Never one to back down from a challenge, Thea Jackson jumped at her mother’s request to take part in the 1990 Caribana parade.
Though just 10 years old at the time and with no previous exposure to Caribbean revelry, Jackson was not fazed. She selected her own orange, silver and black outfit and joined another eager young friend in the parade which was staged on University Avenue at the time.
“I had an amazing time,” said Jackson who was born in Montreal 32 years ago to Jamaican fashion designer Oneil Drummond and American Robin Viau who is in the marketing industry. “My friend and my mom, who accompanied us to the parade and provided us with refreshments along the route, were both exhausted. I was not. I loved the music and the atmosphere.”
Jackson had no idea at the time that she was jumping up with Louis Saldenah’s “Beyond the Darkness” outfit which won the Band of the Year crown that year. Years later, the veteran band leader, who has clinched a record 16 Band of the Year titles, played a leading role in supporting the young mas’ player’s quest to lead her own band.
Last year, Jackson and her Tru Dynasty Carnival – Fever… What Makes You Hot – finished in a first place tie in the “B” class category.
“It was around 11 p.m., when me and my husband (Dario) were driving back to the mas’ camp after the parade to help unload the trucks and clean up when we heard the news on the radio that we were co-winners,” said Jackson. “I remember crying because it was so emotional for us with all the hard work that we put into doing this mostly on our own for the first time.”
Prior to 2010, Jackson designed costumes and was a section leader with Marlon Singh’s Callaloo for nearly a decade.
“It started out with Marlon asking me to help out,” said Jackson who is the Toronto Mas’ Bands Association (TMBA) secretary. “I lived in the west end and I did not have a car at the time, so I had to wait until my mother came home at night from work and I would use her car to drive to the mas’ camp in Scarborough. That was where I really got my feet wet and learned a lot about the craft.
“When Marlon asked me to be a section leader, I did not hesitate to take him up. We sold 75 costumes that year and the next year when my husband joined me, we did two sections and sold nearly 200 costumes…I am a very creative person and I enjoy designing. As a young girl, I used to make my own clothes and the compliments I received for the most part were very satisfactory. I also believe I inherited some of my father’s passion for designing.”
Jackson and Saldenah were reunited two years ago, with Jackson placed in charge of a section that sold about 400 costumes.
With the enormous success, Jackson knew she was ready to launch her career as a bandleader.
“When I mentioned it to Louis, he was very supportive,” said Jackson. “In fact, he encouraged me and offered his help anytime I needed it. That meant a lot to me.”
To be part of a band is one thing, but to be the leader is quite something else as Jackson soon found out. She had to find space and set up a mas’ camp, organize people, trucks, generators and sound systems among other things while designing costumes for six sections.
In addition, she was pregnant with her second child, Destina, who was born last February 6.
“Being the leader was quite an honour,” she said. “But with it came hurdles, lots of hard work and stress. At the end of the day, to come out on top compensates for all the effort you put into it.”
Jackson praised her support team, including her mother and her Puerto Rican-born husband who she married seven years ago.
“He has been a rock,” she said. “Before we met, he was not into the carnival and the jump-up. Now, he’s really into Caribana and the fun stuff.”
Elevated to the “A” class category this year, the theme of Jackson’s band is Remember the Roaring 20s with an emphasis on the cultural and artistic dynamism of that decade.
She’s pledging $10 from every adult costume sold to be dispersed among eight charities and 95 per cent of the children’s costumes for this weekend’s Kiddies Parade to The Children Breakfast Clubs.
“We are not in this just for ourselves,” said the former camp counsellor whose fulltime job is caring for her two kids and managing her band. “We know there are many young people out there whose parents do not have the financial resources to buy a costume for them to have some fun in the sun. That’s where we come in.”
Jackson, who came to Toronto from Montreal at age four and was turned on to soca music and carnival rhythms during her final year of high school at Central Tech after attending Don Bosco Secondary School, has created sections for the Atlanta Carnival for the past two years. She will participate in the Miami Carnival for the first time in October.
On her to do list are trips to the Trinidad & Tobago and Brazil carnivals.
“Dario and I have never been to these countries to witness the biggest two carnivals, but we will get there soon,” said Jackson, whose six-year-old son Darion won the Kiddies Carnival Male Individual title last year.
Jackson is one of six female bandleaders in this year’s Caribana parade. The others are Narissa Ali of Blues Carnival Fusion, Whitney Doldron of Mas Players International, Susan Grogan of Spirits of the Caribbean and Kathleen Hughes and Nataki Christmas of Renaissance Mas Productions.