Last Carnival, Brian MacFarlane won a beaver trick for the Band of the Year (Large) at the mecca of mas, the Queen’s Park Savannah, continuing a winning streak that saw him win 13 titles at a number of venues since he brought out his first band in 2005. Costumes he has designed for other bands have also been named King and Queen of Carnival on numerous occasions since 1992.
MacFarlane was born in 1957, the second-to-last of five children, to a Barbadian mother and Trinidadian father. A sometime cake decorator, floral arranger, event planner, co-owner of a nightclub and surf-shop proprietor, he has no formal training in art or design. Nevertheless, his Carnival designs have drawn comparison with the work of Peter Minshall and Wayne Berkeley, two of the most celebrated mas designers in Trinidad and Tobago.
In 2010, in addition to his Carnival triumphs, he toured India to guest-lecture in art and design at various universities. He also received a national award for his contribution to the Carnival arts and culture.
“I was a very sickly child and am dyslexic. I didn’t pass Common Entrance; I went to St Anthony’s College. There were no art classes, everything was very academic. I felt I wasn’t achieving anything, I felt imprisoned. I remember leaving the school and saying, ‘This is the last day they’re seeing me, I’m not coming back.’ This was in Form Three. I went home.
“It was the second year that Raoul Garib’s band had come out. I told my mother I’m going to see if I can get a job with this band. I always had a passion for Carnival, the artistic part of Carnival. I used to watch it on TV, Kings and Queens, Dimanche Gras.
“It was voluntary work. I worked for them for about three to four years. The designer at the time, who is still a good friend of mine, Chris Santos, and Brenda Garib were so impressed with my ability of combining colours and textures that I quickly moved…to where they had all the characters and the king and queen.”
During the 1990 coup attempt, the nightclub and surf shop that MacFarlane ran with his brother were affected by looting and the subsequent downturn in business.
“We were back with nothing and looking to start again. I said, ‘I know I have a God-given gift of creativity; I’m going to channel it now. I’m going to open a design studio.’
“The week I was about to open, I got a call from Judy Sanchez, who was Peter Minshall’s right hand. She invites me to a meeting because they were forming the Callaloo Company [Minshall’s production company]. This could be around 1992 – 1993. There were about six or seven of us (Peter Minshall was not there). I was very, very enthused.
“It was the most difficult week of my life. I was torn. I would love to work under Minshall, but I wanted to launch my own career in design. I made the decision that…I would continue.”
“In 1994 I did a Carnival king for Garib, ‘The Conquest —The Slaying of Medusa’. It won King of Carnival; it was my second. In September, it won Carnival King of the World.
“I started designing for Fareid Carvalho and he would come third or fourth, always making the finals. In 2000 Rosalind Gabriel asked me to do her queen. The section I chose for her to lead was Exodus: The Power and the Glory. She won seven competitions as Queen of Carnival.
“Denyse Plummer asked me to do her presentation for Calypso Monarch, the first and only time I did it. I had all these fabulous moko jumbies and folk dancers, and I do her whole gown and it’s all golds and coppers. And she wins…It was a big toss-up with her and Shadow and everybody thought he was going to win, but she blew away the show with her presentation.
“I’m playing with Minshall and I’m sitting on St Vincent Street on the curb tying my shoes and I see this white hand come in front of my face. I was not friends with Peter Minshall…‘Hi, hello,’ that kind of thing. I go to shake it and he says [MacFarlane adopts a Minshall-esque drawl], ‘Congratulations on winning Calypso Monarch. It was nothing to do with the song. Fabulous presentation.’”
“I played with Peter Minshall for seven years. [In] 2004 we were waiting to play with Minshall. He’s always late, as everybody knew, and three or four weeks before Carnival…bam! we hear that he’s not coming out. I knew his prototype person, Ronald Guy-James, and he said, ‘Yeah, boy, he’s not coming out.’ I said, ‘What’s going to happen to the people? People are going to stray. Let’s find a way of keeping the band together.’ I said…I would pay the band, Charlie’s Roots at the time, and we could print T-shirts with ‘We love you, Minshall’. It’s not going for competition, it’s just keeping people together and honouring Minshall. “There’s no way we can do this unless we have Minshall’s consent and his blessing. Ronald went to meet with him. It was not to take him over in any way. But apparently Minshall was most upset. So that was the end of it.”
“I stayed home that year and watched it on my sofa. Over and over, the same thing: feathers and beads and bikinis, blue and green, red and green. I said, ‘All these years this has been a dream of mine; this is the most appropriate time to do it. Suppose Minshall does come back next year? Suppose he doesn’t come back next year? What happens to the enjoyment I had with Minshall? What happens if I do my band? I may lose out because it’s just a core group of people that really want to play theatre mas.’
“But I was willing to take the chance.”
“I don’t worry about rules, it’s what aesthetically looks right to me. Not going to any schools, the only teachers I had were what were in my era. So it would be the Wayne Berkeley, the Peter Minshall, the Chris Santos, whoever was around for me to absorb from. Many artists in history have absorbed from other artists, but they become their own people; I think I’m clearly my own person. People say, ‘How do you feel when people compare you with Minshall?’ I feel honoured, because I think he’s a great designer.
“But at the same time, I think I deserve my own respect.”
Through a photographer’s lens
Mark Lyndersay, a photographer and writer who shoots and analyses Carnival annually, commented in an e-mail interview:
“Brian MacFarlane’s success is well deserved. He puts a lot of work into his Carnival designs and the investment in detail and concept shows when the band hits the road. Tragically, this work stands in such stark contrast to the majority of what’s put on the street that it becomes elevated to another level of consideration.
“It’s a bit unfair, I think, to expect Brian MacFarlane to ignore the groundbreaking work that Peter Minshall and Wayne Berkeley did before him. Artists have a responsibility to revisit, rethink and repurpose the work done previously in their field as a jumping-off point for their own exploration of the artform.
“That said, there have been moments, some of them cringe-inducing for me personally, when artistic inspiration has felt a bit like photocopying in his presentations. It has been one of the great challenges of Brian MacFarlane’s career as a producer of a large Carnival band to be seen as Minshall’s successor at exactly the time that he is wrestling with his own understanding of what creating a large-scale Carnival band, fuelled by a concept and interpreted by mas players, means for him as an artist. His first years as a bandleader and designer have played out in the glare of spotlit public expectations and he‘s been expected to be the creative alternative to BBF [bikini, beads and feathers] mas designs.
“He’s been progressively and steadily working some of his deeper inspirations out of his system since the first large-band presentation. It would be a mistake to judge Brian MacFarlane as an artist based on what he’s done so far. I see much of that work as a proving ground and a rehearsal of his capacities as an artist and designer.”
The mas bands
2005 The Washing by Fire, by Water
2006 Threads of Joy
2007 India: The Story of Boyie
2008 Earth – Cries of Despair, Wings of Hope
2009 Africa – Her People, Her Glory, Her Tears
2010 Resurrection, the Mas
2011 Humanity – the Circle of Life
Brian MacFarlane’s website is at: www.macfarlanecarnival.net