Trinidad & Tobago’s carnival is losing its cultural appeal and significance and gradually becoming a dying art form, says award-winning bandleader and designer, Brian MacFarlane.
With its massive masquerade bands, spectacular costumes, pulsating music and unparalleled partying stamina, T & T’s mas’ is often referred to as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
MacFarlane, says, however that title is no longer fitting.
“It’s now more about discarding the mas’ and showing more and more flesh,” the twin-island republic’s six-time Band of the Year winner told Share while in Toronto last week for the launch of Carnival: From Emancipation to Celebration at the Royal Ontario Museum. “What is happening now is revellers are spending months in the gym prior to carnival pumping up and toning their bodies. It seems the less they wear, the more glorious they feel they look.
“The carnival now has become a very sexual thing with emphasis on the alcohol and the frenzy on the street.
“We did at one time have ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’ What we really have now is ‘The Greatest Street Party’. People are having a great time and that’s fine. However, the history that’s associated with our carnival is being lost. In the 18th century, the French brought their culture, customs and carnival, in the form of elaborate masquerade balls, to our country along with African slaves.
“Banned from the festivities, slaves held their own celebrations in the barrack yards mimicking their masters’ behaviour while incorporating rituals and folklore. Once slavery was abolished in 1838, the freed Africans took their carnival to the streets. There is a history attached to the carnival and we need to understand that. Without a culture, we are an empty people…Most events in the world start with a cultural experience and that talks about the country and its people. That’s very important.”
MacFarlane’s winning costumes over the past three years – Resurrection: The Mas’; Humanity: The Circle of Life and Sanctification…In Search of – will be on display at the Hilary & Galen Weston Wing on the ROM’s second floor.
The designer said he was honoured and humbled to be invited by the ROM which is one of North America’s largest museums welcoming close to a million visitors annually.
“Toronto is certainly one of my favourite cities and I am excited to be back here for the first time in five years,” he said. “What I love about this city is that it has everything that you would find in a big city minus the hustle and bustle. There is a calmness about it that I adore and it’s also great for the arts. In addition, I have a sister here and my brother just recently relocated here with his family.”
The second of four children, MacFarlane said he was turned on to carnival at a young age while visiting his Port-of-Spain-based grandparents on Carnival weekends.
“Our parents took us there to watch the festivities,” he said. “In those days, the bands were not restricted to a parade route so the mas’ just played out beautifully and freely on the streets.
“In 1967, as a section of Stephen Leung’s China: The Forbidden City was coming down the road, my grandmother said ‘come let’s go take a chip’. I was just 11 years old at the time and we took a little jump up on Dundonald Street where they lived. That, I think, is when my interest in carnival was really ignited. You had these ‘Oriental’ ladies with the little fans chipping down the road dancing to Calypso. That showed the power of the mas’. Once you put on the costume, you become the character that you are wearing.
“After that first experience, I used to go home on Carnival Tuesday and get chicken wire from the garbage or garage, some drinking straws and foil paper and I would lock myself in my bedroom and make all these little characters. That was just me expressing myself at a young age.”
MacFarlane started volunteering with mas’ bands after quitting school at an early age.
“I was a sickly child, academically challenged and often ridiculed by my peers at school,” said the 1994 King and Queen of the Band world champion who is tied with the late Wayne Berkley for the most T & T Band of the Year titles. “I loved gardening, so my father bought a lawn mower for me. But I really did not want to do that so one day I left home, telling my mom I was going to volunteer my services with a mas’ band. I did that for three years and that’s where I learned about textures, fabrics, colours and designs.”
Two years ago, the T & T government awarded MacFarlane the Chaconia Gold Medal for his significant contributions to arts and culture.
In addition to MacFarlane’s stunning designs, the exhibition at the ROM will feature T & T carnival photographs and an audio visual display.
“This year’s carnival is particularly significant as it coincides with the 50th independence anniversary of Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica,” said ROM chief executive officer, Janet Carding. “Those communities and many more have contributed greatly to enriching the city of Toronto, the province of Ontario and the museum…We hope this exhibition will provide a meaningful look into the historical and symbolical meaning of the festival.”
The exhibition runs from July 28 to February 24, 2013.
By RON FANFAIR