Rosalind Gabriel: the kiddies’ queen

Many observers agree that in today’s Carnival the most memorable spectacles happen in “kiddies’ mas.” And bandleader Rosalind Gabriel has been at the forefront for over two decades. Nazma Muller meets the innovator with a taste for tradition

Rosalind Gabriel in her mas camp. Photograph by Mark LyndersayA section of Gabriel’s 2014 band, Colour My Culture. Photograph by Butch LimchoyYoung masqueraders in 2014’s Colour My Culture. Photograph by Butch Limchoy2010’s patriotic Love Your Country. Photograph by Butch LimchoyAn elaborate individual costume from Colour My Culture. Photograph by Butch LimchoyA happy masquerader in the 2011 band The Story Teller. Photograph by Butch LimchoyA many-segmented caterpillar from 2013’s Lost in Paradise. Photography by Butch LimchoyPortraying bachac ants in Gabriel’s  2011 band The Story Teller. Photograph by Butch LimchoyChelsea Vespry. Photograph by MEP PubishersA young masquerader in one of Rosalind Gabriel’s Carnival bands. Photograph by Butch Limchoy

It is the day before Trinidad and Tobago’s Minister of National Security finally — after weeks of public panic and heated debate over Ebola precautions — gives Carnival 2015 the green light. Amid global hysteria over the spread of the virus, concern is high about the potential risks posed by the annual influx of tens of thousands of visitors for sweaty fun in massive parties, concerts, and street parades.

But on this sunny afternoon in late October, bandleader Rosalind Gabriel, surrounded by hundreds of trophies stacked on shelves along the walls in her Woodbrook mas camp, is totally unfazed. At sixty-six, with thirty-six years in the business under her belt, Gabriel is a seasoned survivor of many a Carnival crisis. “I am going full steam ahead,” she declares. “I don’t think it will stop the Carnival.”

A few feet away, a young artist is using a stencil to cut out flowers for this year’s band, a tribute to the late Cito Velasquez, a legendary bandleader and Carnival craftsman who died in 2006. In the 1980s, Velasquez helped Gabriel bend the wire for many of her son’s Carnival King costumes. They would work under a mango tree in Gabriel’s backyard. Usually, they didn’t even have a drawing. She would describe an idea, and together they — and whoever else was liming in the yard at the time — would fine-tune the design. “And we would build a costume with no design.”

Gabriel recalls one Carnival when, two nights before the preliminaries of the Junior Queen competition, they still had no costume built. “We have to come up with something!” Gabriel, the designer, and the mother of the girl who was to play the queen came up with an idea. “We would tell the wire bender what we had in mind, throw out something, build a frame, start to cover it — and a queen is born!” She says this flippantly, but the costume won first place. After years of being around Carnival costumes and watching their construction from wire and papier-mâché, Gabriel has developed an instinct for the “physics” of the mas — she knows what will fly, and what won’t.

She learned this the hard way. The first year she produced a band, her daughter Carolyn played the queen. Her costume was about seventeen feet high, Gabriel recalls. At a competition in
St James, a strong wind blew and “Carolyn just took off!” Luckily, masquerader and designer Peter Samuel — longtime king for masman Peter Minshall’s bands — grabbed on to Carolyn and pinned her to the ground. “Otherwise, I don’t know where she would have ended up.”

Shortly after that, the craftsmen from Minshall’s mas camp descended on Gabriel’s garage at home, looked at the costume, and took it away. At the Callaloo Company’s headquarters, they re-engineered the costume to prevent it achieving lift-off again. “That’s a thing with mas people,” says Gabriel. “You could have the biggest competitor next to you, and you have a problem, they coming to help you.”

 

You could say that the place she came from decided her fate. As a child in the 1950s, Gabriel lived on Stone Street in Port of Spain, part of a neighbourhood once called Corbeau Town. Ariapita Avenue, which runs along the northern end of Stone Street, is one of the major routes for the Carnival parade. “From inside the house, I could hear the noises of Carnival approaching,” Gabriel says. “I remember running down the steps and into the street to see which band was passing.”

Those were the glory days of “big mas,” when colossal costumes bestrode the avenue, twenty-foot-high shimmering masses of cloth, sequins, and wire that glittered and swayed under the sun, unleashed by the genius imaginations of designers like George Bailey, Harold Saldenah, and Irwin McWilliams. These early memories are etched in Gabriel’s mind. She can still remember the air of excitement and anticipation at the sight of these magnificent kings and queens. “I always feel that when I produce a costume, it must be memorable,” she explains. “Somebody has to remember it down the line.”

Every year, as Carnival draws near, Gabriel is bombarded with requests for interviews and workshops from art students. Up until two weeks before Carnival weekend, schools come for tours of her mas camp — one of the very few where you can still find traditional wire benders, seamstresses, and artists creating costumes from scratch, the smell of glue strong in the air, as fairies and clowns, sailors and butterflies magically take shape.

To cut costs, most bands these days import their costumes from China. The finished costumes arrive in containers, all the construction and stitching done by Chinese workers. Mas camps in Trinidad used to be places of great excitement, laughter, and late-night liming, where a pot of pelau could always be found bubbling, beers and “picong” — good-natured heckling — passing, as friends and neighbours — and often complete strangers — helped finish the colourful costumes, everyone covered with glitter dust, their fingers caked with glue. “I remember when I was courting my husband,” Gabriel says. “He was friends with [late designer] Wayne Berkeley — so every night we would go in his camp. There was nothing I loved better than that.”

At Berkeley’s mas camp, Gabriel learned the basics of Carnival craft. “It was the most exciting thing ever happen to me,” she says. “And I haven’t looked back.”

When her son was two, his nursery school decided to bring out a band. From that year on, he played mas with his school. When he was seven, Gabriel made his first large costume herself, which won first prize at the then famous Jaycees Carnival show. From 1977 to 1988, she produced individual character costumes for her son and daughter, winning the king and queen titles of both public and private competitions. During this time, she also had the chance to work with celebrated mas designers and bandleaders Peter Minshall, Steven Lee Heung, and the partnership of Stephen Sheppard and Stacy Wells.

From the very first small band of eight masqueraders that she produced to accompany her junior king and queen, Gabriel’s costumes have raised the bar for children’s mas: her use of colour and the high quality of the construction and stitching make her creations stand out. Although she can and has built costumes without formal designs, she has collaborated with designers Roger Myers, Chris Santos, and Gregory Medina over the years, and most recently with Follett Eustace, to create the drawings and prototypes.

Her inspiration for themes and designs comes from God, Gabriel says. “To me, this culture of ours is sacred. Always I feel when I am embarking on a theme, either for a costume or a band, it has to be guided. It has to be educational. Since 1996 I have been doing local themes. I love to take inspiration from Trinidad and Tobago. The theme has to be memorable, and it has to pay tribute to the great icons — whether it be in steelband, calypso, or mas. That’s my passion.”

 

The survival of traditional mas-making depends on teaching the children of Trinidad and Tobago the craft, but Gabriel is pessimistic about the way Carnival as an industry is run. “In the 1970s, the Carnival craft was part of the [primary school] curriculum,” she recalls, “but it was stopped shortly after. The junior parade used to start off with the school bands.”

She is particularly pained by the fact that all of the island’s Carnival craftsmen leave shortly after Ash Wednesday to build costumes for carnivals in North America and other Caribbean islands. “They should be here, teaching our children!” she fumes. “They shouldn’t have to go away.”

Gabriel’s passion for Carnival has made her an outspoken advocate for the founding of a Carnival hall of fame, where costumes could be displayed year-round, and visitors could marvel at the creative genius of past designers. “I spend more time activating for the betterment of Carnival than I spend in the mas camp,” she says — attending countless meetings trying to persuade the authorities about what needs to be done to make Carnival more enjoyable for all, and sustainable.

Gabriel recalls a time when the Hilton Trinidad would display kings and queens in the hotel lobby. When she thinks of the thousands of man-hours and dollars spent on each costume, it hurts to imagine them ending up in the La Basse garbage dump every year. “The kind of history that we have in mas should be preserved,” Gabriel says, frustrated that the very things that have made the island famous — calypso, pan, mas — are glaringly absent outside the Carnival season.

She keeps her own king and queen costumes for a year, but with no place to store them, they are eventually dismantled and discarded. “I dream of a warehouse,” she says wistfully. “I dream of having a warehouse where they would all be kept. Imagine being able to see Mancrab, Saga Boy, and Tan Tan [iconic creations of Peter Minshall] all in one place . . .”

 

A Rosalind Gabriel chronology

Gabriel’s 2015 production will be her twenty-sixth mas band:

1989  —  Court of the Mythical Fire Opal
1990  —  Let My People Go
1991  —  Time for a Tale
1992  —  Thru My Magic Garden
1993  —  Coney Island
1994  —  Fantasea
1995  —  Amazing Space
1996  —  Côté Ce Côté La
1997  —  We Are the World
1998  —  Tempo (part one of a trilogy)
1999  —  Carnival Time Again (part two of a trilogy)
2000  —  Panorama (part three of a trilogy)
2001  —  Enchantment, Who’s Hiding?
2002  —  Long Time We Used To . . .
2003  —  Melting Pot
2004  —  Nah Leavin’
2005  —  A Pinch of Minsh
2006  —  Mas! Mas! Ah Know Yuh Name . . .
2007  —  Many Faces, One Nation
2008  —  Wings of Hope
2009  —  National Pride
2010  —  Love Your Country
2011  —  The Story Teller
2012  —  50 Years Gold
2013  —  Lost in Paradise, A Nancy Story
2014  —  Colour My Culture

She is also the most awarded children’s mas designer ever, with more than fifty titles over the years:

Title                                   Number of times won

Queen of Carnival                                  10
King of Carnival                                      3
Individual of the year (female)            6
Individual of the Year (male)               3
Band of the Year                                    15
Large Band of the Year (open)           16

Gabriel has also produced adult and children’s costumes for carnivals in Grenada, St Martin, St Thomas, Curaçao,
St Kitts, and Anguilla, and carnivals in the United States, and her costumes have been part of cultural showcases during official visits by visiting heads of state.

 

Start young

The magic of children’s Carnival is seeing the sheer exuberance with which the youngsters — some as young as two — “play themselves.” They dance with joy and exuberance to the sound of soca, totally transported by the experience of portraying a character — be it a butterfly or bat, a fancy sailor or dragon. For many Carnival lovers and visitors, awed by the elaborate designs and stunning colours of the costumes, the Junior Parade of the Bands is the highlight of Trinidad Carnival. For local designers, it is an opportunity to be as creative, colourful, and fantastical as they like — sure that the masqueraders will love it.

If there’s one Carnival tradition that’s not dying, it’s “kiddies’ mas.” Every year, more than one hundred children’s bands — mini, small, medium, and large — vie for the many prizes offered by the National Carnival Bands Association and dozens of schools and corporate sponsors. Popular bands that have stood out over the years include Zebapique Productions, Carnival Babies, Lilliput Children’s Theatre, Classix Productions, Spoilt Rotten Kids, Carnival Players, Watusi Cultural Caravan, House of Jacqui, Margot Walcott, Maria Reverand and Friends, Gerard Kelly’s Children’s Carnival, Bois Canot Productions, D Midas T&T, D Collective, and Anra Bobb and Friends. And that’s just a few.

One designer who made his mark in the pre-Internet days — and images of whose costumes are not, sadly, available at the click of a mouse — was Richard Bartholomew, who produced twenty-three bands between 1973 and 1996. Nine of them won the Junior Band of the Year title. With just twenty children participating, he brought out his first band Poui in Bloom, and won second prize. He then proceeded to produce consistently beautiful, well-crafted costumes, and the band grew until it was one of the largest in the junior parade, with more than six hundred masqueraders. Bartholomew’s presentations, such as the memorable 1988 production The Colour Purple, often sent radio and TV commentators into raptures of ecstasy, as they gazed on the spectacle before them.

Today, bands like Carnival Babies — whose designer, Lisa Mollineau, trained with Peter Minshall and Rosalind Gabriel — also seek to educate their young masqueraders about the culture of Carnival. Mollineau holds workshops for youth groups and underprivileged children, where she teaches them the skills required to make their own Carnival costumes, which they then play mas with on the three consecutive weekends before Carnival.

Lilliput Children’s Theatre brings a touch of drama to the Junior Parade — and a bit of Carnival to the stage. Founded by Noble Douglas, a doyenne of dance and theatre in Trinidad, the theatre company, beginning in 2011, has started incorporating its Carnival concepts into its annual drama production at Queen’s Hall. Last year’s production, star-i, was designed by a former member of the company, Ayodhya Ouditt. His costumes depicted elements of the universe in his own interpretation of mythology. Under the tutelage of Lilliput’s drama director, Wendell Manwarren (of popular rapso group 3Canal), Ouditt’s creative concepts were crafted into a tale about the cosmos, spirits, animals, and plants told in song and dance.

 

“I just want to be in it”

Nazma Muller talks to a twelve-year-old masquerader about her love for the jump-up

Chelsea Vespry was just a toddler when she saw a Carnival band for the first time. She started to cry, she recalls, “because I wasn’t playing with them.”

The twelve-year-old says she fell in love with Carnival and costumes from then, and she spends the whole year looking forward to that moment when, her make-up done, she slips her backpack on — and hits the road.

Chelsea has been playing mas with Belmont-based Classix Productions for the last eight or nine years, and the members of Classix Productions and the other children she’s played mas with since she was three or four have become a second family.

She can’t remember the names of all the costumes she’s jumped up in, just the colours — “the pink, the blue and green one, the black . . .” — but her face lights up when she describes the feeling of the wind tossing her and the costume about, and the elation of crossing the big stage in the Queen’s Park Savannah. “A lot of people find my costumes heavy, but I don’t find so — because, well, I’m accustomed to wearing it,” she says. “When the wind blows, it blows me away with it — and it’s just real fun.”

A student of Bishop Anstey High School in Port of Spain, Chelsea says between schoolwork and choir practice (she is a member of the youth choir of The Marionettes Youth Chorale), she hardly finds time to relax during the year. “Carnival is like a holiday for two weekends for me,” she explains.

Choosing which costume she will play in is a major decision, not taken lightly or quickly. “I look at the different colours,” she says, “the shape of the costume, if I could see myself in it . . . that sort of thing.” Of course, half the fun is helping to decorate her costume. “When my grandmother brings it home, I bedazzle it,” she laughs. “I put on circle studs, glitter, ribbons.”

Chelsea says she never gets tired on the road during Carnival, even when it’s raining. “I just want to be in it. And if Mommy doesn’t let me do it, I will cry until she lets me go, and dance in the rain . . . It makes you feel so free.”

A feeling of sadness usually comes over her as the sun begins to set on Carnival Sunday, and she reverts from being, say, a glittering, dancing oil rig (the theme was Hototo . . . From the Land of Plenty) to a girl.

Last year, when Carnival was over, she hung her back-piece up on a door so she could gaze on it for a while longer. Eventually, though, like all her other costumes, it had to be dismantled and put out for the garbage collectors. “I feel sad, because it’s like so many memories, you know,” she says. “But I take a lot of pictures.”