For most people, Carnival is confined to those two days on the road. For avid Carnival lovers, their prep starts a little bit earlier. But for Monique Nobrega, it’s year-round. In fact, while many people credit Dean Ackin for building his Carnival empire, including Tribe, which celebrates its 15th year in 2019, he’s not the only one: Monique is also the mastermind behind it all.
Some 20 years ago, Monique and her sister started designing a section in the now-defunct Poison, with each year getting bigger and bigger. By the third year, they decided to make the section all-inclusive, offering food and drink to all of the section’s masqueraders. But it became too much to handle by themselves, and Monique asked her then-boyfriend Dean Ackin to join them and coordinate the food and drink for the fourth year, while she focused on the costume design and production. The section became Tribe the section, and after a fifth successful year, and more than 800 masqueraders in their section alone, Tribe the section broke off into Tribe the band, with Dean and Monique leading the way.
“And that’s where we are,” Monique laughed. “15 years later.”
Now, married with two kids, Joshua and Madison, the power couple of Carnival have built an empire (fittingly the Tribe theme for 2019 is ‘Empire’) called Magical Experience, consisting of six different bands and six entirely different vibes. Combined with a J’ouvert band and fetes and events thrown all around the world, it’s safe to say that Dean and Monique know Carnival.
But for Monique, it all started simply because she loved the costumes. And one year, after playing in Harts for many years, she ended up in Poison (“We thought ‘Wow, this is it!’,” she said of the feeling that accompanied playing in Poison accidentally for the first time), and her love affair with costume design began. Monique, her sister and their friend began playing in Sonia Mack’s section in Poison for many years, and would fix up their costumes and add their own touches to it before going out on the road.
“One year, Sonia Mack didn’t like how we fixed the costumes – we put feathers in our head pieces, and it wasn’t supposed to have feathers,” Monique explained. “She came and ripped out our feathers on the road, and we were devastated, enough to decide to do our own thing.”
A friend introduced them to Michael Headley, who offered to let the girls fix over his design, and design a frontline option to his blue-and-silver section, called Luna Azul. And that was that.
“He gave us that first frontline section, which was 17 ladies,” Monique added. “And we went from 17 to 800 in 5 years.”
But that doesn’t mean that the transition from section to band was easy for Tribe, especially because Monique was pregnant during their first year of production. Everybody chipped in, she said, in terms of design, but production was left entirely up to her, and it was certainly not an easy task. In fact, one day, she was down at Jimmy Aboud, trying to stuff 70-pound bolts of fabric into her car, when she called her dad. He quickly picked up and met her downtown, and he never left production.
“He stayed with us until he died earlier this year,” she said. “He was in charge of warehousing and sourcing of materials, and getting the costumes up to the distribution sites, and renovations on whatever part of Tribe. He stayed with us throughout.”
She says all of this in response to my own comment: that they make carnival look so easy. But it’s certainly not easy, even after all these years.
“It’s a lot of work, in every way. If anybody says ‘Oh, y’all did so good and y’all got here easy’, it’s a lie,” she explained. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of days of not seeing my children – a lot of nights. I’d go for weeks without seeing them.”
But Monique is more than just a mas woman. Besides her full-time job as the head of design for the Magical Experience bands, she’s also a pilot for Caribbean Airlines. Years ago, she put herself through flying school, and now, chances are, if you’ve flown somewhere in the last 25 years, she’s been your captain. Wherever the 737-800 flies, Monique flies. New York, Miami, Orlando, Toronto, Jamaica… you name it. And so for two to three days at a time, or even just overnight, she picks up and leaves her home, her job and her kids, to pursue her passion.
“I can’t say that it’s been easy,” she added. “My daughter has had the most traumatic time dealing with it – when she was younger, she would run after my car screaming and crying.”
Feeling like she’s missing out on her family’s lives is certainly the hardest part for Monique, and each year, she feels like the time has come closer and closer for her to retire.
“I’m hoping that it’ll happen at the end of this year. I keep saying that every year, but I’m hoping I’ll make this my last year,” she said.
“At this point of time in my life, I just want to stay home with my children, spend quality time with them, and just be there for them doing mom stuff. They’ve missed that for all their life, so I think they deserve a little mom time.”
And despite her jobs taking up a lot of her time, Monique always reserves energy for her kids. Her children are her life – and the inspiration behind many of her talents. So much so, that 5 years ago, when Monique decided to start her resort wear clothing line exclusively for Bikini Cabana, she knew to name it JMadison. It seems that no matter how busy she is, she always seems to make the time for two things: her love of designing, and her love for her children.
With parents who are so involved in Carnival, you’d expect Joshua and Madison to be carnival babies through and through, but so far, that’s not the case. Especially considering that carnival lead-up is both Monique and Dean’s busiest time, her kids were never able to play kiddies carnival, but Monique was always sure to make a costume for her kids to jump up on the road for a little each Monday and Tuesday. But, over the years, Monique says, her kids have decided they don’t want to play mas anymore, but they’re slowly transitioning back to it.
“My son is now a teenager, and his friends are playing, so he’s asking to play again,” Monique added. “And my daughter loves to dance and carry on, so I’m sure she’s going to be a carnival baby when she’s ready.”
And while her two babies are growing up quickly, her other baby: Tribe, ages just as fast. Celebrating its 15th year for Carnival 2019, as well as the success of not one, not two, but five other carnival bands, Dean and Monique have the Midas touch when it comes to carnival.
“We clearly got the formula right,” she said, with a laugh. “We identified that there are different niches in the market of carnival. It’s a lot of collaboration with a lot of different group – and that’s what, I guess, makes us as big as we are. But it’s a lot of organisation too.”
So whether it’s fete-ing with high energy all day with Tribe, chipping down the road with Bliss, celebrating the ‘mas’ of it all with Lost Tribe, going back to your roots with Harts, going late into the night with Rogue or glamming it up with Pure, you know that you’re in safe hands with Monique and her team handling design and production, and you know it’s always going to be a good vibe. With them, they want every carnival to feel like your first carnival.
“What I always say, especially in design, is to put yourself back in the day of when you’re playing mas for the first time, and what you want out of your costume,” she explained. “I try to give everybody that when they open their box, they’re happy with what they see and what they put on.”
And while the carnival competition is stiff: with new bands popping up every year, newer and bigger designers coming out of the woodworks, and a battle of the sexiest costumes, none of that seems to phase Monique. For her, Carnival is the experience, and they have it down pact.
“If people want to put their money where they’re going to get a great product and a great experience,” she added. “Then play with us.”
And with 15 years of Tribe under their belt, there’s no stopping them anytime soon.