplenty, but it’s also a less well-known narrative of a family and friends who shared a common dream and goal to create the Carnival they wanted to experience, a comfortable, secure space where all the party potential of the festival could be fully explored.

The story began in the big party band Poison, with a section that proved successful and a run that lasted four years.
Monique and Lana Nobrega built a faithful following with their designs and commitment to the happiness of their masqueraders and supported by a family and good friends that would become the backbone of the business now known as Tribe, began a journey that now finds them overseeing a popular events management company that produces three major parties during the season, a major J’Ouvert band in Red Ants, the local Miss Universe franchise and two bands, Tribe and Bliss which leverage the powerful engine of production that the team has refined year by year.

Lana and Monique are now part of a team that includes Dean Ackin, Dwayne Nobrega, Alan Lee, Melissa James and Gerard Ramirez, but friends and family populate the management teams that actually execute the work, making for an unusually harmonious response to even the most demanding of pressures.

Ackin promises that the next ten years will find Tribe becoming “more entrenched in the event management, entertainment and Carnival industries.”
But that’s typical of the bandleader.
He will always talk about keeping a “focus on innovation and breaking new ground through product and service differentiation.”

But look at the man. Really look at him, and you’ll see the devilish smile that betrays just how much fun he’s having and the joy of working with people who feel exactly the same way.

A very personal light

A very personal light
by Mark Lyndersay
An update to my 2006 story on the Singh family in Local Lives 05, published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 06, 2013. The PDF of this published story is here.

Just two decades ago, the Hindu festival of Divali had almost totally disappeared from St James. Despite a large Hindu population, there were just a few homes that lit some deyas and one installation at the Harvard roundabout. It seemed like the St James community had become too worldly for the festival.

That was when Bheem Singh, who loved the festival and its spiritual resonance, took the traditional lighting ceremony out of the temple just a few blocks down the street from his home.
Singh celebrated it the event in the temple for fifty years, but he wanted to put it front and centre in the community, beginning a tradition of a public lighting of deyas on the street right in front of his home on Ethel Street that continued for 16 years.

It’s been five years since the Singh family patriarch passed away at 74. His funeral, in one of those quirks of a multi-racial, multi-faith nation, was celebrated in the local Catholic church.
It was a loss that hit the family hard. His infectious enthusiasm for the festival had been the driving force behind the annual event, which gets no official support from the government or any social agency.

“We don’t ask anyone for anything,” said family spokesman Dereck Singh, “but nobody comes along to offer anything either.”
That’s a little surprising, because quite apart from their lavish annual presentation of deyas supported by elaborately bent bamboo art, the family is known for their spectacular spread of food, a sumptious assortment of curried vegetables served with tasty, crisp paratha roti.

There may not be much money available for the annual celebration, but there’s no shortage of commitment to making it happen.
“Whatever little we have, we make it do,” said Dereck Singh, one of the late Bheem Singh’s sons.
That resolve was sorely tested this year. Of Bheem Singh’s seven children, two passed away in the last year, Fedora in late 2012 and Gerald in April 2013. For the first time since 1997, the Singh family seriously considered not celebrating Divali on Ethel Street.

“People kept coming and asking if we were going to do it,” said Marjorie Singh, Bheem’s wife and the mother of a household that plays host all day long to eight grandchildren and a stream of friends and extended family.
Mrs Singh, blind in one eye and with impaired vision in the other did not, on Divali night, join the celebrants in Ethel Street or begin the event with the short religious ceremony at the shrine to Mother Lakshmi that’s always been a part of the Singh celebration.

But her presence was there nonetheless; her decisions about the placement of tables and flowers and the preparation of food were a constant part of the event’s planning.
For Divali 2013, the Singh family worked at the celebration with a determination that seemed like nothing less than a decision to face down the family’s sense of loss and the bleakness of that grief by ensuring that the light they had become known for continued to blaze.

“It in we blood,” said Dereck Singh, as he surveyed the bustle of preparation on the street on Divali morning.
“My father teach us that all the time. He loved it...he loved it unto death.”

The man from Patna
by Mark Lyndersay
The sidebar piece for the update on my 2006 story on the Singh family in Local Lives 05, published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 06, 2013. The PDF of this published story is here.

Twenty years ago, Patna Village, a became a popular and unlikely must-see destination for Divali and Christmas celebrations when an explosion of creative bamboo bending took root in the community.
One of the men who was responsible for that project was David Kanhai and for the last few years, he’s been bending bamboo for the Singh family at Ethel Street.

“I do it with them because of the sacrifice,” Kanhai says. “This event is different and that’s what attracted me.
David Kanhai won the first national bamboo bending competition, but soon dropped out of the competition, dissatisfied with what he perceived as politics at play in the event.

He’s been building bamboo sculptures for displaying lit deyas for three decades now, and his work process is a mix of the practical and the ethereal.
He picks the bamboo trunks carefully, starting with the most mature pieces, which have the strength to support his more complex designs.

“Too much of the bamboo this year is green,” he grumbles as he cuts and trims the stalks into long narrow strips before bending them this way and that.
He seems to be sketching the shapes in his mind with the cuttings before committing them to completion with deft ties of fine galvanize wire.

For the Singhs in 2013 he built a striking cobra, a stolid elephant, a rocket ship and scales of justice among other supports for the hundreds of deyas that would be lit on Divali night, the pinpricks of light outlining the shapes he designed.

“I like to build things of all kinds,” Kanhai says, “not just Hindu symbolism. It gives people of other religions a chance to embrace the event and to participate.”

Local Lives 16

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