Trinidad Express Newspaper National News of Trinidad and Tobago
February 11, 2011
Carnival may be the ultimate exercise in democracy—a system in which supreme power lies in a body of citizens to select the band with which they will parade. Unlike politics, one person's decision isn't binding on you. Want to play with a full skirt and virgin drinks? There's Genesis. Feel like saving money and crafting your own costume? Chip with the People's Band.
Of course the old hat criticism is that there is a sort of majority rule at play—the majority wants bikini, beads, feathers and flesh rather than midnight robbers, fancy Indians, jab jabs, baby dolls and the host of "authentic" mas options. Monique Nobrega, the woman at the helm of mega band Tribe and its more intimate spin-off Bliss, debunks the myth of "skimpy mas" players as a homogenous group with an insightful reading of her constituency.
"The people who play with us want a quality product, a great experience and reliability. They want something new but much of the same," Nobrega says from her office at Tribe's sleek Woodbrook mas camp. So while the Tribe player isn't content with appliqué hot-glued onto a different coloured bra from year to year, they really don't want anything "drastically different".
That thesis has been tested. When in 2007 the band attempted a synchronisation of tradition and modernity with its presentation "Old Time Someting… Come Back Again"—a line-up featuring characters such as jammette, fancy sailor, cow mas, Jean and Dinah, majorette, fire man and imp—its base protested. This year's theme, "The Way of the Warrior", channels the spirit and style of ancient combatants everywhere from the Far East to East Africa, the Arctic to the Amazon, while satisfying contemporary tastes for fierce cleavage and liberated legs.
Nobrega reveals a finely-tuned and idiosyncratic understanding of the business of carnival and making masqueraders happy. With both creative and managerial oversight, she has final say on everything from whether a design makes the cut to where the components of costumes are produced. Oh, and she balances all of this with motherhood, marriage and her day job as a pilot at Caribbean Airlines.
She'd always wanted to fly. Her father was a pilot and Nobrega never questioned whether she could do it too… not even when she witnessed the rumblings of sexism while securing her private and commercial licenses in the US and UK.
"I didn't take it on much," she says. "Now that I'm in the profession I know that as a woman you have to be at the top of your game all the time." The fact that this predictable reality didn't dawn on her all along speaks to a spirit that takes on challenges with single-minded focus.
Tribe was launched in 2004 after a suggestion by her husband, Dean Ackin, that a group of section leaders collaborate on their own band. Nobrega didn't think the idea was daunting. It's time, she felt, had come. For five years Nobrega, her sister, Lana, and a close friend had been section leaders in Poison. Fuelled by a desire to make their ideas as mas players into options others could enjoy, they moved from designing a frontline to heading an 800 strong section. The spark for this journey was the freedom and fun of playing mas with her clique from age 14. Although Nobrega wears a costume every year (and this year she may even slip into a two –piece to show off the 25 pounds of baby weight she's recently lost) the carnival experience as manager just isn't the same as even on the road there are decisions to be made. Nobrega is clear on the fact that for Tribe titles and stage-crossings are secondary. Sure, it'd be nice to cross the savannah stage once more but if doing so means marking time for four hours, it's a no-go. They also take a singular approach to the question of where their mas is made. Nobrega stresses that they have multiple producers, both foreign and local. Coupled with high local labour costs are low levels of capacity for particular features. She's curt: "Not every material sticks with hot glue". Tribe outsources designs that require hand-stitching and beading but says it's dedicated to supporting local producers for as long as they are willing and able to produce quality costume components.
Tribe's quick ascent has attracted its share of stonings. Over the years people have hurled claims that they discriminate on the basis of skin shade and body type. Nobrega deftly denies both allegations: "Tribe is multi-racial. We serve Trinis who've moved away, first time foreigners and local Trinis who play mas—it's a wide demographic that comes in all races and colours. Every costume comes in every size for every type of person and I invest a lot of thought and time in coming up with options for ladies who want more coverage. We try not to make it monotonous. Not every year you'd want a tankini. I too," she asserts "was big".
In the ultimate statement of diplomacy Nobrega asserts: "I am not condescending of any design. Every design and type of mas has its own niche market." And make no mistake—this multi-tasking, multi-talented woman knows her market well. What's next on the list of things-to-do for the year round super woman?
"I just want to spend more time with my family," she ends.