MacFarlane committed to culture

MacFarlane at the ROM
By Herman Silochan

The audience listened in silence, rapt with attention, as Brian MacFarlane exploded with vehemence against string beads, skimpy bikinis and feathers, “This is what carnival has descended into, a cultural void, where are the George Baileys, the Stephen Harts and the Wayne Berkeleys, the Peter Minshalls of this world? Men who gave carnival meaning, depth, reminding us of our rich heritage, the numerous aspects coming out an island culture, creating a oneness unlike any other!”

I am paraphrasing here, extracting a compendium of words from his long outrage on the stage of the Royal Ontario Museum last Sunday. MacFarlane, for those who do not know, is considered the pre-eminent masman in Trinidad and Tobago. He has won the Band of the Year title at Trinidad carnival 7 times, including this year.

So what is this all about? A much needed two day symposium on where Caribbean Carnival is at. Let’s call it Caribbean and not Trinidadian because there has been a hundred year input from all of the Eastern Caribbean through immigration, contributing to the evolution of modern mas. All the islands share a cultural affinity.
Anyway, on Saturday, there was an all-day contribution by noted historians like Caldwell Taylor, or insightful players like Christopher Pinheiro. If you juxtapose the eight speeches including that of MacFarlane, you begin to understand where Carnival is coming from and where it is going.

On Sunday, we began with the showing of “The Insatiable Season”, a documentary that focuses on MacFarlane and his masquerade-making crew. Almost an hour long, the film captures the human element throughout the long pre-Carnival months in conceptualizing, creating, rehearsing, performing, and then celebrating. That was in 2006, and there were defeats on stage, still it was the one spectacle that the public came out to see. Undeniably, there is passion in MacFarlane’s creations. And whilst overseas tourists do come to ogle at the scantily clad performers, the partying, rum drinking and other unmentionables, the essence of all Carnivals is a reaching back into the ancestral cupboard, where so many cultural gems wait on shelves to be revisited and re-displayed.

I had been asked by the ROM curators to sit on stage with MacFarlane, to engage in conversation, and then invite the audience to participate.

We opened up with the current economics of Caribbean style Carnival, the ongoing necessity for government subsidies, either in Trinidad, or Toronto or Notting Hill. “Financing Carnival is always a problem,” he says, “this year, the government of Trinidad and Tobago claimed that it spent TT$90 million, but at the end of the day, how much remains in the pockets of mas producers for the following year?
I have never made money producing mas, my other design business subsidises the Carnival side. However there a few band leaders who make tons of money, importing in bulk from China readymade bikini costumes for TT$300 a piece and sell them to the players for TT$2,000! Think of a band that has 10,000 members. Is this for the love of mas, or is this a business? My band in 2006 had just one thousand performers.”

Still, MacFarlane has made his mark, year after year, to the point of being asked by the then Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, to prepare a spectacle for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2009 in Trinidad. Manning wanted MacFarlane to pull out all the stops, yet, absolutely he did not want to any representation of “the Devil”. MacFarlane was taken aback, “Did the Prime Minister not know that ‘the Devil’ and its representation were integral to the fight against slavery? Is this not symptomatic of our lack of knowledge of our ancestral fight for freedom?”

Around this time on the ROM’s stage, he began his tirade that we are living in a void, that there is an emptiness in society. “Look, I have nothing against beads, feathers and bikinis and near nakedness and even all the alcohol, but there must be a balance, an understanding of what makes us who we are.”

He touched on the amount of prize money a winning band leader gets, the irony of it all. “Imagine,” he says, “in the music competition, the winner, either a calypsonian or chutney singer, will get one million dollars! And a winning band leader with months of headaches, financing nightmares, with tons of bills to pay, only gets $300,000! And what really makes Carnival, is it not the bands in the streets, so where is the true cultural appreciation?”

He reiterates: studying history, designing and making mas is a year round operation, just the storage of all that stuff is a giant headache, unless you have permanent warehouse. The Brazilian government offers all of that country’s band leaders free warehouse space just to be thoroughly prepared for their giant celebrations. If Trinidad and Tobago wants to truly have a world class festival, they have to start here. I might add, in advocacy of Toronto and its Caribbean Carnival, that we need something similar right here.

I’ll say too, that kudos to the ROM for having a year-long show of MacFarlane’s master illustrations, works of art in themselves and will add to any gallery. Don’t be surprised that another one will be coming soon. Maybe, in a left handed way, Toronto Caribbean Carnival is finally getting the respect that it richly deserves.