David Rudder and Christopher Cozier talk about Trinidad, art and life
after the 1990 coup attempt. Are things any better now?
By SHEREEN ALI. First published in Newsday newspaper, February 2018, and later reposted on Repeating Islands culture blog site (https://repeatingislands.com/2018/02/21/the-madmans-rant/). The story reports on some highlights of a conversation between two artists and interested citizens about the trauma of the 1990s in Trinidad, beset by high crime, thug life, an attempted coup, and moments of societal madness.
“You know, I have a special relationship with madmen. I would talk to them in their own way,” says Trinidadian singer-songwriter David Rudder. He was talking at a special event called Madman’s Rant about the creative process of his famous 1996 calypso by the same name, a song which inspired artist Christopher Cozier to respond with visual art of his own in the 1990s. Touching on issues as relevant today as they were 22 years ago – youth violence, gang culture, and a society being rotted from within by its own corruption and warped values – it attracted a small, keenly interested audience of about 40 people last Tuesday night (February 6, 2018) at the Granderson Lab in Belmont, Port of Spain.
Mas camp band Vulgar Fraction and the experimental arts collective Alice Yard hosted the event which saw two of Trinidad’s leading artists in different media - calypso and conceptual visual art – in a rare (for Trinidad) collaboration.
When Madman’s Rant first came out, its lament for the lost generation of “gold-teeth” boys being killed by their participation in thug life deeply stirred many Trinidadians, including Chris Cozier. It inspired him to create art as a response. But where to start? He contacted Rudder and they decided to collaborate. They conversed for six months, on and off, until the art was committed.
The final painting is sprawling, graphic, and schizophrenic, crackling with motion and tension, and punctuated by graffiti and unsettling visual allegories. Cozier’s vision of The Madman’s Rant is a provocative work of art, part of Cozier’s Migrate or Medal/Meddle series which addressed issues of colonialism, oppression, development and migration of Caribbean peoples.
“I was obsessed by this song,” said Cozier. “What increased my obsession was when David would sing this song in live performances at Moon Over Bourbon Street in the mid-90s, and often add new elements each time… The topicality of it captured that moment of the mid-1990s, what writer Wayne Brown called ‘Trinidad AB – After Bakr’.”
The 1990s were a time of turbulence and change: an attempted coup, a collapsed NAR multi-ethnic coalition party; the election of the country’s first Indo-TT Prime Minister in 1995, after 39 years of Afro-TT prime ministers; and underneath it all, a society rippling with big economic inequalities and divisions despite the island’s oil wealth.
In the artwork Madman’s Rant, symbols and ideas ideas rub up against each other in startling, jarring ways to capture some of the feelings of that time – the T&T flag as a bandit’s mask; a dead Christ-like foot with a Nike toe-tag; scribbled confessional handwriting and megaphone propaganda. In one part, a black, red and white coral snake insinuates itself (dangerously?) around the figures of two schoolchildren. A phallic gun barrel points at a huge heart symbol on a shirtless youth whose limbs are spinning in a distorted dance as he tries to dodge the bullet of his fate: he’s moving, but going nowhere. The words “Vote for we” emerges from a megaphone at far left, while at far right, a huge ear seems to listen, but to what messages, we don’t know.
“For me it was nerve-wracking interpreting David’s song… (because) I am unmusical and dyslexic… at times David, to me, became very uncomfortable, like the art was getting too grim, too claustrophobic,” recalled Cozier.
“I later started owning it myself, playing around with it more,” he added. Then Cozier remembered at some point, Rudder looked at the evolving work and snickered, saying: “Like it’s getting more absurd. It now have kaiso in it.” Which meant, for Cozier, that he was getting somewhere.
Rudder, about his own song’s creative process, said: “The turning point for me was (former PM, 1995- 2001) Basdeo Panday.” Rudder remembered one night, Panday was on TV saying: “The PNM is trying to block us! Brothers and sisters, we have Plan B!” It made Rudder think about the idea of a politician as a trickster figure or “some smartman” who “always have some second plan.”
“Plan B” as a concept meant entirely other things for Cozier – the abandonment of the inspiring Federation of the West Indies idea to the smaller idea of nationhood – “the idea of nation as compromise,” which for Cozier was like an implosion of possibility. So in the artwork, Cozier plays with the idea of politicians as tricksters making mischief in the land as a visual riff off Rudder’s look at the same issue – but in a different way.
“In some ways, it (the art) is more intense than some of the lines in the song…. We are in a worse place now than we were then,” said Rudder.
Rudder shared some of his own songwriting process. He said for Madman’s Rant, he started with the idea. And then he’d just listen to people, how they spoke, what they said, their vivid language, and just absorb everything. He got the idea of a madman figure from an eccentric character he met called Mad Mack who used to hang out on Belmont Valley Road, fighting imaginary wars with miniature invisible soldiers on the road, who he’d stoop down and collect into a bottle when the night’s rants were done.
“Almost everything I’ve written … it’s all a connection, you know, Welcome to Trinidad (2017), Jammetery (2018), Behind The Bridge (1996)….it comes from a tradition of the constant flow of life as we spiral…” (spiral into what, he did not specify).
Rudder at one point reflected: “I think Trinidad is a place where we don’t have a concept of what rock bottom is… So things like this art work here keep us remembering that we have to hit rock bottom some time. And when that happens, what are we going to do?”
So perhaps the coup years were not Trinidad’s absolute rock bottom, but they were still disturbing times. Twenty-four people died in the coup.
Cozier commented that for him, living in Port of Spain after the 1990 coup felt weird, and a little mad: “I would drive through an intersection and suddenly get a flash of sense memory, like shoes in the road…”
A dreadlocked Larry from the audience contributed: “I was part of the madness at that time… It was like people went into a different zone … It was the worst I have ever seen my people…. I watched the fires starting one by one … I said to my common-law wife –‘Look how they burning my city’ … But not long after, all over, people just come out like ants, snatching and grabbing stuff.”
Despite the grimness and insanity of some of our 1990s history, the chorus to Rudder’s The Madman’s Rant yet offers hope: “Ah hear a madman bawl / as he spread out on a wall / He say, ‘This is it, this is it, this is it, I've been hit! / No time to give up brother, no time to quit!"
Rudder commented: “Inside of the insanity, this madman is saying something. He is saying truth. It’s no time to quit. All of us who want better for the country have to deal with the stark reality” – and get to work rebuilding a Trinidad we prefer.
From right, multimedia/visual artist Christopher Cozier and calypsonian David Rudder talk about The Madman’s Rant art project at the Granderson Lab in Belmont on Tuesday, February 6, 2018.
Cones of influence, a detail from the 1997 Cozier/Rudder art project Madman’s Rant.
This Nike toe-tag on a youth’s dead foot echoes lines from Rudder’s song The Madman’s Rant: “The mortuary full with little Trinidad boys / A bullet start to whine and put an end to their joy / Now they lying tall for dey Mama to mourn / Dey Nike gone, dey gold teeth gone”.