Wayne Berkeley: the showman

Wayne Berkeley: Bridging his consummate professionalism to Carnival design, Berkeley is known as a master decorater

A La Carte (1975) parading through downtown Port of Spain. Photograph by Noel NortonAn individual of Secrets from the Sky (1973). Photograph by Noel NortonHelen Humphrey portraying an individual from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel NortonQueen of Carnival 1975: Joan Massiah portraying the Hawaiian Seafood Cocktail from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel NortonRosemary Stone portraying the Salt and Pepper Shaker from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel NortonWayne Berkeley in the 1980s. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay

Wayne Berkeley, born 1940

“Here was a man who wasn’t bluffing. An artist disdaining the Carnival cliché, the foil stuck on a costume to win an easy glitter, the beads and the sequins. Berkeley’s band stood, or fell, on the basis of its concept and craftsmanship.”
— Trinidad Carnival magazine

When Wayne Berkeley’s 1975 band A La Carte crossed the Grand Stand stage,
spectators were stunned first by the procession of colours, then by the
painstaking details that were revealed by close inspection, but above all
by the imaginative bravado of a Carnival band sumptuously portraying a 20-course
gourmet feast. One long-time observer was heard to exclaim, “That’s too
good for Carnival!”

Berkeley, of course, would never have agreed. A consummate professional
and master decorater, he has never presented work that does not meet his own
exacting standards of design, even if it means outshining everybody else’s
masquerade. “When I am doing this, I do nothing else,” he once said. “Once
I start a drawing, I can’t leave it off . . . Every stroke you make, you
have to know what you are going to use — what kind of structure, what kind
of materials, and how comfortable is the masquerader going to be.”

His father was a self-taught concert pianist, his mother
one of Trinidad’s top florists. The Berkeley family home on Clifford Street
in Belmont was opposite Harold Saldenah’s mas camp, which every Carnival
season was awash with fantastic colours, shapes, and characters. Wayne Berkeley’s
childhood was rich in artistic activity. At St Mary’s College in the 1950s,
art had no place in the official curriculum, but Berkeley took every opportunity
to work on school concerts and plays, and went to art classes organised
by the British Council, where he studied under M.P. Alladin. Eventually
the principal of St Mary’s asked Berkeley, “still wearing his school uniform”,
to teach art courses for his peers.

In the early 1960s he lived for a while in London, but Berkeley had little
formal training. “I went to art schools for one year, but what they wanted
me to do is what I had done all my life — draw lines and circles. What a
waste of time! I did what I thought I had to do to develop my art, my own
style, my own techniques.”

In 1965, back in Trinidad, he was asked by bandleaders Jean Antoni and
Geoff Inglefield to design a full Carnival band, his first. Historical mas,
with its accurate recreations of past civilisations, was the prevailing
convention, but Berkeley decided he wanted to do something that hadn’t been
seen before. Fan Fair, with its variations on the simple theme of the fan
— Spanish, Egyptian, Japanese, and so on — had an enormous impact. It was
one of the first major examples of fantasy mas, springing not from a history
book but from the designer’s imagination, and it helped start a trend that
within a few years would bring the historical genre to an end.

Fan Fair established Berkeley’s approach to Carnival
design: well thought-out themes, executed to look effortless, but in reality
the product of resourcefulness, creative intensity, and meticulous labour.
Berkeley, famous for his ultra-efficient production line, with its worksheets
and prototypes (and, later, computers), has been called the Henry Ford of
Carnival. As he explained, “You discover that some people are particularly
neat, so you put them to work with sequins. Others couldn’t care less about
neatness, so you have them painting standards.”

Berkeley’s innovation extended to the craft of costume fabrication. When
real ostrich plumes became too costly, he wrapped chipped crepe paper around
cocoyea rods to create the effect of feathers; in his 1973 band of the year
Secrets of the Sky he used drinking straws, tightly bundled and covered
in glitter, to create colourful stars. A La Carte incorporated pieces
of old wine casks and real oyster shells.

Berkeley mas became known for the professionalism of its
design and its theatricality — each band capturing the glamour and momentum
of a Broadway musical. (And Berkeley feels as comfortable working for a
smaller stage as he does creating his Carnival extravaganzas: over the years
he has designed costumes and sets for musical and dramatic productions in
Trinidad, the United Kingdom, and the United States — including a Las Vegas
cabaret review in 1991.) His distinctive formula has won him an unrivalled
11 band of the year awards, including six consecutive titles from 1989 to
1994, beating George Bailey’s old record.

In February 2000, Berkeley suffered a stroke that paralysed his right side.
He was confined to a wheelchair for months, but he still managed to attend
that year’s Dimanche Gras show, in March, and he returned to his beloved
drawing board as soon as he was able, producing designs for 2002’s And
the Rains Came
, a band presented by some of his former associates. This
same indomitable artistic spirit has compelled Berkeley to speak out about
what he sees as an absence of creativity in today’s Carnival. “The artistry
of mas is dead, and refuses to lie down in a jewelled casket,” he has said.
He believes Carnival’s high point came in the early 70s, when his own designs
were rapidly changing the face of the masquerade. Time will tell whether
the designers of the future make good use of Wayne Berkeley’s legacy.

Wayne Berkeley: Band of the Year Titles

1973    Secrets of the Sky (bandleader, Bobby Ammon)
1974    Kaleidoscope
1980    Genesis
1983    Rainforest (bandleader, Stephen Lee Heung)
1989    Heromyth
1990    Nineteen Ninety
1991    Swan Lake
1992    Titanic
1993    Strike Up the Band
1994    Miracle
1998    Amarant: The Secret Garden