Big Mac: Barbados’ Mac Fingall

Roxan Kinas seeks out Barbados' Mac Fingall, one of the Caribbean's leading entertainers, and finds a schoolteacher who believes in tough discipline

Backstage, waiting to perform. Photograph by Roxan KinasBony Man: Mac, Edwin Yearwood, and Lil’ Rick poke fun at the Barbadian act 1000 pounds of Blubber. Photograph by Roxan KinasGames Master at work. Photograph by Roxan KinasMac Fingall in his role as MC and performer at the Untouchables Calypso Tent. Photograph by Roxan KinasMac with one of his clients- Red Plastic Bag (Stedson Wiltshire). Photograph by Roxan KinasMac with wife Sandra and son Mac Jr.  Photograph by Roxan KinasP. C. Mac Fingall on duty in BermudaThe Games Master in his den. Photograph by Roxan Kinas

[pullquote]To see Mac Fingall on stage, you would never guess he’s a school teacher with a tough reputation for discipline. [/pullquote]

At six foot five, the Games Master at the Lodge School looks small in his cramped cubicle, which is three feet square. Paper is scattered everywhere, and his desk is cluttered with school ties, plastic trophies, ping-pong balls, music scores and a confiscated curling iron. A wall-size world map looms behind him.

He’s on the phone trying to find his missing airline ticket for tomorrow’s flight to St. Maarten. In his other ear a headset blares a song someone wants him to hear. Three people hover over him waiting for instructions, while a persistent dribble of children requests bits of sports equipment. A small boy with a bandaged ankle limps in; he has a broken little toe and the Games Master, who doubles as school nurse, asks why his ankle is bandaged if his toe is broken? This prompts a lesson on swelling management, which the boy absorbs then hobbles off.

A young girl rushes in with waving arms and flushed face gasping, “Sir, I think Giles is sick.” Accustomed to daily storms in a teacup, the unimpressed teacher reminds the student she did not knock. She goes out, knocks, and hurries back in. The boy is slumped in his chair with his head thrown back, she says, and his feet are jerking. She doesn’t think he’s “awake”.

The teacher is on his feet, the tangle of phone and headphone lines unsnarls as if by sheer will, and the stack of papers on his lap flutters like a blizzard; he snatches the first aid box and flies out the door. The semi-conscious boy is taken to a waiting lounge chair; it turns out he has suffered a minor concussion after a “head-butting” prank at lunch. The gathered crowd receives a stern lecture on delicate areas of the skull not to be trifled with.

It was not a good day for an interview. But then, few days are. Barbadian Mac Fingall juggles two demanding full-time careers with community work, record distribution and sales, managing the island’s reigning calypso king Red Plastic Bag and running a calypso tent. He teaches all week, then flies off for weekend shows, often driving straight to school from the airport on Monday mornings. Summer is no better. He manages and emcees the Untouchables calypso tent, records his album, emcees and performs at most of the Crop Over events, and flies off to overseas shows in between.

It’s all a startling backdrop to the familiar cry “PEOPLES, ARE YOU RED-DAAY?” and the Mac Fingall that Caribbean show-goers know so well. Mac is one of the Caribbean’s most accomplished entertainers: comedian, emcee, calypsonian (last September he took second position in the World Soca Monarch competition in New York), songwriter and storyteller (he rarely gives a direct answer to anything without first prefacing it with a few stories).

But few people who see him on stage understand what teaching means to him or how easily his strong beliefs have landed him controversy time and time again. He may have two careers, but he doesn’t “make sport”. Teaching is a mission with him; “comedy,” he says, “is serious business.” This is a no-nonsense personality which can intimidate a class with one scathing glance or captivate thousands with one comic look.

Behind a bawdy stage persona, the real Mac Fingall is a staunch moralist. A thing is right or wrong — no gray areas and no exceptions. He flares up over illogicality, what he calls “foolishness”. “It’s the mentality that gets me,” he complains. “When I can’t tolerate something, I have to speak out.” Nothing less than excellence will do, and he expects the same from everyone around him.

Says calypsonian Red Plastic Bag (Stedson Wiltshire), “He’s extremely serious about anything he does and if he can’t give it his best shot, he’s not going to do it. His standards are very high and he doesn’t sacrifice principles for anything. He is quite a leader and once he becomes a part of your life he definitely has an impact on it. He has done a lot for me and my career. And he’s such a hard taskmaster there’s hardly a time he’s not breathing down your neck to do something.”

Mac admits he was always exacting. “It was so bad for a while, I used to line my pens up in a certain order. I just like things to be in their place. I always make up my bed first thing, and only about a year ago I learned some people leave home without making their bed. That discipline came from young and I kept it.” His sister Patsy, who helped raise him, agrees. “He was very particular about his things. Everything was tidy and in its place. And you couldn’t touch anything belonging to him. Even if he went away for six months, he would know.” At the age of four, “on his first day of school his shoelace came untied, and he came home to get it tied because the teacher couldn’t tie a double bow like his mother.”

Many people assume the public mask is the real man. But Mac is actually very shy. “I am not the man they see on stage. People always expect me to be giving a joke. But some people don’t seem to understand it takes a wise man to play the part of a fool.” Adds Patsy: “That energy you see on the stage is the music — he’s not like that normally. From little, he went wild, dancing and singing when the music started. Otherwise he’s a quiet man. He can go a week without talking.”

Backstage he’s mute. His face etched with tension, he chews gum, paces or stares into space. But once the music starts, his spontaneity, wit and repertoire, and that crisp diction which even non-West Indians understand, make him a master emcee. Only when the curtain closes is he shy and guarded again; despite screaming all day and yelling all night, he mumbles terribly. “There are times when they say I speak a bit fast on stage, or maybe they just listen a bit slow. But by nature I mumble. I have difficulty in natural speaking, it’s something with me from a little boy.”

Mac has different musical personalities too. He performs calypso but sings remarkable blues, and most likes country & western, “from my years living in Minnesota, where there was nothing else to listen to. I made a C&W recording here — ” He breaks into a twangy accent and sings: I ain’t gonna pay no alimony, cause I ain’t never gonna get married . . .

He is married, however, to Sandra Simmons, a one-time Barbados journalist. She lives in New Jersey, where she is a computer programme analyst, mother of their year-old son, Mac Jr., and still a part-time broadcast journalist.

Of their successful long-distance marriage Sandra says, “We had a number of years together before I left, so we had a solid foundation. I looked up to him for guidance and still do. In fact the reason I went (overseas) was because he was constantly on me about the importance of education, and finally I decided to do it.”

Back in Barbados, Mac runs his classes with drill-sergeant ferocity. He barks, cajoles, intimidates and teases his students into shape. But underneath? “I’ve never met anyone who is so genuinely concerned about other people, particularly children,” says Sandra. “I’m sure at times he actually believes they’re his children. Many times when he comes up and we go shopping he tells me about his children who don’t have any sneakers for running around in, and he brings shoes back for them. It’s almost second nature to him.”

Yet to hear Mac, you’d think it was someone else they were talking about. “Children love discipline. If you let them do what they want, they don’t respect you. I do not befriend the children early. I’m a mean teacher at first. You can be mean then soft but you cannot be soft then mean.”

Of course, it helps if you have more energy, stamina and resilience than your teenage students do. Mac is the picture of fitness and can out-perform most of them in calisthenics or sports. A former track and field champion, a health and physical education graduate, he represented Barbados in high jump, going four years unbeaten. He was in track and field in college, later shifting to football where he was good enough to gain a scholarship. He turned it down, preferring “to study rather than play football.”

When he talks about himself, a common phrase is “but I had a problem with. . .” An old Lodge boy himself, Mac went on to teach at Princess Margaret after a brief civil service stint. “The first thing happened because I had a problem with the headmaster. I was going to teach for a year or two then apply for a scholarship.” But it didn’t happen, because “the school playing field was out of order and had a lot of cracks. I asked the headmaster to get it fixed and he said he would fix half of it. I told him when you half-do something, it still needs half-doing. You just can’t half-do stuff.

“So I boycotted sports in protest. They started sending people to change my mind, and they kept pressuring me until one day I went into this rage — as I used to do about ten times a day. I stormed into the staff room and there’s a guy reading the paper, and I snatched it and said ‘Gimme that paper, I can’t take it no more and I need a job.’ I saw they needed policemen in Bermuda and two weeks later I went. And that’s how I became a police; they upset my head. But then I had some problems in Bermuda, too. . .”

So what was the problem in Bermuda? “The problem was really racial, 90 per cent of the force was white. My first day as a policeman I was in town and everybody kept coming up to me asking me questions and I finally said to myself, ‘Why is everybody asking me?’ Then I saw my reflection in a store window and realised, ‘Oh, I’m a policeman’.”

That didn’t even last a year. “It was degrading and dehumanising. I sat down and cried. And then I felt better. We were taught it wasn’t a man thing to cry. But I found out from that experience — and women have that secret — to let it out. We men hold it in and then we get high blood pressure and heart attacks or kill somebody.”

So Bermuda taught him that. It also taught him to use humour. One day a man came up to him and said, “Mac Fingall, you want killing.” “I said, ‘Hold it,’ and I went into my pocket and pulled out a list of stuff I had to do and said, ‘Listen, I would like to get through all this stuff here. So you gotta give me time.’ The guy said, ‘You go ahead, you’re crazy.’ Before, I just would have hit him in the head with a rock or something.”
So discipline, emotion and humour helped soften a volatile nature. “All through my teen years I hated everybody, I hated the world. I never felt or knew love until I became a teacher and I told myself if this is what love is then I will stick to teaching. My father used to beat me so much that it took a toll on him. The doctor advised him to slow down because it was wearing him out. So he changed his programme and beat me every Tuesday. It was weird but it was every Tuesday. If I didn’t obey him I would get licks and that is why I went to school.”

Then there was music too. Through those difficult times, Mac says, “I think Otis Redding kept me sane. He sang sad songs that had a lot of pain. He seemed to sing about real life — my life, and I could relate to that.” His other role model was James Brown. “He entertained me. I was fascinated with his dancing, and how he rose from nothing — when he shined shoes in front of a building which he now owns. That story gave me hope. Now I tell the children these stories, even my story. The children see me as I am now, never thinking how I got there. They never thought I cleaned toilets and swept streets.”

In Mac’s home in Bayfield, St. Philip, everything is as confused as his cubicle at school. Yet Mac seems to thrive on the breakneck lifestyle he carved for himself. “The phone rings all the time,” moans Patsy. “People expect him to know everything. Someone even called from Africa the other day to ask him if somebody here died.”

I’m asking if he was a bad-behaved child. “I was not bad-behaved,” he begins. But before he can finish, Patsy breezes past and sniffs, “He was wick-ked.” “But it served me well,” Mac retorts.

Mac grew up with four sisters; two brothers lived in England. Before Mac’s angry phase, there was laughter, Patsy says. “What Mac does now is nothing new. When he was small he would dress up and perform. We had no TV then, he was our entertainment. He would tell stories, imitate people, especially my father, and friends would come around. There was even an old lady who used to come and get entertained by Mac. But when he got older he had a bad temper.”

Mac explains that he’s really a serious person with a sense of humour; he uses comedy to get a serious message through. In telling jokes, he says, “There’s no guarantee you’ll make people laugh. It’s not like a song where you sing it for the 20th time and people are now getting into it. From the second time you do a joke, it’s finished.” This reminds him of something. “These cannibals were eating this comedian and said, ‘This meat taste funny’.”

Mac’s first stage experience was frightening. Someone stuck a microphone in his hand and walked away. He sang Bajan folk songs mixed with James Brown-style jamming. “I looked up and saw everyone had stopped dancing and was staring at me. I dropped the microphone and ran off.”

That was in the States. Fortunately he had the guts to try again, and once back in Barbados he flourished. “I was emceeing first, then I started doing comedy with the emceeing, because of the change in the emcee role, where they entertain between acts.” He got into music in earnest in 1986. “I wrote songs for the younger ones, then I wrote a song called Foolishness and Plastic Bag kept telling me it was a strong song.” He entered the national calypso competition and reached the semifinals his first time out.

Mac Fingall is talking about kids and what television and video games do to them.

“These children today are geared differently, and we are not keeping up with the times. Some teachers think we should force children to adapt to our methods but we have to adapt to them — with 900 children to 50 teachers, who rules?

“A few days ago I had a fellow in here. I gave him a letter and told him, ‘Take this to the secretary and ask her to type it for me.’ He came back and said the secretary wants to know what to do with the letter. Another day I told a fellow go to form 3.2 and bring Millington. He goes to 3.2 and brings the whole class. That’s what happened when the telephone came along. It is a good thing but we have to find another way to teach these kids to remember and listen.
“I grew up carrying messages to the next village. This is a true message I remember: ‘Mac, go at Marlyvale, tell Ms Gittens I want six pounds of pork this weekend but I can’t pay her because I’m waiting on my money from Miss Maynard for the peas I sold her last week. And Miss Maynard says she can’t pay me yet because a woman in Sealy Hall owe she for a dress that she made for her and she didn’t get that money yet.’ And I’ve got to get that message right or I’d get licks. So you were trained to listen.

“When I go out there and teach, I tell them they have a problem listening, and they try to prove they don’t have a problem, so they listen. That’s how I get things done.”

Actually, it’s the one thing, Patsy says, that gets Mac angry at home. “If you give him a message wrong he will get vexed. You’ve got to be right in messages. But he can’t get angry with me. I do the cooking. If he nags me he won’t get any food.”

Now in his 40s, Mac shows no sign of softening up, and his reputation is legendary. When he first returned to Barbados to teach, The Lodge was having problems with behaviour and discipline. One former bus conductor recalls: “Drivers and conductors were glad when Mac Fingall came. Before then, they refused to carry the children to school because they were so unruly.” The lead singer for Spice & Co., Geoffrey Cordle (aka Biggie Irie) was at the school when Mac arrived. “We were told he would be the strictest teacher on the staff and he was. He was a disciplinarian with a military approach. But he really put the school back on track.”

The school was doing poorly in sports; Mac revived it. He introduced basketball and drama. “Many people started their careers through him at school,” says Cordle, “myself included. Square One started there. So did Ras Iley, John King, Terry Mayers — there are so many. Everybody respects him a lot. I still miss and call him Sir.” Says Edwin Yearwood, who shot to fame in Barbados in 1995 when he was the first singer ever to capture a triple calypso crown, “We’ve been travelling and touring together for the last few years now, and he is somebody who always makes me smile when I see him. He always creates that atmosphere. And if there is a controversy about Edwin Yearwood, he will find me and make sure my head is on right about it.”

There have been rumblings that Mac might leave the entertainment field, but Cordle doubts it. “I don’t think he would leave. He likes it too much. At school he was as much an entertainer as a teacher. I think he’ll be doing both of them for the rest of his life.”