Wayne Berkeley: the showman

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

  • Queen of Carnival 1975: Joan Massiah portraying the Hawaiian Seafood Cocktail from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Rosemary Stone portraying the Salt and Pepper Shaker from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • An individual of Secrets from the Sky (1973). Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Helen Humphrey portraying an individual from A La Carte. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • A La Carte (1975) parading through downtown Port of Spain. Photograph by Noel Norton
  • Wayne 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

More in our Trinidad Carnival Artists of the Streets series

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