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MacFarlane on Carnival: Some masmen only want to rake in $$
Major Carnival bandleaders are importing bikini-and-beads costumes at $300 apiece which are being sold to their members for thousands of dollars. Bandleader Brian MacFarlane, who again took the Band of the Year title this year, says unlike some of his counterparts, he is concerned with the creativity and artistic values of the mas, while some of his colleagues are more interested in raking in the dollars from the Carnival.
Q: Mr MacFarlane, your bona fides in the Carnival cannot be questioned, being part of the fraternity for the past 46 years when you began playing kiddies’ mas at age nine. Last week you made what can only be described as a very scathing commentary on the state of T&T’s Carnival.
A: (Seated at a circular concrete table in the yard of his mas camp on Rosalino Street, Woodbrook, Wednesday afternoon) Well, this is an opportunity to clear this statement... (He explained he was approached by the Brazilian authorities to take a 4,000-strong contingent from T&T for that country’s Carnival in 2014, but for several reasons he did not think he could participate even though he is still thinking about undertaking the assignment together with other mas presentations with West Indian flavour around the world).
Clevon, the point I was getting at is, by inviting me they sent me DVDs of their Carnival...over the last 12 years of Rio’s Carnival, and myself for many years thought that their Carnival was a very naked, less clothing and that sort of thing. But after watching the DVDs I was so enlightened and educated that it is incredible costuming….we are no where at the level of Brazil’s Carnival.
Are you prepared to change your mind from last week when you complained that we do not have the greatest show on earth, as our Carnival is being promoted?
Now I definitely think we had the greatest show on earth in the era of Stephen Lee Heung, the old Harts, Raoul Garib, Berkley, Minshall, when their mas told spectacular stories of art and culture in years gone by…
I am gratified that leaders like you are trying to bring back that kind of true mas.
Well, I have tried to, in a contemporary way, but still costuming... So we have lost that and what we had about telling stories by our major bands is no longer there (sceptically). It is bikinis and feathers and even that is getting skimpier and as I say, it is beads going “ching-a-ling, ching-a-ling.” That says nothing; whereas the bands of the past eras spoke about historical events, global situations and so on.
And we do not have that aspect again except for the traditional mas that you still see around, the imps and bats, and even the traditional Indian mas is dwindling a lot. What I was getting at is by looking at the DVDs you see where their costuming is getting more and more grand.
Their costume starts at US$2,500, the winning band gets US$2.5 million, they are given free warehouse with year-round security, and are given incentives to import mas-producing materials.
What I am saying is we need to pay more respect to the creative aspect of the mas; yes we have the vibes, we have the beautiful people...but we are losing the artistic values we once had. That was the point I was trying to make.
Isn’t that surely the onus on you the bandleaders?
(Elbows resting a little uneasily on the hard concrete surface of the table) Clevon, what has happened over the years is that a lot of the newcomer bandleaders are more businessmen than they are artists or creative people, so they realise they can bring in costumes—which I know for a fact, and anybody can tell me what they want, because it has been offered to me and I know for a fact that you can land, in bulk, a costume from China, bikini and beads at $300 (TT).
What about the pricing of your costumes?
I cannot produce a costume below $1,800. I don’t have the ratio that they have. I barely get 1,000 members for my band and sometimes I give away some of my costumes to make the numbers to qualify to be a large band.
You buying drinks to give away too, you still have DJ trucks and your security. So I can’t compete—and I still have been keeping my prices on par with the bikini bands.
You know, I came here to attack you and your other big bandleaders for making a fast buck, but I am hearing a different story from you.
If you have been looking at my work over the years you wouldn’t think so, but go ahead (a cynical grin)...If I had been making a quick dollar why would I be struggling? The business that I have been running year-round has buffered us for nine years. I have a design studio doing malls, Christmas, product launches, I do award ceremonies and the like.
Very well, Mr MacFarlane. There is this perennial talk that Carnival is a billion-dollar business. Where does that money go?
That is a very interesting topic and that is a subject I would like to research myself. There is a friend of mine who brings out a band in Notting Hill Carnival and he showed me statistics how Notting Hill makes money….how the city of London makes money out of the Carnival and not the bandleaders.
Has any survey been done in this connection in our country?
I do not know if any such survey has been done by our Government to see how we actually benefit, because in the discussion money comes in, there is no two ways about it—you have expats coming back, you have the diaspora coming back, foreigners and tourists and of course other incidentals.
But really and truly, how much does the Government benefit from that money? The Government said it spending $90 million this year on the Carnival but how much did it earn out of that outlay? And Clevon, there is a different type of visitors coming for our Carnival today…
The type of tourists we get today are different from what we got in the older days. There was a level of tourists who had more disposable income, an older generation of tourists who came to see the spectacle of the mas, the creativity, the costuming. They would stay in the posh hotels, they would come to see the pre-Carnival shows.
So, Mr MacFarlane, what type of Carnival visitors are we getting today?
(A disappointed countenance) The market we have now, Clevon, is a younger group who are not really interested in that aspect of the Carnival. They are coming for the street party to be as naked as they could, drink as much rum and other alcohol as they could and have a fete. Even the shows at the Savannah, there are dwindling crowds.
So we are looking at Carnival in a counterproductive scenario?
I think it is, I think it is. Because, Clevon, I keep saying, without a culture we are a lost people, and I think Carnival reflects very much what we have become or who we have become. If you look at the Carnival right now it is mostly just beads, saying nothing, nakedness, alcohol; it is very much an emptiness which you see in the society.
Doesn’t this give life to the truism that you give the people what they want?
(Shaking his head in a depressed manner) Yes. And there are aspects to everything and they are saying this is what the people want; but I also think that if the right incentives—just like Brazil has a US$2.5 million warehouse for the free storage of Carnival-producing materials—if some of these incentives could be placed right here, I mean a large band like my own can collect $300,000 as band of the year.
How that ratio could be correct when a man could sing a song for $1 million?
I am returning to these fast dollar-making bandleaders who are raking in the donzai as if it was going out of style.
And as I said to you earlier, there are many large bandleaders who are pure and simple businessmen; they are not interested in the creative aspect of the Carnival. All my artisans are paid, it is not sent out to China. All the other large bands are doing is setting up distribution points.
I could not be compared in that category. So I don’t have the business head to see what money I can get out of the Carnival. I am trying to see what I can inject into the Carnival to keep the art form alive.
Kill you dead, as we would say, you are about keeping our Carnival alive in its purest form?
Yes, there is a big difference between those leaders and me. Unless these other bandleaders can start to think the other way, as right now they are making lots of money because of some kind of fancy trucks which I cannot afford—one of their trucks even had a disco setup playing disco music in our Carnival, which is a disgrace.
I am not having any of that. I am having the Laventille Rhythm Section. I had a band for eight years, but I had to get rid of it because I couldn’t afford a live band.
I guess you would want to see a different type of judging for the major masquerade bands?
Yes. Until we put the right incentives so people can say, “I want to compete for that,” “I am going to put out a better costume,” “I am going to come up with a proper design.” We have to start pre-judging, like what we do with the pan, and send judges a month or two in advance to see what your band is about. Do you qualify to even go for competition?
Mr MacFarlane there is this perennial congestion problem on Carnival Tuesday in particular. Would you support the suggestion for bands to draw for appearances on either Monday or Tuesday instead of fogging up the streets on Carnival Tuesday?
That idea came up some 15 years ago by the then GM of the Trinidad Hilton, William Aguiton, and I started pushing it again last year, and do you know what some people said? “That is not a MacFarlane idea!” See how ridiculous we can get? It is not whose idea it is. But it sounds like a very workable solution. And what harm can be suffered if we at least give it a try out to see if it could work?
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