Rosalind Gabriel is the undisputed champion of kiddies Carnival. Her elaborate presentations have captured the Band of the Year title for 14 consecutive years, this year being the most recent. “I feel real good about it. I don’t set out to build productions with prizes in mind, I do my best because I love the culture, I love to make children happy with what they wear,” she said when WomanWise contacted her. For years, children’s carnival has surpassed the adult version in terms of creativity and beauty. Gabriel, whose work is often used in events outside of Carnival, has been leading the charge, creating costumes that are elaborate, colourful, and true to her various themes. Her penchant for ornate costumes is a direct influence of the mas she grew up watching. “I grew up on 28 Stone Street, Corbeaux Town as they called it, and when I was little all the mas passed on Ariapita Avenue. All the children ran to the corner to see the bands when they passed; George Bailey, Harold Saldenah, those icons,” she recalled.
Her strict family upbringing didn’t allow for playing mas but thanks to her husband Norman, she was introduced into the world of mas making. “When we were courting, he was friends with Wayne Berkeley and we used to go the mas camp and help him build mas.” Gabriel, 61, has worked with many other bandleaders, among them, Peter Minshall, Steven Lee Heung, and Cito Velasquez. When she had her first child, Gabriel didn’t hesitate to immerse him into the experience she was allowed to watch growing up. “I put my son in mas from the age of two and when he was seven I made his first individual costume. When my last child was 13 and her days in junior mas were coming to an end, I decided to put out my first band with the encouragement of Lil Hart,” she said. In 1989, Gabriel’s first band hit the road in the medium category under the title, Court of the Mythical Fire Opal. Gabriel has long upgraded to the large band category with over 200 masqueraders and since 1996, has dedicated her presentations to local themes.
The bandleader has been responsible for many firsts. Her band was the first children’s band to compete on Carnival Monday and in its very first year in 1994, won the Band of the Day title. Gabriel repeated the win up until 1998. When the adult bands complained, the National Band Carnival Association (NCBA) was forced to create a new rule in 1999 that stated for a children’s band to be judged in an adult competition there had to be two adults in costume to every child. “Joanna Humphrey used to design the band and Helen and John Humphrey encouraged me to go out on Carnival Monday. They said mas is dead on a Monday we should bring out a band. It worked well and eventually, years later, I started doing it on a Tuesday. This year we had our first alliance with Best Village and we came second in the medium category, I was thrilled,” she said. Gabriel’s band was also the first to have its own music truck. While the average kiddie’s band relies on DJs placed along the routes, Gabriel felt having her own music would allow her to keep the clean, family-type atmosphere her band is renowned for.
“Parents gravitate to the band because of the rules and regulations in place, no alcohol, playing of clean music. It’s a challenge to keep the music clean, we usually have to take tunes from other years,” she said. It’s those factors as well as her passion for Carnival that Gabriel believes contributes to her success. “I never really thought about the band or the mas as a business. I would start a costume from scratch and do it over if it’s not to my liking. Because of my reputation for good costuming I would not put something on the road I am not happy with,” she explained. “The theme is important to me, it must be nation-building and educational. Now that we have emerged in adult mas I am looking for a theme that has a deep meaning and costume of the standard I do for the children,” said Gabriel who is already in planning mode for 2011. Bringing out a band is not without its challenges and Gabriel believes the challenges have increased in recent years. “In the last three years, the skilled labour is really hard to come by. Before there were a wealth of people coming to your doorsteps asking for employment but those days are gone and the few people you do get you have to hold on to,” she said.
As a person who came out of an era when costumes were made from scratch, Gabriel is also critical of the new trend of importing costumes. “I think it is causing the artisans we do have to not do what they did before. It will hamper the creativity and it causes everything to look the same. I do not believe there is a care for the culture by some bands I like to call moving parties. They aren’t selling costumes to enhance our culture, they sell a partying experience, they don’t have a thought to help the culture along the way,” she said. Since advocates for bikini mas like to justify their arguments with comparisons to Brazil, Gabriel said people need to look behind the floats where half-naked samba queens ride. “Look behind the float, you would see real costumes with creativity. We have taken the skimpiest of Brazil, which is the minority there and made it the majority here. In adult mas, the party bands have reached; I don’t think we can’t get any worse with lack of identity. You cannot tell the difference between those bands and to my horror I learned there is a company in Miami making headpieces,” she said, stating that in other islands there is a mandate that a certain percentage of the costumes be made in those countries.
Gabriel is also critical of the congestion experienced on the street on Carnival Tuesday. Like Brian MacFarlane, her band waited five-hours before reaching the Savannah stage and she blames bands that went off-route to cut in front of other bands. “We go through the same problem year after year. I think we need a lot of help and a lot of planning,” she said. Still, despite the problems, Gabriel is an optimist who believes Carnival can never die. “I am the supreme optimist and I do not believe, they may try, but nobody can kill our Carnival. It won’t happen.”