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. The 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.