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Sunday, 14 March 2010

Brian MacFarlane Designer extraordinaire

Master designer and mas maker Brian MacFarlane never professed to be a great academic, nor has he admitted to any formal training for a talent that can only be described as genius. It was only through sheer hard work, determination and love for the arts that MacFarlane is able to enjoy the fruits of his labour today.
He is a self-taught, self-made man who took what was freely given to him by God, and what he learned from others before him to earn four consecutive Band of the Year titles in Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival. 

“I know my talent is very much a God-given one and I consider myself a very connected and spiritual person, a very blessed person because where I am today is not through the assistance of any one person. I struggled on my own. I was accepted to design school at Miami Dade College for Design when I was 19. I was very excited when I got the letter of acceptance and when I took it to my parents they sat me down and said they couldn’t afford to send me, but I didn’t let that keep me back.

“I persevered and I am what I am today through that and God’s grace. I think this is the path I was supposed to live and divine intervention has led me this way and this is where I am today. I am very much self-taught. I bought many books and studied different artists,” MacFarlane said during an interview at MovieTowne, on Tuesday.

In 2007 MacFarlane stole the show with India: The Story of Boyie, followed the next year with Earth: Cries of Despair, Wings of Hope with Africa: Her People, Her Glory, Her Tears bringing an end to the trilogy.

This year he scored a beaver trick with his Mas The Resurrection and he is already planning ahead for 2011. What will next year bring?

“No, I can’t say, but I already have several ideas in my head and I’ve already started planning,” MacFarlane smiled coyly as we probed for a little insight into this artistic mind .

In admitting this, MacFarlane dismissed rumours that he had retired from making mas after having to wait five hours before crossing the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain on Carnival Tuesday. “People are misinterpreting what I said. What I’m saying is that I don’t intend to put myself and my masqueraders through another five hour wait. I think I’ve proven myself with the Summit (of the Americas) and CHOGM and my Carnival bands are very organised... I am willing to sit with the minister or whoever the authorities may be and give free advice. We need to come together, and I am not saying I am the sole one who has the remedy, but it is a complex situation because we have the beads, the old time mas, my band and a few others who do what I do, the steel bands and we want to make everybody happy,” he said.

MacFarlane insisted that mas must return to the savannah. “One of the suggestions I’ve had is that band leaders pull straws to see who would present their mas on Carnival Monday and who will show on Tuesday. That way there is more mas on both days on the streets. If we present mas on Monday then we play mud on Tuesday.

“There should be one or two judging points. They could keep the one at the savannah and maybe the one down town. The others just take up too much time, the time which people could use celebrating life which mas is all about. We need the savannah back because everybody else is going. The pan is going, the calypsonians are going, why not the mas? Let us go back into the savannah so we can present the mas properly to the people,” he said.

MacFarlane began designing mas at the tender age of 15 years after leaving school.

“I was a very sickly child suffering from allergies and I used to get very high fevers and that had me quite backward in school, but I was never academically inclined. I had always loved the arts.

My father was quite irate, but I think a mother always knows what her child would do,” he recalled. After quitting school, the very next day found him at Raoul Garib’s mas camp where he offered his then limited services voluntarily. He worked with Garib for about four years when the designers, impressed with his knack for colours and creativity, put him to work on the king, queen and individuals costumes. The first year his queen, Tiffany’s Treasure, won the Carnival Queen title.

In the early 1990s he did his first king and queen for Carnival in South. The queen came third and the king Prisma Man of Colour actually won by Junia Regrello, who is now junior Culture Minister. The costume drew a lot of attention as the colours in the costume were changed during intermission.

In 1994, MacFarlane’s The Conquest portrayed Anthony Paul from Garib’s band and won King of Carnival. It went on that same year to win the National Carnival King of the World title from among 38 other competitors. MacFarlane also won the Designer of the World title in that competition.

His junior Carnival Queen costume for Roaslind Gabriel’s Exodus , the Power and the Glory won all 17 competitions it was entered in in 2000. All MacFarlane’s kings and queens have placed in the top four places in competitions through the years.

Making mas was not MacFarlane’s only claim to fame as some may know, but many others may not. The little artist in him was not content with just one area of expertise. Oh no, not Mr Talented.

After observing the process of icing a cake, MacFarlane decided that he wanted in on it. “I picked it up by watching a guy ice cakes and I did my sister’s cake a few weeks after. That started a whole career for me doing decors, weddings and wedding cakes. My sister was shocked that I was doing cakes because she had never seen me do a cake before. It was a beautiful cake because in those days you would do these monstrosities with fountains and what not.

“I remember when the cake was brought out and the guests began applauding which was kind of strange because they had sort of bypassed the bride and groom and were applauding the cake. One time a woman wanted me to do the cake for her daughter’s wedding and I had done her (the mother’s wedding cake) and I said the first time I get a granddaughter, it’s time to stop,” he said with a laugh.

“I remember Wayne Berkeley always telling me, ‘Brian, your cakes remind me of porcelain China with the little roses and so on. My work was very delicate and very intricate and I would spend hours and hours of sleepless nights working on wedding cakes. I never made a cake in my life, I just iced wedding cakes.”

It was his wedding cakes display at West Mall in 1984 that started his career as a designer when he described himself as a “one-man show.”

MacFarlane was chief cook and bottle washer and also did the decor for his displays and began the trend of displaying Christmas lights in the middle of the year.

“I remember going to Excellent Stores and I bought all these Christmas tree lights that they brought out of the warehouse. I took out all the lights and just used white and amber bulbs and put them in the ficus trees I had in the mall.

“The next day I heard people laughing and ridiculing the lights because it was June and it was not Christmas. Now everybody puts lights on ficus trees. The mall was impressed by the decorations and they asked me if I would be interested in decorating the mall for Christmas. They asked me to tender and I won the tender,” he said.

Through the years other malls requested MacFarlane’s magical hands for their decor, which led to other corporate events nationally and regionally.

Through the year, MacFarlane played mas with various band leaders up until 2003 when he played with renowned mas maker Peter Minshall.

“The first year I started he played Red. I had a wonderful time, it was very artistic and I loved it tremendously. As a child I always said one day I create a band, I just had to wait until the time was right to do it,” he said.

The right time came in 2004 when Minshall announced that he would not be producing a band that year.

“Everyone was like fish out of water. I got a place to rent on the Avenue. We were not trying to compete with Minshall, but we were trying to keep everybody together because it was already so late, where was everyone going to go? It was just going to be T-shirts and mittens and hearts that said ‘Love You Minshall’and stuff like that when we crossed the stage and we would wave to the crowd and just try to keep people together for the following year. I said we needed to get Minshall’s endorsement, but he said ‘No way’. He would not hear of it, he would not allow it. So I said there was no way that this was going to happen and it just dissolved,” MacFarlane recalled.

He bought a costume from another band, but stowed it away without ever wearing it because he “just was not getting the vibes.”

“I just stayed home lying on my sofa looking at it on television. It was then and there I mad e a decision. I just saw the same orange and pink feathers, the blues and greens, the same thing, the same gyrating over and over and everything was so meaningless and I said look, I have to do something next year. That is where I made my decision, there on my sofa in 2004,” he said.

MacFarlane launched his band The Washing by Fire, by Water on the eve of Independence Day in Chaguaramas with an entire theatrical production and a surprise for his masqueraders.

Led by a black music truck, MacFarlane and his masqueraders, bathed by a full moon, at 2.30 am on Independence Day, took to the streets of Maqaripe..

“It was glorious and I’ll never forget it. That was the beginning and the birth of MacFarlane’s mas. The rest is history now,” he said.

The band went on to cop the Band of the Year medium category title in 2005.

How did it feel having won so many accolades?

“I don’t seem overwhelmed because I just don’t feel I have competition. I would love to have some competition and I am hoping for some new blood to come out and bring some art out on the street. I am hoping that the cycle makes some turn. I am hoping that the people, seeing that over the last 15 years of playing the same beads and bikinis over and over, it’s time to start telling a story expressing themselves a little more. I’m hoping that that change comes around,” he said.

MacFarlane said theatre has always been a part of Carnival with the smaller bands such as the dragon bands, the devils and the imps, but Minshall elaborated on it and brought it on a larger scale.

“This is what I am continuing and which I will continue as long as I do mas. There is nobody else to compare me with, I mean who are you going to compare me with? You can’t really compare me with the ex-Poisons or the Harts or the Tribes, there really is no comparison.

“I’m not trying to sound boastful when I say that, but it’s obvious when you look at the streets and you see what is there. But I’m hoping that people would start to make some change. Some bands introduced a little theatre in their presentations this year which was wonderful to see,” he said.

MacFarlane said many of the bands today showed little or no co-relation among the sections because unlike with older bands that used just one designer for the band, the newer bands had several designers for the various sections.

“There is no consistency with the costumes within the band. Nowadays the bands have 15, 16, 18, 20 designers or so-called designers and artists so no section really relates to each other. Everything is a hodgepodge put together and until we stop that and come back to the true artists creating the band we will always have this hodgepodge. We need to get back to the essence of the art in bringing the bands,” he said.

MacFarlane added that he was impressed by the influx of younger people who played in his band this year, even though his was a band that largely drew a more mature crowd from the Minshall ear.

The designer also said that he did not agree in giving one company the rights for mas coverage. “The more people we have to advertise what we have could get it out to the world in a bigger way. Why shut it down? Everything is becoming a lock down. There is a lock down for pan, we put it into a cow pen now. The kings and queens had to have photo Ids this year. I remember the years when foreign businesses and foreign media would come back stage and take pictures and do interviews. We should be more exposed to the world, but now everything is becoming this lock down and I think that is taking it too far now.

“I know you need the money and the revenue to keep things alive, but I don’t think it has to be every single aspect in this lock down situation. They talk about people not attending the shows in the savannah but I think the shows need to be rejuvenated...A society without a culture is a very empty society and that is what we’re becoming,” he lamented.

MacFarlane said even if the Carnival routes were not changed for next year, he would still present his band.

“It will still be a theatrical, powerful band with a story line and I may just ignore the routes and go on the road where it’s free to play mas. I will announce where I will unfold my band theatrically and I know people will come to see it.

“We must hold true to the mas. After we had trouble with the king and queen this year because of strong winds at the savannah people were calling and saying I would have to put wheels on the costumes, but I said I would not. If we have to go back there next year at 6.30 pm and fall down, then we will because I will remain true to the mas. A mas is supposed to be worn and when you put it on it becomes an extension of the body and it comes alive and speaks for itself and unless I do that I am not being true to the mas,” he said.

Great things are also in store internationally for this talented designer.

He is the artistic director for the Lincoln Jazz Festival in New York to be held in June where the theme would be based on TT’s folk lore. He would also feature his work at the Live Aid Ball in Vienna next year July which is the largest fund raiser for AIDS in the world, and he has been
 invited to do an art installation for the Sarofvski Crystal Museum in Austria in January 2011
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