This is what Carnival in Trinidad is not: a big party. A parade. A festival. A chance to get drunk in the streets, wear barely-there costumes and dance until the blisters on your feet grow blisters of their own.
Well, Carnival is all of those things—but so much more. As an avid devotee of the Caribbean’s largest public bacchanal, which kicks off in the streets of Port of Spain this coming Monday and Tuesday, I declare it to be an homage to life, love and humanity. An embrace of yes; an affirmation of alive!; a joy-embracing ritual that elicits tears of ecstasy while you are in the dance and tears of anguish once it has come to a halt and you must face the music: It will not start again until next year.
It takes a village to make Trinidad Carnival—a village of local entrepeneurs, that is, whose mastery of the art of revelry attracts some 40,000 visitors annually. Among the best of them is Dean Ackin, CEO of the most popular Carnival band on the island, Tribe: It provides avid masqueraders with costumes, drinks, food, security and two foot-numbing days of dancing behind mobile trucks blasting ecstatic soca music (consider it Red Bull for your ears). “Popular,” in fact, is an understatement; Tribe is in such high demand that many a Carnival-goer would sell her soul to the devil for access to a slot in the band. Ackin reasons with ForbesLife about his journey from bank life to band life, and the secret to building a strong band.
Baz Dreisinger: Tell us about the move from working in a bank to starting a band—a radically new kind of Carnival band in Trinidad.
BD: What was the vision for Tribe—what would make it different from all the other bands?
DA: The concept was to do an all-inclusive band—something no one else was doing. At that time I was doing a lot of traveling across the Caribbean and I would see all-inclusive resorts doing very well. And I thought about the Disney brand: when you go to Disneyland all the amenities and all the rides and experiences are part of the package. So it hit me: Why not apply this to Trinidad Carnival? Because until then you bought your costume and that was it; everything else you had to stop and buy from vendors on the side of the road—drinks, food and so on. If you needed to use the restroom you had to find a restroom that was open. So it was putting all the amenities together and creating a package, so that we provide the ultimate experience: anything you might need while dancing in the streets for Carnival for two days we provide for you. Ultimately it gave us something new that ended up shaping Carnival in the country in a big way, because now almost all the bands are all-inclusive. We set the tone and the benchmark for what Trinidad Carnival has become.
BD: Why the name “Tribe”? I’ve always thought there’s something meaningful and profound in that term.
DA: It happened that during our most popular year as a section of Poison our theme was “Tribe.” The design for that year’s section was so popular that after Carnival it was the talk of the town—“that Tribe section was so amazing,” people were saying. It was the catalyst for us establishing our own Carnival band, and we stuck with the name “Tribe” because it already had some brand equity. But more than that, “Tribe” represents a group of people with common and united goals and visions, and it’s about unity of that group, togetherness. And we found that that represents what Carnival is about: groups of people coming out to escape the worries of the world—two days of freedom on the streets, dancing on the streets. And that’s what life’s about, really, and why we work so hard: to celebrate freedom and life.
BD: You’re celebrating 15 years of Tribe during Carnival 2020. What’s the secret to success, year after year?
DA: Innovation and constant improvement. Every year we ask, what new experience or new amenity or system can we innovate and improve the experience? For instance, this year we upgraded our costume distribution process. It was like going to an efficient airport, a process as easy and fast as possible. On the road we added new cool zones with top technology. We are always refreshing our system and reassessing how we deliver experiences.
Carnival in Trinidad
Tribe revelers during Carnival TRIBE
BD: It’s not easy to secure a place in Tribe, even for those willing to pay on the spot, and especially for Carnival rookies who are new to the process. Why is Tribe so difficult to get into?
DA: Tribe started as a band for friends and family, and it grew by one degree every year. We would add one more friend, and then a friend of a friend, and a friend of a friend of a friend. That’s why we still have a committee, people who process our registration, because that’s how we started—friends and family first. There’s a threshold in terms of numbers that we can handle, and every year we have excessive demand. We always give our past masqueraders a preference. And then we put aside a certain limited number of spots for new masqueraders every year. It seems exclusive but it’s really a matter of catering to your existing customers.
BD: What’s the wildest thing anyone has done to try to get into Tribe?
DA: In my second or third year of business we were starting registration in a few hours and so many people were lined up that as it grew closer to registration people started to push to get to the front of the line. And the gate broke down. That was crazy! People were so excited about getting in the band that they completely lost their cool. It was scary but it showed early on how desirable getting into Tribe was.
BD: Do you see Tribe as a business, or is it more than that?
DA: Definitely I see Tribe and Carnival as more than just business. Carnival holds a very important place in the hearts of all Trinidadian people—it’s part of our culture, our history of slavery and the development of that into something massive and deep. Yes, it’s now not only a part of our culture but our economy, with tens of thousands of people coming down for Carnival, which is two days of mas [masquerade/parade] and also weeks of build-up parties and events that we call fetes. But this is not just about making money. We are contributing to a culture and a legacy.
There is so much more to Carnival than the commercial aspect of it. it’s something that we as Caribbean people feel—I can’t describe it but it’s a feeling, a spiritual feeling. And the commercial aspect is not so bad, because now all the Carnival promoters and people involved, especially soca artists, are doing it in such a way that they no longer depend on anyone; they must treat their art and craft as a business so they can sustain themselves. It can be a business and something bigger than that at the same time.
BD: To that effect, what do you say to the Carnival grinches who bemoan that Trinidad Carnival has devolved from something cultural into the generic beads-and-bikini party vibe?
DA: Our response to that was to do something: we created a Tribe spinoff band, Lost Tribe—which won the Large Band of the Year title last year, a huge honor. See, for quite a while Trinidad Carnival and its costumes have been evolving, but evolving in such a way that the older school of design wanted to get back to the original costumes and themes. And we felt there was a place for that, for costumes that were more thematic than bikini and beads, more craft and design. That became Lost Tribe: the costumes are made with a lot more fabric and they are larger and they stick to an artistic and beautiful theme.
BD: And what of the critiques about costume production, that so much of what people wear during Carnival—a celebration of things local—is actually made in China?
DA: We do a lot of production locally—as much as we can—but Trinidad and Tobago has limited ability to produce everything, and there are so many bands in Trinidad all using the same resources. We established a small production facility this year and are trying to grow it so that we can contribute and leave as much production on island as possible, and we are excited about those possibilities.
BD: Tribe isn’t just a Carnival band. Describe your other ventures.
DA: We have several bands in one, with our spinoff bands—like Lost Tribe—targeting different markets or needs. The demand grows higher every year and we have to meet it. We do eight events during the Carnival season. And in recent years we established a new staging area on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, which we called the “Socadrome.” For decades the Queen’s Park Savannah [in Port of Spain] was the only stage available to masqueraders, but with a whole new stage people didn’t have to spoil their experience waiting for that one stage; we alleviated band traffic. It’s another way that we are constantly trying to improve the Carnival experience.
BD: What’s in the future for Tribe?
DA: Something big. We’re taking Carnival to the high seas. Carnival on a ship. We’ve mastered it on land, so it’s time to take it to the sea.
BD: As in, a Tribe cruise ship?
DA: Yes. We’re going to take the whole experience from the land to the sea—not just the music but the entire carnival package. I can’t stay more but stay tuned. Carnivaltribe.com
LOCAL TIP: Navigating the many parties and events surrounding Carnival in Trinidad practically requires an advanced degree. But you absolutely can’t go wrong with anything bearing these three blockbuster brands, guarantees of a most bacchanalian time: Scorch, because what happens there stays there and only there—trust me (thescorch.com); TriniJungleJuice (trinijunglejuice.com), which is also your perfect Carnival concierge, boasting the most complete calendar of events; and Vale Vibe, which will school you on the ways of the breakfast party, an only-in-Trinidad experience that will leave you in serious withdrawal once it’s over, way past breakfast time (valevibe.com). There is also a critical army you are advised to take heed of, as its weapons are vibes and love, and it fights a battle you’ll want to be on the front lines of: behold Caesar’s Army (caesarsarmy.com).