Christopher Cozier and singer/songwriter David Rudder recently hosted a talk session about their 1997 art project The Madman’s Rant. Interviewed by Shereen Ali, Rudder and Cozier talk about Trinidad, art and life after the 1990 coup attempt: Are things any better now? Ali reports:
At one point it seemed like a real madman had stolen a rant at last Tuesday’s talk event of artist Christopher Cozier and singer/songwriter David Rudder. The event was a public talk session about The Madman’s Rant arts project between Cozier and Rudder in 1997, hosted by the mas camp band Vulgar Fraction and the experimental arts collective Alice Yard at the Granderson Lab in Belmont.
In the flow of the talk, a random man who found himself there by accident suddenly spoke a humour-spiced verbal stream, which was clearly deeply felt. He spoke of policemen running their own drug blocks, citizens who couldn’t save themselves and who fight each other because they had no sense of their own shared history, the miseducation of youth who are taught history from the colonisers’ point of view rather than from the view of Caribbean freedom fighters, and a pervasive ignorance sweeping Trinidad. He said that writer VS Naipaul had long identified how disturbed we all are as a people: “We mad. We disturbed. And we have to accept that. I disturbed! I come from the plantation!” he exclaimed, to people’s affectionate laughter.
Rudder’s calypso “The Madman’s Rant,” from his 1996 album Tales From A Strange Land, strikes a chord today with the same relevance it did 22 years ago. It may carry extra punch now that Trinidad’s violence seems so out of control, with almost 70 murders since the year began. These days, gangsters no longer wait for you in the street. They drive to your home and shoot you dead right there.
When “Madman’s Rant” first came out, its anger at injustice and corruption and its lament for the lost generation of boys who had graduated into violent thug life stirred many Trinidadians, including Cozier. It inspired him to create art as a response. But where to start? He contacted Rudder and they decided to collaborate.
Done on smaller panels joined together, the final artwork is sprawling, graphic, and schizophrenic, crackling with motion and tension, and punctuated by graffiti and unsettling visual allegories. It was mounted on a white wall behind the two men as they revisited the project. Strains of “The Madman’s Rant” calypso played at the start and close of the event on a small boombox.
“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, every time he would sing it, he would add new elements… The topicality of it captured that moment in time of the mid-1990s, what writer Wayne Brown called ‘Trinidad AB – After Bakr’.” (Abu Bakr, a black Muslim extremist, led the 1990 coup attempt in Trinidad).
The 1990s were a time of turbulence and change: an attempted coup, a collapsed multi-ethnic coalition party (the National Alliance of Reconstruction); the election of the country’s first Indo-Trini Prime Minister in 1995, after 39 years of Afro-Trini prime ministers; and underneath it all, a society rippling with big economic inequalities and other divisions despite the island’s oil wealth.
Cozier’s vision of The Madman’s Rant is full of fractured human figures and urgent, gestural marks, with symbols rubbing up against each other in startling, jarring ways – a heart, a gun, the T&T flag as a bandit’s mask, a dead Christ-like foot with a Nike toe-tag, and scribbled confessional handwriting, for instance.
In one part of the painted drawing, a black, red and white coral snake insinuates itself around the figures of two schoolchildren; a phallic gun barrel points at the heart of a shirtless brown youth whose limbs seem to be spinning in some kind of distorted death 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 message, we don’t know. It’s 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.
Cozier and Rudder talked about how they collaborated. They visited each other over a six-month period, talking and exchanging ideas. Cozier said he would draw on small pieces of paper, to make the whole work portable. Rudder made marks on the paper as well. Cozier would take long walks through specific parts of Port of Spain to look at things – a route familiar since childhood when his parents would give him 10 cents to go buy a drink: “I’ve watched the city evolve and change.”
“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 that at one 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 finally getting somewhere, that he had permission to go further with it on his own and complete it.
Rudder, about his own song’s creative process, said: “The turning point for me was Basdeo Panday.” (Panday was prime minister from 1995 to 2001.) 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 figure 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/regret of the grand, Federation of the West Indies idea to the smaller idea of nationhood – “the idea of nation as compromise.” It was like an implosion of possibility, or an expulsion from an Edenic ambition.
In the artwork Madman’s Rant, Cozier plays with the idea of politicians as tricksters making mischief in the land. It’s a visual riff off Rudder’s own look at the same issue in song: promises of political salvation on the one hand, and realities of injustice, betrayals, and entrenched corruption on the other.
David Rudder confessed he would wonder about the art: “Where is he going with this?” But Rudder was happy to collaborate, and said: “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. It’s strange how life imitates art.”
Rudder shared a little 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, and 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: “Mad Mack was a template – he never said these words, but he would have said these kinds of things”.
“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…”(into what, he doesn’t say).
The vividness of Trinidad language is part of Rudder’s creative wellspring. He remembered being struck hearing someone say during Carnival time: “You see me, I gonna wine like I never christen!”
Rudder at one point reflected: “I think Trinidad is a place where we don’t have a concept of what rock bottom is. ‘Oh, you reach rock bottom.’ No, we ent know bout dat. So things like this work here (Cozier’s art) keep us remembering that we have to hit rock bottom sometime. And when that happens, what are we going to do?”
An audience member with a grey goatee beard quipped: “You may not rise up from rock bottom – you could drift, and go horizontally!”
Questions from the audience proved interesting and took the conversation in different directions. Rhoda Bharath noted that perhaps most of us in T&T are “unwell,” saying: “If we are not aware of mental trauma, how can we fix it? …Look at societal corruption. Lots of people don’t think of themselves as corrupt, even though they are part and parcel of the corruption that is taking place here… Clearly we are not normal. So maybe we should start from our condition of abnormality.”
To which Rudder responded: “I try to just keep a clear head and do the work.” In other words, the best way to fight injustice or social madness might be to stay focused, hone your own skills, and contribute in the best way that you are able to work.
Rudder gave an example of how distorted some people’s perspectives can be, without even realizing it: he said after releasing Madman’s Rant, a man actually took the time to dress himself, take a taxi and visit him one day to say: “I came to defend Nike.” He just didn’t get the song.
Cozier commented that for him, the 1990 coup was traumatic because he had to drive around on Friday night and Saturday morning, hearing shootouts. So living in Port of Spain after the 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….” Twenty-four people died in the coup.
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, looting.”
Larry, on youth violence in the 1990s and today, believes: “The parents have failed, and it starts from young. It’s like parents are afraid of punishing their children.”
Larry later said he believed people of his parents’ generation, born in the 1920s and 1930s, did not really care about history because they did not want to know about a past that to them was too terrible and degrading to remember. Then in the 1970s, he said, there was a different, more brash generation influenced by Black Power, which some older folks didn’t understand.
Rudder reflected on some national personality changes. He said in the time of cricketer Frank Worrell (1924-1967), the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team, there were calypsonians like Lord Executor, Growling Tiger and Roaring Lion, all trying to be more British than the British. Then in the post-Independence times, there was brash Garry Sobers, and in kaiso, a brash Mighty Sparrow. Then came the glory days of West Indies cricket from the mid-70s to the early 90s, when the West Indies team was unbeatable. And later, in calypso, the era of jump and wave came, and never really left, he said, adding: “Everything falls into patterns. If you don’t know your history, you have no foundation.”
The optimism inside this grim but fascinating artistic “ole talk” lies in the chorus to Rudder’s “The Madman’s Rant” lyrics:
“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 we’re still not ready to do it.” That means, he said, taking that leap of faith, that chance that things can get better, and doing the necessary work to rebuild the society, so that when we look in the mirror of our art, it pleases us rather than making us want to smash the mirror, or the mirror-holder.
[An original version of this article was published in the TT Newsday.]