What’s Carnival time like? “It’s taking a vacation, but you’re doing it home and at a festival rather than taking a plane and going somewhere,” says Destra Garcia, with an air of calm that’s usually hidden underneath her lively reputation. A lot of things seem different about her presence in the absence of a stage. The nondescript Toronto hotel room she sits coolly in lacks a certain flavour that’s often synonymous with her presence. Her standard colourful and racy clothing is replaced with ripped fitted jeans and a yellow overcoat, her explosive personality substituted with an inviting gentleness and touch of Caribbean humour. In her calmed condition, it would be easy to forget the singer’s decade long contributions to the world of soca music, a genre that embodies the essence of the Caribbean, in all its raw and spirited form.

The Laventille, Trinidad native certainly isn’t deaf to the image she’s developed over the years within an industry that in no small way requires a level of liveliness that comes natural to her. “I think I’m generally a crazy person,” says an honest Garcia. “I’m a very emotional person too, so when I’m happy, it’s just like extremely happy, over the top happy. When I’m on stage it’s always one personality because I know that I’m loved on stage, I feel it and I feel the audience.”

That same oomph along with her harmonic vocals and fusion of pop and rock rhythms has found itself spanning the globe and reaching audiences that would much sooner associate soca with a drink instead of an actual form of music. It’s taken her from Trinidad to Guyana, New York to London and all the way to Toronto’s own Caribana and through her journey, she’s witnessed firsthand the varying mimicking forms of a celebration that started in her home country. While some of the differences are similar according to Destra, it’s not fair to compare a celebration to one that has had its roots based in Trinidad.

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“It’s smaller, that’s the first thing, but the vibe is more or less the same. We lead up to the Carnival for a couple of months. The actual Carnival takes place two weeks before, which is like a week, going back right around until we get back to Carnival Monday. So I think when people say it’s the mecca, it’s only because we have a lot more of it,” says Destra. “The police even barricade the streets, you have to learn back roads and find out where you’re going because Carnival is first. That’s our culture, that’s what we love and that’s what we push. That’s the main difference.”

Her familiarity with a celebration that has largely become a huge part of her career has given her a level of expertise most couldn’t hope to match regardless of how many times they donned a costume or paraded the local streets. She knows this world intimately, she breathes it, earns a living from it and most importantly understands it and the essentials needed for a Carnival to be a success in any region.

“You need to have a good Carnival committee, everything needs to focus on their part and get things done in an efficient way… You also need to have a good plan. What do you really want out of a Carnival? Do you want to attract foreigners? Do you want to just please the locals? You need to know what your market is and who you’re going after.” A strategy Toronto’s own Caribana has at times confused between its varying audiences.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘Wow, when did I get here and when did this happen? … To be in a place right now where people associate me with Carnival, like when you think of one of the names that come up in terms of a core element that Carnival should have, it’s very flattering to me.”

“You need to find out what’s happening around the world. Do I use local entertainment? And if I’m looking for international entertainment, who are the best people? So I know you’re going to call me,” she quips with a laugh. “Showcase your talents of the island, or the nation, or your foods. Bring something to the table that is identified with where your Carnival is taking place and you should be all right.”

Few can deny Destra’s infectious presence at any Carnival. Since her debut joining the Roy Cape All Stars in 1999 and her subsequent collaboration with a number of Caribbean faces, she’s created a status around her name that has made her a central ingredient for having a successful celebration.

It’s a reverence she has built around the culture that even individuals like Kwesi Thomas, director of logistics for Toronto’s own Caribbean Carnival, can’t ignore it.

“We wanted to make sure we had someone who had the ability to speak to multiple audiences and to be a good voice outside of the carnival for us [last year]. Not just to represent the brand well, but to speak to the Carnival well this,” says Thomas. “She continues to put out great music. She not only helps to keep the culture going, but she also helps us to move forward to another level. She pushes further and further crossing over to the mainstream and I hear her on stations more and more from outside of the Caribbean community. What she’s doing for music and women in Carnival is great.”

Despite all the similar admiration received over the years, Destra has still remained humble.

“I’m not exactly where I know I’m going to be or supposed to be, but I’m having the time of my life. I’m in a place where I’ve never dreamed. I’m touring the world, I’m being called by everybody queen, which makes me feel like the Queen of Sheba,” Destra describes with a smile. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m like, ‘Wow, when did I get here and when did this happen? … To be in a place right now where people associate me with Carnival, like when you think of one of the names that come up in terms of a core element that Carnival should have, it’s very flattering to me.”

Her continued growth has come at the cost of toil and labour, a message she wants the next generation of musical artists to understand.

“They need to work hard, and even harder than I worked, because there’s still a Destra… or my name to be called in the same sentences as Alison Hinds and others who were there way before me, it took a lot of hard work. If you decide to be mediocre and just do a simple song, you’re just going to be mediocre. If you want to be remembered, you need to work hard… Don’t follow the norm, do your own thing and that’s the only way you’re going to be a leader. Be different.”

Words by. Noel Ransome + Photos by. Fitzroy Facey