Caribbean Beat Magazine

Carnival backstage | Closeup

Carnival is a time to shine: from performers on the soca and calypso stage to costumed masqueraders in the street and fete-goers showing off their most acrobatic dance moves. But “the greatest show on earth” wouldn’t be possible without the dedication of the many thousands who work behind the scenes — year-round or seasonally — on the organisation and logistics of the festival. Laura Dowrich-Phillips and Georgia Popplewell meet four of the people whose backstage efforts make Carnival happen

  • Photo courtesy Julianspromo
  • Photo by Kibwe Brathwaite
  • Photo by Kibwe Brathwaite
  • Photo by Kibwe Brathwaite

“I don’t think anyone else knows how to do it”

For hundreds of thousands of soca fans, the main online resource for new releases and information about artists is JuliansPromo, a channel on the YouTube platform. But the man behind it all — Barbadian-American Julian Hackett — is all but unknown to his numerous subscribers, and he likes it that way. Laura Dowrich-Phillips learns more

These days, when looking at soca music videos or listening to new releases on YouTube, we take some things for granted. Detailed credits and release info, cool photos, and graphics are all the norm today, but prior to the launch of the JuliansPromo channel, there was no set standard for videos uploaded to the platform.

“Somebody would release a song . . . back then, they would just email me a song and say, post this. There is no credit, no picture, and when we ask for a picture, they would say, just take a picture from online. We had all that down pat —  the presentation and the quality and how fast our turnaround time was,” says Julian Hackett, one of the co-founders of JuliansPromo.

Hackett, born in the US to Bajan parents, has remained a relatively unknown figure behind the YouTube channel that today has over 800,000 subscribers. Thanks to his parents, and living in New York City, Hackett grew up surrounded by Caribbean culture. He used to research online to learn more about the music he heard, and eventually joined IslandMix, a once-popular website where users shared soca, commented on the songs, and engaged in heated debates about which island produced the best music. “I was using the forum there, and I would find music online that I liked and post it. I was good at finding things online. People saw how good I was, and they recommended I grow it. That grew into the music section on Islandmix that I managed,” he recalls.

In 2011, the managers of the website asked Hackett to find someone to do videos with artist interviews. “I recommended my best friend, Vivaa, and I shot the interviews. We had no clue what we were doing. We just knew we loved the music and wanted to expose the artists. We were getting into events interviewing artists, and that grew. We did that from 2011 to 2015, but it became too much to handle. The music advertising was growing so quickly, artists started coming to me to promote their music, so I had to drop the media for that.”

As his popularity grew, Hackett found himself at odds with the IslandMix owners, and he felt YouTube would be better platform than a standalone website. Together with Vivaa, he started the JuliansPromo YouTube channel.

“Soca was on the platform, but it wasn’t presented right,” Hackett says. “If you had to find soca pre-2011, you would only find a name. I am naturally very detailed, so when it comes to presenting things, I want people to know who is behind the music.”

Hackett says they travelled all over the Caribbean, covering Carnivals and interviewing artists, funded out of their own pockets. That’s when they realised they needed to treat what they did as a business, and find ways to make money. “We got serious about turning it into a business, licensing the name, branding and trademarking. We tried to slow things down and get more organised in the back end. We charged a fee for the email blasting. We had no clue what we were doing, and we were doing things for free. We made money through charging for YouTube uploads and email blasts,” he explains.

Hackett constantly stays on top of trends and the ever-changing algorithms of social media platforms to ensure JuliansPromo remains relevant. “When it comes to marketing, you have to be ahead of everything — otherwise it gets boring for me and boring for the channel. Trinidad Carnival from October to March is the busiest time. I use the dead period to research and find new ways, because everything is algorithms. Promoting songs is now harder than back then . . . is not like it was when I could just place someone on top of a playlist and get 50,000 views.”

In addition to promoting songs, Hackett manages artists and their social media accounts, and uploads music to streaming services. That there has been no real competition to his business this far speaks volumes about the public’s ignorance when it comes to digital media, and the amount of work involved in maintaining and growing a digital presence.

“I don’t think anyone else knows how to do it when it comes to music,” says Hackett. “You have to truly understand how it works. There are people with YouTube channels, but we aren’t just YouTube uploaders — we try to help artists, we make money in marketing, but it goes to website designs and promotions. We put a lot of time into this. We deal with almost every single artist, so my work is all year round, and it is really just me that is doing it. So the more I balance everything out is the more I am able to function.”

“We live like he’s still here”

Kewal “Lalo” Ragbir was considered one of T&T’s premier designers of mobile sound systems when he died suddenly in 2008, days before the festival. His widow Ome and daughter Ornella had to step in to keep the trucks on the road. Twelve years later, writes Georgia Popplewell, DJ Lalo Sound is a rare example of a women-led company in a male-dominated business, making sure the biggest mas bands have their thundering soundtrack on Carnival Monday and Tuesday

Machel Montano’s 1997 soca hit “Big Truck” wasn’t only about large vehicles, but the song cemented in the imagination an aspect of the Carnival landscape that it’s impossible to imagine the festival without: music trucks. These mobile sound systems, with their massive arrays of speakers, and, increasingly, features such as lounges and decks, have become as iconic as the steel orchestras they’ve gradually replaced.

Yet probably few people give much thought to what goes into creating these behemoths. There’s no such thing as a readymade music truck, and building a mobile sound system around the skeleton of a truck cab and trailer is a complex enterprise involving ergonomics, acoustical engineering, metal fabrication, and electrical design.

One of Trinidad and Tobago’s premier designers and producers of mobile sound systems was Kewal “Lalo” Ragbir. Lalo was only fifty when he died tragically in a car crash on 30 January, 2008, just four days before the start of that year’s Carnival. Lalo’s company had six trailers on the road that year, one of which featured an innovative new subwoofer design. Lalo’s wife Samdaye — known to friends as Ome — had to step in quickly and, with the help of their three daughters, make sure their commitments for that season were met. Ome was a partner in the business and knew its workings inside out, but the timing still was about as bad as it could get. “We had to power through that grief,” says Ornella Ragbir, the youngest of the three girls, recalling the fourteen-day funeral ritual the family carried out while simultaneously making sure that the Carnival show went on. 

Today, Ornella runs the business alongside her mother at their headquarters near the University of the West Indies campus in St Augustine. Only sixteen when her father died, she hadn’t envisioned this path for herself. Her sisters Nisha and Laura have also been involved at various points, but have since gone on to other pursuits and families of their own. But Ornella, who trained in project management, seems born to it, navigating her way through the male-dominated sound systems business with confidence and expertise. She and Ome have also overseen the evolution of DJ Lalo Sound Ltd into to a full-service events company.

Admittedly, they had a strong foundation to build on. Ornella’s conversation veers continually towards the rich legacy left by her father. “We live like he’s still here,” she says. 

Lalo, who started building sound systems in 1974, at age sixteen, was a technically gifted innovator and trendsetter who was highly respected by local sound engineers and deejays. He was known for being able to get an incredibly full, rich bass sound from a relatively modest array of speakers, and was constantly trying new things. He wasn’t afraid to stand out, at one point painting his fibreglass speaker boxes white, instead of the traditional matte black. Ornella remembers her father working feverishly into the night on a design for a mobile sound system, asking her to print out each new version as he refined and amended. 

Lalo was one of the first Trinidadian sound system builders to be contracted to produce trucks for North American Carnivals such as Toronto’s Caribana, New York’s Labour Day West Indian Day Parade, and Miami’s Columbus Day Carnival. For Lalo, however, the holy grail was London’s Notting Hill Carnival, a dream the family is still pursuing on his behalf. “I’m in talks with various bands,” Ornella says. “One day we’ll get there.”

For Trinidad Carnival, the company produces music trucks for some of the country’s largest and most popular masquerade bands. In 2019, they created a VIP triple-decker truck for Machel Montano and the band Tribe. They start work on the following year’s Carnival right after they return from Miami, the last of the overseas Carnivals, in October. For Lalo, Miami was also an important testing ground for new features and equipment. “When the container lands from Miami, that’s when the season starts,” Ornella says. 

They’ll spend the following two months working with clients on plans and designs, and fabrication begins in January. By the week before Carnival, they’re putting the final touches on the trailers, and by 10 pm on Sunday night the crew is heading into Port of Spain for the start of J’Ouvert at 4 am on Carnival Monday. They return to headquarters that night, then head out again around 5 am on Tuesday. Ome and Ornella credit a great part of their success to the loyalty and commitment of long-time staff members and collaborators such as engineer Fawaz “Bobby” Mohammed, Bhisham Dookran, Ryan Rampersad, and Bryan Andrew, who pull out the stops over the hectic Carnival weekend.

The Ragbir family are observant Hindus, and every 30 January, on the anniversary of Lalo’s death, the hold a puja in his memory in the lead-up to the festival of Maha Shivaratri. This means that some years they have obligations at temple on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. “Sometimes I’ve had to troubleshoot problems while at the altar,” Ornella says, laughing. 

“My fear when Daddy died was that his memory would fade,” she says. “But I took those dreams, and put those lessons into play.”

“Soca is me”

He’s known as one of the Caribbean’s leading bespoke menswear designers, but come Carnival time, Ecliff Elie has an even more demanding assignment: dressing some of the hottest soca performers for the competition stage. The right outfit, he tells Laura Dowrich-Phillips, sends performers’ confidence “through the roof”

Ecliff Elie is a name synonymous with bespoke menswear in the Caribbean. But long before he was outfitting stylish men across the region, the Trinidadian designer actually got his big break dressing soca artists.

The first artist he dressed was Shurwayne Winchester, back in the mid 1990s, when the Tobago-born singer was now making his name in Trinidad. “I was around twenty or twenty-one,” says Elie, “and Shurwayne was still fresh from Tobago, singing as a backup singer with [the band] Traffik. When KMC pulled out of the Soca Monarch that year, Shurwayne was called to replace him. He had a song called ‘Get Out of My Dreams’. That was his big break, and he contacted me to outfit him. That was my big break, too.”

Elie, who learned tailoring at Chaguanas Senior Comprehensive School in central Trinidad at the age of fourteen, had wanted to be in fashion since he was a young boy. He used to make a stencil and draw an E on his shirt as his logo, because he observed how powerful branding was in fashion.

The last of fifteen children, whose father died when he was still a youth, Elie didn’t have the means to pursue his passion, so he tried odd jobs after school. He got a break when a neighbourhood tailor allowed him to use a sewing machine in his shop. Elie started getting orders, and his reputation grew.

When Winchester approached him, Elie was so excited to see his clothes on television that he did a handshake deal for the singer to become his first brand ambassador. For eight years, Elie partnered with Winchester without getting paid. When local telecoms provider bMobile signed Winchester among its cast of brand ambassadors, the soca star — who has won Road March, Groovy Soca Monarch, and Soca Monarch titles over the years — insisted that Elie remain his stylist.

“They were impressed with the way he dressed, and he said, I have someone I have been with for eight years. And for the first time, I got paid. They signed three other artists — Raymond Ramnarine from Dil-E-Nadan, Bunji Garlin and the Asylum Band, and Machel Montano. I got the opportunity to design for Traffik and Bunji’s band, and that is how my name made its rounds,” Elie recalls. The payment he received from bMobile was Elie’s first major source of income, and with it he bought his house and first car.

Since then, Elie has continued to design for the men of soca. For Carnival 2019, he outfitted four of the top artists in the Groovy Soca competition: Swappi, who won the title; St Lucian singer Teddyson John, who placed second; Grenadian singer Vghn, who placed third; and Antiguan singer Ricardo Drue. Then in November Elie flew to Sint Maarten to dress the 2019 Groovy and Power Soca Monarch, King James, who opened for the Buju Banton concert there. Outside of soca, Elie has dressed reggae artists such as Jah Cure, who visited the designer’s atelier to be outfitted for the annual Redemption concert in Trinidad in 2018.

“I am known for quality and paying attention to detail when it comes to the artists, getting in their mode and their mind. I could talk to twenty-five artists, and each of them will come on stage looking unique,” he says. “I meet with them, listen to their music, watch videos, watch social media to see who they are, find out what direction they want to go in, the crowd they are appealing to,” he explains. 

He describes Vghn’s sparkling, sequinned outfit from the 2019 Soca Monarch competition as his most extravagant and challenging design to date. “I used four different types of fabric for the pants. Vghn likes to do splits, so the pants had lycra and spandex to stretch, so it looks neat. I had to build that pants on him . . . he had to split and dance for us to do the outfit.”

Elie says Carnival 2020 will be one of his busiest, but he’s up for the challenge.

“Soca is me. I feel like it is a part of me and my culture. When King James put on my outfit, he said his self-confidence went through the roof, and that is the effect my clothing has. That is worth more than they will ever pay for the outfit. I am about building people, inspiring people, making a difference,” he says. 

“Carnival can’t be the way it used to be”

For a quarter-century, the literal voice of mas at Port of Spain’s Piccadilly Greens stage has been Thora Best, the official MC and announcer who presides over the bacchanal from her platform above the stage. Georgia Popplewell meets the woman behind the “clear, commanding” commentary that a generation of masqueraders have come to expect

The Carnival parade route in Port of Spain leads from the downtown stage on South Quay, continuing east along Independence Square and turning into Piccadilly Street. Here the road narrows, then widens again between the United Brothers Masonic lodge and the Queen Street Masjid, and eventually fans out into a triangle bordered on one side by buildings, including a pair of fine old gingerbread houses, and the East Dry River on the other. This is Piccadilly Greens, one of the stages where Carnival masquerade bands are judged. 

As mas bands assemble on the stretch leading to the Greens, they must organise themselves into sections and turn down the volume on their music trucks. And then they must wait. For a band may not burst onto the Piccadilly Greens stage until the clear, commanding voice of Thora Best, perched on her platform above the stage, announces its arrival over the PA system.

Best has been the announcer at Piccadilly Greens on Carnival Monday and Tuesday since 1995. When the then-two-year-old Uptown Carnival Committee, the organisation responsible for proceedings at the Greens, decided they needed an MC, Best was the natural choice. A teacher at nearby Rose Hill Primary School, she had the gift of gab. As a child, she performed on the legendary Auntie Kay’s radio show, and she was an advocate of using local art forms such as calypso and Carnival in education. Her father Winston Best, then chairman of the Uptown Carnival Committee, recruited her for the job. 

So, if there’s anyone who’s witnessed the rise and rise of Piccadilly Greens as a Carnival parade venue, it’s Thora Best. 

“We started off very . . . I would use the word lame,” she says. The judging point in those days was at Lucky Jordan corner, at the intersection of Prince and George Streets. “We’d make all our preparations and in the early years only one or two bands would pass. We used to have to encourage people to come Behind the Bridge,” she says, using the name by which the area east of the East Dry River is known in local parlance.

Culturally significant — the area is the setting for literary works such as Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon Can’t Dance, and the Canboulay Riots of 1881 are re-enacted there every Carnival Friday — and acknowledged as the birthplace of Carnival, east Port of Spain has an only partially deserved reputation as a place to venture at your own risk. 

But Port of Spain’s Carnival is eternally shifting, in search of spaces in the city where its energy can flow. And when Vijay Ramlal, current chairman of the Uptown Carnival Committee, hit on the idea of moving the judging point to Piccadilly Greens, the bands started coming.

“We feel it is the best place to play mas, because it is so wide,” says Best. Masqueraders agree. The stage at the Savannah, long considered the mecca of Carnival, is massive, but masqueraders’ time on stage is strictly limited, and the crowds in the stands aren’t what they used to be. At Piccadilly Greens, you can take your time, and for small and medium-size bands, especially, it’s the perfect arena to showcase their presentations. 

Best’s Carnival starts on Carnival Sunday afternoon, when she MCs the children’s masquerade competition. Then she’s back at the Greens around 10 am on Monday, in time for the traditional masquerade competition. She gives welcome comments around 12.30 pm, and individual masqueraders and bands pass steadily until about 8 pm. Then she’s back on spot again at 8 am on Tuesday for a full day of mas.

Best’s job is to announce Carnival presentations as they come on stage, giving title, bandleader, and designer, a description of the band’s concept, and announce each section of the presentation as it appears. It’s a bit of an art, perhaps akin to Test cricket commentary, where one is often called upon to conjure up a narrative out of thin air, as not all presentations lend themselves to deep scrutiny. Once masqueraders are on stage, you’re basically providing commentary on a big street party. 

One might joke that a good Carnival band announcer should be versed in the nuances of colour and be skilled at identifying materials such as swansdown, lamé, different varieties of braid and sequins and feathers. A good Carnival presenter will also, of course, have a sound knowledge of Carnival and its history. 

Best has been known to express faux-shock at mas portrayals that skirt the edge of good taste, but don’t be mistaken: she’s no prude. Nor is she merely a Carnival bystander: back in the day, she’d go to work on Ash Wednesday in bedroom slippers after excessive revelry rendered her feet unfit for shoes.

Best’s is a job you couldn’t do if you didn’t have a deep appreciation for everything about Carnival. Don’t look at her for any of that nostalgic naysaying about the ways the festival has changed. “Carnival can’t be the way it used to be,” she says. “There has to be change. And it has a rich heritage that people often dismiss. Carnival as also a very productive time that brings out our co-operative spirit, our Trini-ness, and expresses the joy of just being alive.”