Wayne Berkeley: Trinidad’s King Carnival

Designer Wayne Berkeley this year equalled an all-time Carnival record – George Bailey's four consecutive crowns 40 years ago.

Birds, from Wayne Berkeley’s Caribbean Revue at London’s Barbican. Photograph courtesy Wayne BerkeleyNuclear, from the band 1990. Photograph courtesy Wayne BerekelyPallas Athene: Queen of the Bands 1989. Photograph courtesy Wayne Berkeley/Norton StudiosPhotograph by Harold PrietoSprite of the Cocal, Queen of the Bands 1988. Photograph by Norton Studios LtdSundeck section of Titanic. Photograph by Harold PrietoThe First Officers section, Titanic. Photograph by Harold PrietoWayne Berkeley. Photograph by Harold PrietoWhite Star Line (Titanic). Photograph by Harold Prieto

Take a peek inside Wayne Berkeley‘s mas camp, famous throughout Trinidad and Tobago for its organisation and its wide variety of masquerade costumes, and you’ll find out what Carnival in Trinidad is all about.

Here is everything from the skimpiest, sexiest French-cut bathing suit, a garment to make Las Vegas showgirls blush, to sophisticated, flowing gowns which would have been quite at home in Queen Victoria’s court.

Male masqueraders who wonder if sailor pants are macho enough turn themselves into Viking conquerors. The girl with the hourglass figure decides to be a glass of champagne. The girl who has always dreamed of doing the can-can books a costume from the section called “Showtime”, full of pink fluff and pearls. The lady who needs to tiptoe into Carnival rather than making a daring plunge chooses something from “Easter Parade”, with its flowered hats, or from “Sundeck”, with its proper yellow-and-white lace dresses and old-fashioned parasols.

For his 1992 masquerade band, Wayne Berkeley chose the theme Titanic, after the legendary liner which foundered in the Atlantic in 1912. Hence the Sundeck, the Easter Parade, the Showtime, the champagne.

The idea of Titanic was not to make a political statement, though maybe some tongue-in-cheek irony remained in the choice. Wayne had thought up the idea four years earlier, when he had come across a book about the sinking of the “unsinkable” luxury liner on its maiden voyage to New York, and remembered his own grandmother talking about it. It would give scope for a sailor band, a masquerade indigenous to Trinidad Carnival: but a sailor band with a difference, portraying the Captain’s Ball, the liner’s casinos etc. Yet Wayne held back, worrying about how people would respond to a Carnival band recalling one of the world’s greatest disasters.

It wasn’t until he found himself working in Las Vegas in 1990 that the idea revived. There Wayne saw a Las Vegas revue with a section on the Titanic. “I was flabbergasted, not at the performance – which was spectacular – but at people’s reaction. Nobody had the slightest objection to it. And the show had been running for 12 years, it was even old hat.” Wayne’s Carnival band bore no resemblance to the Las Vegas treatment, but it benefited from that reassurance. “And in Trinidad I had no bad feedback at all.”

Masqueraders flock to the Berkeley mas camp in record numbers; two sections of his 1991 Carnival band were sold out less than two hours after he opened the door on the first day of registration.

From his austere office in Port of Spain, where samples of cloth hang on strips from a desk lamp, Wayne can see the helmets or headpieces being put together on tables under a canopy in the yard outside. He has Carnival masqueraders carefully categorised, just like the headpieces and costumes which are wrapped in plastic bags and hang in neat rows.

“People play mas for various reasons. First, there are the people who want to enjoy themselves. They’re looking for the simplest costumes. Then there are those who want to look beautiful. They will spend the money just to find the costume that enhances them. Third, there are the practical ones who want to know where they will put their lipstick and their bag on Carnival day. Fourth, there are those who play mas because their friends are playing. They couldn’t care less where they play or what they look like. Then there is the exhibitionist, who spends all his money playing king or queen or an individual. In designing, you have to cater for all these types.”

Berkeley’s popularity and success are partly due to his ability to design for a wide range of people and their interests. People trust him to choose the best colour and the best design for them. Foreign-based Trinidadians who return to Trinidad to play mas and foreign visitors who have joined the Berkeley camp slip their money in an envelope and send it with a note saying, “Choose something for me.” Berkeley does, and no-one has ever been disappointed.

Wayne Berkeley’s Carnival bands attract followers from every age group. “In my bands we have people from 17 to 70. I’m very proud of that. We don’t cater for a certain ethnic group or a certain age.” Titanic involved 23 sections of intricately designed masquerade costumes, 2,700 masqueraders pouring onto the streets of Port of Spain.

With Berkeley as captain, the 1992 masqueraders set out to change history, not just by keeping the Titanic afloat but by equalling the record of the legendary masquerade designer George Bailey. In four consecutive years between 1959 and 1962, Bailey produced bands which won the coveted title Band of the Year: Relics of Egypt, Merrie England, Byzantine Glory and Somewhere in New Guinea. His achievement had never been equalled.

Wayne already holds most of the main records in Trinidad Carnival. He has produced more Carnival Queens than anyone else (12 at last count), and eight Bands of the Year, exceeding the half-dozen wins by George Bailey. He won the title with Secrets of the Sky (1973), Kaleidoscope (1974), Genesis (1980), Rain Forest (1983, for Stephen Lee Heung, for whom Wayne designed from 1981 to 1989), Heromyth (1989, based on the Tchaikovsky opera The Queen of Spades), 1990 (1990), Swan Lake (1991) and now Titanic.

Wayne Berkeley plans everything down to the last detail. His computer monitors the arrival of cloth for the costumes and the gallons of paint needed to finish off the band’s standards. Registrations are computerised. He finishes his costumes long before anyone else.

His keen organisation doesn’t break down outside the mas camp. In the streets his sections are elegantly organised into groups which play their mas with dignity and finesse. It’s a show worthy of any theatre stage.

But Berkeley disagrees with the argument, powerfully stated by his rival Peter Minshall, that Carnival is theatre of the streets. “Carnival is primarily a fete,” he says. “There’s a big difference from the theatre where you pay people to wear your costumes and go out there and perform for people who are paying to see.”

Wayne sees the future development of Carnival in business terms. “We in Trinidad assume that Carnival will take place every year. The bandleaders will design, the people will play and the tourists will come to see. We take everything for granted. That narrow-mindedness has to end. It’s time to harness Carnival into a major attraction beyond the two-day festival we know. I don’t mean people jumping up in the streets every day of the year, but something like Disney World where people can come and see and feel Carnival any time of year.

“There’s so much we can do. We can re-create the old days of tamboo bamboo, show tourists the development of calypso, the making of pan. We should even be able to have designers come here to study what we do. Everywhere in the world, even the people of Rio, marvel at what we do for Carnival. They marvel at the costumes we create. They’re amazed at how we get people to dance with structures 40 feet high. They marvel at how these people who play mas haven’t been trained.”

Wayne Berkeley won his first gold medal as an artist at the age of six, when he entered an international competition and won. “As a kid, all I did was draw and paint all day. My parents were not enthusiastic. So when I wanted to enter another international competition for children of the Commonwealth when I was 12, I literally hid to do my painting. I heard nothing till one day I picked up the Trinidad Guardian and saw on the front page “Trinidad Youth Wins Top Commonwealth Award.”

He went to school at St Mary’s College in Port of Spain, and took art classes offered at the British Council. “Our teacher was that great Trinidad painter M. P. Alladin: many of today’s artists are graduates of those classes – Pat Bishop, Jackie Hinkson. Alladin knocked us all into shape.” He taught art at St Mary’s while he was still a student there: the subject had just been introduced, and Wayne was faced with a hundred students anxious to get away from other subjects.

He left school after taking his Cambridge exams (equivalent to today’s O levels). “The day the results came out, everyone flocked to the notice-boards to see. I looked down the list under B, found Berkeley, and there was a line right across, no marks, no grades, no pass or fail. Just an asterisk, the only one on the whole list, saying please see the Principal.’ You can imagine how I felt. When I finally found the Principal, he said: Berkeley, this is going to take some time to explain: come and see me after school.’ That did not make me feel any better. It turned out that I had the most bizarre results in the history of the school: I passed my arts subjects, my English and Maths, with distinction, and failed absolutely everything else. The offer was that I would stay on and pass a couple more subjects to get me on my academic way. But I was never academic. I turned it down and left.”

Wayne worked in a bank for a while, then quit and went to London, where for several years he learned his trade by experience. He did set designs for the BBC, tried designing cars, did store displays, moving quickly from one thing to the next, finding out what he wanted to do and how to do it. He returned to Trinidad in the mid sixties, still a young man in his early twenties, and never looked back; he has been a fulltime professional designer ever since.

 

Most Carnival fans remember Wayne’s 1973 production, when he and Bobby Ammon teamed up to produce Secrets of the Sky. His careful work, his enthusiasm and his attention to detail quickly established him as a major designer, though his first band was Fanfare in 1965, and there had been many memorable productions along the way.

Wayne dropped out of carnival competition for several years, and did not return until 1989, when he made a clean sweep of the streets of Port of Spain with Heromyth, followed next year by a band entitled 1990 and in 1991 by his elegant Swan Lake.

“When I stayed out I was tired of the same things, the old bathing suits and sticks in the air and the frustrations of the early years, the fighting between the National Carnival Commission and the bandleaders and trying to get duty concessions to bring in materials to make costumes. When I came back I decided I would be my own man. I would do what I wanted to do and not take on the judging and the controversies. I treat Carnival as a business.”

Wayne is by no means exclusively a Carnival designer. He is constantly in demand as a theatrical and commercial designer, at home and in Europe and North America. Last year he was working on a new musical in Las Vegas while three of his Carnival costumes were on a whirlwind tour of the US, organised through the St. Louis Museum of Art.

He has produced several shows of his own in Trinidad. One was Hurrah for Broadway, a production featuring lavishly costumed scenes from Broadway musicals first put together for his 50th birthday (“I had reached the ripe young age of 50 and wanted no ordinary party”) and later staged for the public after a storm of enthusiastic feedback. It played to sell-out audiences at the Trinidad Hilton last year. “It was not the sort of show for Trinidad to export: I wanted to put it on for people who had not been exposed to the lights of Las Vegas or the glamour and glitter of Broadway, the shows I liked so much.” His Christmas 1992 show is based on the Radio City Music Hall shows in New York, complete with an ice rink.

Another home-base production was a pioneering full-scale Carnival musical, Queen of the Bands, in 1986, for which his colleague John Mendes wrote the original music. “I thought of shows I’d seen abroad like Brazil Tropical and Ipi Tombi, based on people’s festivals, and I realised we had so much to offer in our Carnival, visually and musically, and that we needed a musical based on it. It was a total experiment. I knew it would be very hard to make it work — Carnival is so spontaneous, how can you stage it formally? You have to be so disciplined, choreographed. I was partly pleased with the production, but I’ve been rethinking and restructuring the work, adjusting the story-line, creating a new surprise ending. It would go down well with foreign audiences, I think, because it has all the ingredients of a good musical — the rhythm of Carnival, ballad music for the love element, the glamorous Carnival costumes and settings.” He approached the New York producer Joseph Papp, but it was too costly a show, with a cast of 60, 14 set changes and 22 show numbers.

Wayne also designs costumes and sets every year for the Marionettes Chorale, Trinidad and Tobago’s leading choir, for their Christmas productions.

If Wayne is in demand at home, he is just as popular overseas. Last summer he was asked to design and direct a Caribbean-style revue to be staged at London’s Barbican Centre: Caribbean Carnival Extravaganza opened in August and played to packed audiences for two weeks, bringing a powerful taste of Trinidad Carnival to London before touring Europe. Produced by one Trinidadian, Sonny Blacks, and choreographed by another, Jeanette Springer, the show featured Wayne’s sets, costumes and concept, plus an orchestra and steel orchestra; and he discovered ways of exploiting the Barbican stage that dazzled the Barbican staff.

“There was one nightmare moment. The dancers in the fast- paced opening number wore six-inch heels; everything had gone perfectly up to the dress rehearsal. But on opening night, I said: just slip on the shoes and run through the opening number — and the dancers were slipping and sliding all over the stage. Somebody had graciously polished the stage for us, making it impossibly slippery. We couldn’t use resin on it, so I washed the stage down in Coke. It worked perfectly.” A follow-up show is being prepared for summer 1992.

Wayne is also busy in Seville this year, at the Universal Expo 92 celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyages of discovery. He designed and directed the Caribbean segment of the 10,000-strong opening parade in April, and is also the designer for a grand operatic night on July 1 when Trinidadian Kiran Akal stages his own extravaganza, with a set in Waterford crystal designed by another Trinidadian, Francisco Cabral. Other recent projects include a new Las Vegas musical and a movie.

One thing that worries Wayne about the Trinidad Carnival is the next generation. “I get frightened when I look around and see no young people designing anything new. I wonder, where is the new blood? After this era, what will happen? There’s a very big gap between what’s happening now and what’s coming up. I don’t know if people lack the drive or the ambition that we had once. I really wish they’d break that barrier down, because it’s in the young crowd that the future of Carnival lies.”