Local Lives 21

A new dress for The Lady
Photographs and story by Mark Lyndersay

Tracey Sankar is gathering long strips of detailed white cloth together to run them through her sewing machine when I finally pop the question that’s been on my mind for almost eight weeks now.
“You do realise that you’re making a wedding dress, don’t you?”

Sankar rocks back in the rolling chair she’s finally sat down to use, squints at the yards of detailed white cloth in front of her, then squints at me.
“You think so?” she responds, more than a little quizzically.

From the moment I met the petite masquerader in November last year, she’s been working on a costume for her striking character, Erzulie Freda, inspired by the Haitian Lao, an Afro-Haitian divinity of sorrows, never able to realise her heart’s true desire.

On October 31, Tracey Sankar lost her husband, Cpl Shervaun Charleau, during an attempted robbery at Fort George. She was married for 19 years and the mother of four children.

By mid-November, she had decided to return to her plans for Carnival 2016 after a successful run as an individual in 2015.
“My husband believed in the costume. As he walked with me to the stage, he was talking to me under the hat.”

“This will take you further than anything else, he told me. I think he was a little afraid of it, he might have been afraid I was getting lost in it.”
When Tracey Sankar talks about the character, it’s less a description of something she portrays than it is of an essence, a personality that inhabits her when she wears the costume.

In casual conversation about the progress of her work, her personal pronouns refer as often to Erzulie as they to do her, which can be a bit confusing.
Sankar also plays a Dame Lorraine and has done so for several years with her mother, June Sankar’s Carnival band, as well as a fancy jab, but each character speaks to her in different ways.

“With all the frills and beading, my Dame Lorraine costume doesn't speak to me. It's too quiet as a character; it's too dainty. It reminded me of knowing my place. That character takes me back to when I was a housewife. I was there for one thing and so was she, as a slave concubine. I was raised in a religious home, and you know your place as a wife.”

She plays Erzulie, the La Diablesse as the embodiment of the privileged slave concubine, both desired and trapped.
Sankar had another plan for the 2016 version of Erzulie’s costume.
“After a while it began to evolve,” she recalls. 
“The mas began to have a life of its own. I had the skirt, and she wanted pants. It was supposed to be dark, but it started to become pretty.”

In November, the train of the costume was hanging from the roof above her workstation at Granderson Labs, where she has been afforded space since after Carnival 2015 to develop her concepts.

For hours, the costume was the subject of her careful stitching of dozens of beads. At one point, Sankar began vigorously dancing around it as it hung insouciantly from clothespins, the masquerader trying to work out how it would hang from her body and flow in the real world.

“I could draw it, but I need to feel and touch the material to understand how it will move. That's how I work.”
A week before the costume was to make its first appearance at the NCC’s traditional costume competition at Adam Smith Square, Sankar took apart the character’s finished hat, one of the focus points of the costume, along with the hoof, and rebuilt it.

“It was doing nothing for the character,” she said dismissively.
It was hardly the first sacrifice demanded for the costume’s creation.
“With every piece, I get chook. There's blood inside that hat.”

Encounter with Erzulie
Tracey Sankar is incandescent with rage. It’s a sight made even more terrifying by the milk white contacts and makeup she’s wearing, and as Erzulie’s costume drops from her in sections, her fury grows more articulate and colourful.

It’s a sharp contrast with the scene just two hours before, when she stood on a grassy verge on Murray Street at the very edge of the eastern side of Adam Smith Square, growing ever more solemn and silent as she painted her body and began assembling Erzulie’s new costume.

Tentatively assisted by her eldest son, Joshua, the sections of the costume slowly overtook her until at the end, Sankar is totally silent, whispering to her son occasionally.
As the weight and discomfort of the costume settle into her, she utters the occasional gut-deep grunt, sometimes a sharp, guttural cry as she begins to walk with the hooved leg, which she does with a chilling, swaying hobble as she alternately walks on the balls of a foot perched on top of a chamfered block of wood.

The costume bends her small frame, occasionally forcing her to her knees and she leans forward on the palms of her hand, but that didn’t annoy her. Her fury was reserved for the crush of curious photographers and snappers pressing in on her, the indelicate handling of the NCC road management and the studied indifference of her costumed colleagues.

Local Lives 20

Expanding the Tribe
Photographs and story by Mark Lyndersay

Some might think it brazen, this appropriation of the title of a famous 1999 Minshall Carnival band, The Lost Tribe. Some might consider it appropriate. It certainly seemed that Tribe bandleader Dean Ackin thought so, as he told the assembled media that he had heard the concerns about the loss of art and craft in the annual festival and decided to do something about it.

What he did was to assign one of his senior designers, Valmiki Maharaj, to work with a new team of artists and designers to create a new suite of costumes, which were the first thing unveiled on Saturday night’s all encompassing “The Launch,” event, which also saw the unveiling of the costumes and concepts for Bliss and Tribe.

The Lost Tribe is a side project for the massive Tribe production engine, Ackin promised to keep it small, holding it to around 1,200 masqueraders, while totally eschewing the lifeblood of the brand for the last 12 years, the costumes were designed without a single feather.

The new designers produced a mix of shaky new concepts, designs inspired by ideas introduced by Peter Minshall and Cito Velasquez, among others in a presentation that won’t go far enough for traditional mas aficionados and may be a stretch too far for the traditional Tribe masquerader.

But Ackin has done something that others have talked about but never put into production. He’s dared to do a band that, while supported by his considerable brand, will rise or fall based on what the market makes of this hybrid of traditional concepts adapted to a faster, more athletic Carnival customer.

Win or lose, this is a Tribe band that will challenge the status quo that Ackin and his team have done so much to cement.

Local Lives 19

The slow baker
Photographs and story by Mark Lyndersay.

Zabouca Breads, the baking craft shop of Chris Marshall, has been operating in T&T for the last three years.
Marshall made the move to his location on Tragarete Road two years ago when the business clearly began to outgrow his home at Flagstaff.

“There was an accident early one morning with a customer,” he recalls, “another Easter again, and I realised I had to make a move and find a place.”
He’d begun his adventures in cooking while working as a mechanical engineer in the US, when his wife sent him off to a French culinary school.

“That was it,” he remembers. “Now, my wife and kids are in Grenada and I’m here, working.”
“Easter,” he repeats, shaking his head.
He’s at the bakery with new assistant Jamal Williams, a Hotel School student before dawn on the Thursday before the long Easter weekend and it’s becoming clear that their hot cross buns won’t meet demand even as they work on this third and final batch.

At least part of the reason is time.
“We don’t just put some water and flour and icing and push some buns out.”
What begins as flour and almost a dozen ingredients mixed and sprinkled and massaged together into an intricate sourdough mix eventually takes almost six hours to prepare.

Long after Zabouca opens its doors, customers appear, vaguely hopeful that their buns might be ready but already resigned to waiting.

On my way out the door, I take a tentative bite into the hot bun and it’s clear what the fuss is all about.
The bread may take long to prepare, but it’s worth waiting for. It’s rich and tasty with a hint of spiciness that demands a certain amount of relish with each chew.

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

Every Easter, men prepare themselves to jockey goats in a deadly serious race of form and discipline. Read More...

Local Lives 15

Phase II prepares for their 41st appearance at the National Panorama Finals. Read More...

Local Lives 14

The Original Whipmasters are into their fourth generation of bringing a unique and punishing style of Jab Jab mas from Couva. Read More...

Local Lives 13

Catholics concerned about the state of Carnival bring a band and good example to the festival. Read More...

Local Lives 12

The Ganga Dhaaraa reflects the worship ceremonies of the Ganges River in India. Read More...

Local Lives 11

Local Lives 11 - Chocolate City adds a sweet twist to Carnival's traditional J'Ouvert celebration Read More...

Local Lives 10

Local Lives 10 - Children learn the Ramayana by writing, performing and directing the epic Ramleela. Read More...

Local Lives 09

Local Lives 09 - Gathering the Tribe

Local Lives 08

Local Lives 08 - A chowtal group returns to honour a father's legacy Read More...

Local Lives 07

Local Lives 07 - Carnival Queen Anra Bobb

Local Lives 06

Local Lives 06 - Building a memorial with faith Read More...

Local Lives 05

Local Lives 05 - Divali at the Singhs in St James. Read More...

Local Lives 04

Local Lives 04 - The story of a day's travel Read More...

Local Lives 03

Local Lives 03 - World Cup finale

Local Lives 02

Local Lives 02 - Making a living in the dump Read More...

Local Lives 01

Local Lives 01 - Making Miss T&T in 38 hours Read More...

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