As the annual festival introduces a non-competing category for the first time, Brittany Dardaine’s Dream Carnival has sparked debate around evolving traditions
When I meet up with Brittany Dardaine, Carnival weekend is just three weeks away.
The 23-year-old bandleader behind Dream Carnival is at her East Scarborough mas camp. She’s been answering calls and emails all afternoon, working out logistics for her rookie mas band to make its Toronto Caribbean Carnival debut. Months in advance, customers signed up to buy costumes and represent Dream in the Grand Parade on Saturday (August 3).
At 7 pm, members from the Panatics, the steel pan band sponsored by Dream, start pouring into the camp for rehearsals. Dardaine, who has been playing steel pan pretty much all her life, is performing with them at Pan Alive, the annual competition at Lamport Stadium on Friday (August 2). They all practise until 11 pm, at which point Dardaine and her crew start working on costumes throughout the night. They finish at 9 am the following morning.
That’s been Dardaine’s routine for the past few weeks. She’s averaging about three or four hours of sleep a day (yes, she sleeps during the day), while rushing to get her colourful costumes, detailed with beads, gems and other frills, ready for revellers.
When I check in with her a couple weeks later, she has hit some speed bumps. Feather work for one of Dream’s costumes, en route from overseas, may not arrive on time, so Dardaine has had to offer customers alternatives or refunds. She also delayed costume pickup because Toronto Caribbean Carnival was late delivering the wristbands revellers need to access the mas camps and parade.
Asked about the snafus that have led to complaints on social media, she answers with supreme confidence: She’ll be ready. There’s a chillness about her I wish I could bottle.
The wristband issue affected veteran camps, too, but Dream is new and thus under a magnifying glass. That’s been the most stressful part of being a young female bandleader – she’s a rarity in Toronto’s Carnival. She’s listening to criticism while also trying to avoid politicking with other bandleaders who are not thrilled about Dream’s non-competitive status – the band will bring masqueraders to the parade but isn’t eligible for Carnival competitions.
“A lot of them try to make me fall back into this tug-of-war, arguing about whether I am official or not,” says Dardaine. She describes the resistance from veteran leaders and varied attempts to discredit her status in the Grand Parade, making revellers question whether they should sign up with her. “That’s been more consuming than actually running the band.”
Non-competing band is a new category introduced this year. As such, Dream won’t be considered for prizes such as Band of the Year, will not participate in the extravagant King and Queen competition at Lamport Stadium on Thursday (August 1) and is limited to a maximum of 500 masqueraders in the Grand Parade. Larger bands can have between 1,000 and 3,000.
The limitations are meant to give new bandleaders the opportunity to test the waters – and Dardaine has already made a big splash. Her costumes are sold out and her band will host two major artists: King of soca Machel Montano and breakout star Nessa Preppy, who will ride the band’s truck in the Grand Parade.
It would seem this Dream is for real.
“New things always create anxiety,” says Chris Alexander, chief administrative officer at Toronto Caribbean Carnival. Speaking to NOW by phone, he confirms some of the irritations and accusations that have been tossed around since the Carnival began accepting non-competing bands. He attributes the anxiety to fear that the older bands will lose masqueraders to new bands like Dream.
“It’s created a little bit of noise.”
Dardaine’s first break in the Carnival scene came from Jamaal Magloire.
“I don’t know what made him do it,” says Dardaine of the Toronto Raptors assistant coach and retired player, who is bandleader for the Toronto Revellers.
At 19, Dardaine pitched herself as a section leader, responsible for designing, producing and marketing the costumes for a single section within the Revellers’ mas band. She had absolutely no experience apart from playing mas all her life and learning how to make clothes from her mother, a seamstress. But Magloire gave her a section in his 2017 lineup anyway.
“Maybe he just wanted to give a young person an opportunity,” says Dardaine, who also helped out the Revellers with administrative tasks and entertaining at the camp’s limes (parties) with her DJ and pan skills.
In 2018, Dardaine worked as a section leader for another large mas band, Carnival Nationz. Her section was the first to sell out. Dardaine used the money earned from costume sales and other savings to immediately launch Dream Carnival.
She has a team of about 18 to 20 staffers, all family and friends spending time after their day jobs to help out. Her close friends, Alicia Collymore Lloyd and Kamla Alexander, divvy up events, production and social media. Her brother, New York-based -Jermaine Magras, heads up marketing. He’s also a promoter, whose connections to Montano and Preppy are how they ended up on Dream’s truck.
Dardaine describes her affection for Montano, pointing to how he mixes it up with hip-hop, dancehall, R&B and lately EDM. “You have to go against the grain in order to stay on top. Things are always changing, and if you don’t adapt you’ll basically get left behind.
“In everything that we’ve done, we’ve tried to stay away from tradition,” adds Dardaine.
She believes Toronto’s Carnival has been stuck in the past, to a point where the costumes and the vibe feel the same year after year. Not that she doesn’t love those traditions. She grew up playing pan and mas every year, but wants to see Carnival evolve.
“I love wearing someone else’s expression or creativity,” says Dardaine. “We are all together as a section. It is beautiful to wear the feathers and different colours and play a unified theme on the road.
“But I’m online all the time,” she adds. “I see Carnivals in different parts of the world and see fashion evolving, new trends coming in and others dying out.”
Dardaine’s mission is to shake things up by mixing new and old. In 2017, she introduced a fresh white hoodie into the men’s costume. She wants to bring a little Alexander Wang and Dion Lee to her costumes and a little hip-hop and R&B to the beat.
Dardaine also didn’t do a traditional band launch, which is typically a ticketed event at a club or banquet hall where models present costumes to would-be revellers. Instead, she saved her money (a launch can cost from $10,000 to upwards of $50,000) and introduced her brand with a shot-in-Trinidad online video. The soundtrack also skipped soca in favour of H.E.R. and Solange. That’s two Carnival commandments broken – and counting.
Dardaine also went abstract with Dream’s theme (every band has one guiding the costume designs): “Where Am I?” The costumes for each section of the band have sub-themes of Lucid, Fantasy, Mirage, Illusion and Chimera.
Having spent two months just sketching her costumes, the young bandleader takes pride in personalizing each design.
The gems for the lime-green Mirage and the powder-blue Fantasy costumes were custom-made. Instead of buying pre-made gems available from large suppliers, Dardaine designed her own and sent the specs to a manufacturer. Other unique touches include the bridal-like red drapery hanging off the Illusion costume, the dancing frills on Chimera’s golden bodysuit and the fitted cargo shorts for men. The beautiful Lucid section has just as many delicately hand-beaded gems – wrapping around the neck, chest, ribs and waist – as it does satin pink material for the bra and panty. It’s been a nightmare for the overseas crew mass-producing the beading.
But Dardaine has no regrets.
Also unusual is for the bandleader to design every costume rather than individual section leaders. Dream’s small size makes that possible for Dardaine, who only commissioned the feather work for both her Illusion and Lucid costumes to Trinidadian designer Alejandro Gomez. She’s prefers having a single designer throughout all sections to keep things consistent.
“Let’s say a band has 15 sections, they’ll get 15 different people to come in and market those sections,” Dardaine explains. “I find with that model, your quality is different, your service is different and your marketing is different.”
If Dream grows, Dardaine would likely commission out more bandleader tasks in order to stay on top of designing.
Akil Heywood, a member of Drake’s OVO crew, launched his band Atlantic Mas in 2016. He, too, relies on a single designer to produce all of his sections.
“It makes all the costumes flow together,” says Heywood, who tapped lauded Trini designer Natalie Fonrose to create Atlantic’s incredible costumes.
Heywood says Atlantic Mas, which had always been competitive until this year, is partly the reason why non-competitive bands are now being allowed in the parade. It all began at last year’s parade.
“There was an altercation between people from our band and people from another band,” says Heywood, adding that both bands were fined over the incident.
Alexander confirms Atlantic was fined for conduct on the parade route, but did not elaborate. Fines imposed by the Festival Management Committee (FMC) are withdrawn from the seed money that competing bands receive each year. That seed money helps with expenses but comes with the obligation that bands produce costumes for the King and Queen competition and Junior Carnival.
Pegging the cost for each King and Queen costume at around $3,500, Heywood explains that, with reduced seed funding, competing didn’t make sense this year – especially since he had no expectation of recouping costs from prize money (between $1,200 and $5,000) rewarded to the competition’s top three.
“For a guy like me who is going up against veterans who have been making these costumes for 25 years, it’s just not feasible,” says Heywood. “This opened up a door for them to allow another band in under that same category,” says Heywood.
Carnival’s Alexander denies Atlantic Mas was the impetus for the non-competitive category.
“They don’t drive the reactions of the festival,” explains the CEO, adding plans for a non-competitive category were already in motion. “We decide what we want to do and we do it.”
Enter Brittany Dardaine and Dream Carnival.
Brittany Dardaine designed all the costumes in every section of her mas band – unusual for a bandleader.
The anxiety for the older bands isn’t limited to sharing Carnival’s 16,000 masqueraders. There’s fear that the introduction of non-competitive bands, with no obligation to participate in King and Queen or Junior Carnival, will threaten Carnival traditions.
“In the future, you could just have a parade full of non-competitive bands,” says last year’s Queen of the Carnival, Tribal Carnival’s Celena Seusahai. “Then the King and Queen and the Junior Carnival will die out.”
For Heywood, being non-competitive is all about getting away from those obligations and focusing on making Carnival relaxed and enjoyable for masqueraders. So perhaps Seusahai has a point.
But for Dardaine, being non-competitive is just practice until she’s ready to go bigger – that is, if the other bandleaders will let her get that far down the road. New candidates have to be interviewed by existing bandleaders, who provide input to the FMC.
“When they heard I was [entering], the screaming started,” says Dardaine. “They started having secret meetings without me. They wrote a letter to the FMC challenging my approval. The push-back and the bullying were disgusting.”
“There were a lot of accusations around her getting in through the back door and that kind of stuff,” confirms Alexander, defending a process he oversaw. “There’s an application process. She brought her application. We approved the application and she came in as a band.”
Nevertheless, rumours persisted. To dissuade masqueraders from signing up with Dream Carnival, word spread that non-competing bands wouldn’t actually be allowed in the parade.
But the biggest threat to Dardaine’s status as a bandleader was a rumour that she was bringing 1,500 masqueraders, exceeding her cap as a non-competing band threefold. That number, attributed to Dream Carnival, appeared in a Caribbean Camera article by Stephen Weir, a former FMC spokesman.
“I could get disqualified for that,” says Dardaine, who denies both having exceeded her bandwidth and ever speaking to Weir. “[Chris Alexander] called me and said, ‘You better tell me if you have that many masqueraders.’”
Speaking to NOW, Weir is regretful.
“It wasn’t meant to be revealing,” says Weir, explaining that the article was really about the lack of sponsors at Carnival. He vaguely recalls hearing that Dream had 1,500 revellers in conversations at the FMC, when trying to sort out how the non-competing bands would work and where the new bandleaders would fit in.
Only last year, Heywood was the youngest bandleader. Now that mantle belongs to 23-year-old Dardaine and 20-year-old Seusahai. The latter shares bandleader duties at Tribal Carnival with her father, Dexter, a veteran who plans to pass the band onto his daughter.
“My dad does the mas aspect of it and I do the logistics aspect of it,” says Seusahai.
She met with some static for taking on bandleader duties, mostly complaints that she’s too young. But even Seusahai agrees that what she’s had to deal with doesn’t compare to Dardaine’s ordeals.
“I grew up around all of the bandleaders,” says Seusahai. “We’re all like family. I get the respect. Whereas I can see with [Brittany], when people are saying stuff about her, it’s because she’s the new person. Nobody really knows her. It’s tough in her situation.”
As far as women bandleaders go, there are Dardaine, Seusahai and Lisa Morton, who shares the title with her husband, Will, at Fantazia. And while Magloire is bandleader for the Toronto Revellers, his mother, Marion, is considered the band’s matriarch.
Dardaine remains the only woman running a band on her own. There were many more before her in Toronto: Jessie Matthews, Kathleen Hughes and Narissa Ali. But their bands are gone.
“I wonder if it’s because of the same things I’m going through?” asks Dardaine, before getting on with practising for Pan Alive and then costume-making. “It will discourage other young bandleaders from entering the space.”
Not that Dardaine is dissuaded. She’s already planning Dream Carnival 2020. She’s also planning to get some sleep. But, in the meantime, she plans to play mas.
“It sounds so corny, but you feel free when playing mas,” she says. “You really forget everything in your life and everything negative. Bills not paid, whatever, you forget it. That’s why everybody plays mas.”