Conversations with two men


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 05 Mar 98

‘Everybody feels they are second class - the Indian, the African, the White, Chinese. Self hatred is rampant. Nobody could hate us like we hate ourselves’


‘But much as I welcomed a break from ‘Charge, Toro Toro’ and ‘Footsteps’ on Ash Wednesday, it saddened me to hear mostly American pop music return to the radio’


I like the type of conversations you can drink deeply from. They are very rare here. Picong you get, flirtatious repartee, eye and hand and arm contact, information you get, efficiently packaged, laughter you get, but the deep red smooth taste of vintage conversation is rare. To have conversations like that you have to speak to people who gulp life down whole. They are the sort of people who are always asking “why?” These connoisseurs of life find answers in books, in people’s eyes, in words, and music, in the sway of a woman’s walk, the toss of a man’s head and whether or not he wears pointy shiny shoes and what it means. And they always have a sense that life is an absurd tragic-comedy which means they dig out humour in almost everything.


I had conversations which two such men. The first was with David Rudder. The second was with my friend Etan Vlessing who is an editor for the Los Angeles-based Hollywood Reporter. The first is an entertainer and the second writes about the entertainment industry. The first is sacred. The second is delightfully profane.


David Rudder I met at the height of the Carnival season, an hour before he was due to go off and sing his High Mas’ in a school in St James. He carries quiet around him like a mantle of latent energy which will be unleashed at full force when he gets on the stage. What struck me about Rudder was that in the height of euphoria and interest in High Mas’ was his overriding sadness about this country.


Etan Vlessing is a friend from university who was much taken this Carnival by Roy Cape and poom poom shorts. Bright, bookish, he has a store of tales to tell accompanied with expressions and gestures calculated to make his narration’s hilarious.


The conversation with these two men was punctuated with the usual pauses, inquiring looks, questions and responses, meandering here and there, the way people do when they enjoy talking to one another. If I reproduce it word for word you will be bored. To spare you I am cutting out all that tiresome stuff of he said, I said, and giving you the kernel of it in the form of a monologue. It may appear to shift haphazardly but what I am reproducing is one side of the conversation - theirs. Drink with me.


David Rudder: Songwriter, performer, artist, music-producer, mentor for many:

“I worry constantly about this country. There is galloping illiteracy which is a mixture of bad planning and bad parenting. There is helplessness and rage all around us and we move from hysteria to hysteria, without doing anything to change it. One month it is rape, another murder; at Carnival pickpocketing and thugs at fetes. All of it exists together and is a manifestation of the hopelessness, poverty and illiteracy which exists all year around. The society’s response is to build higher walls, more guards, more dogs, tinted cars. Not to work towards dealing with the root of the problem.

“People go back to institutions that failed them (schools) and plunder and steal. Kids in junior secondary schools find it hard to catch up, and are left behind. Instead of improving the system to give all the children a chance, the schools put up barbed wire.

“We have lost our humanity. Everybody is getting flakier and flakier. Sex is a meaningless act. The attitude by many men is ‘a baby is none of my business.’ In the countryside you see many people whose eyes are dead. They have lost hope.

“People, even those who are trying to survive somehow, give up easily. Take the Drag Mall where people lost everything in the fire. When they went to insure their property they were told that wooden structures could not be insured. What they didn’t know was that what was inside it could have been insured, but they didn’t even bother to ask. If that fire took place in Westmoorings the response would have been different.

“Everybody feels they are second class - the Indian, the African, the White, Chinese. Self hatred is rampant. Nobody could hate us like we hate ourselves.

“But like I said in my song, devils might come and devils might go, I will never live anywhere else because no one can match our natural energy. I always see good people. There is really no country in the world with the mix of people we have in Trinidad.

“I have a gift, and a calling, and I use it for my people. I have discovered that the more you give the more you get. (I don’t mean that in an economic sense). And there is peace in that. Those people who said High Mas was sacrilegious should come off the pulpit and walk among the people. I always strive for a beautiful thing - it is around us, even amidst the pain and rage, and that is what my music is about .” That was David Rudder speaking.


Etan Vlessing: Journalist, party giver and goer:

“People go to parties to talk about themselves. Their conversation is about how much money they are making, or not making, and how much sex they’re getting, or not getting. They are either about money or sex. Mine are not about money.

“My last party’s theme was ‘Where Art Meets Tarts’. I was aiming to recreate Hugh Heffner’s ‘After Dark’ penthouse parties of the 1950s. Broadcast on television, Heffner’s seemingly ‘impromptu’ parties blended an array of well-known celebrities of the day from the arts and entertainment worlds with a bevy of bunnies. Hef wanted people to believe he was holding round-the-clock parties at his Chicago mansion, where art and conversation prevailed downstairs while sexual shenanigans - games (goyesche naches) took place upstairs - well off-camera, of course.

“ ‘When Art Meets Tarts’ was billed as a penthouse party. As guests walked in they were confronted with the sight of an artist painting a nude (voluptuous blonde on a divan, a la Goya) model behind glass. In a country where people are reserved, it broke all barriers. Suddenly everyone from the agent and actress to the insecure writers, wanabees and wannasees, after pressing their noses against the glass, began talking freely to one another. The effect was transcending:

“The evening was much like the film and TV industry as a whole, a circle game in which actresses and actors chase directors for parts; directors chasing producers to finance their projects; producers chasing potential investors; and investors chasing actresses. It simply ended with them chasing skirts.

“It really is a game: for all their chasing, few catch their dream. But few give up the chase. Hollywood is a dream factory. For players on the inside, it’s about chasing success and stardom. And for most everyone else on this earth who stares bug-eyed at US films and TV programming, Hollywood holds out the lure for the little guy with no education or the wherewithal to raise himself up in life. If he watches a Hollywood blockbuster, and buys Nike trainers, then maybe, just maybe, he too will be a rich celebrity chased by paparazzi.

“I have a fashion show in mind for my next penthouse party in June. I will expect the designers to don their own clothing creations on the catwalk. Listen, if the clothes aren’t good enough for the designers, they certainly won’t be good enough for my party-goers. And I’m considering having the designers be led along with a make-shift chain around their necks held by nude models leading the way. My statement: even designers are fashion victims!

“Of course, Trinidadians need no advice about throwing parties. I was really impressed by the Carnival: the bands, the pan, the soca and calypso. It’s rare to see a whole country take part and revel in one entire celebration. But much as I welcomed a break from Charge, Toro Toro and Footsteps on Ash Wednesday, it saddened me to hear mostly American pop music return to the radio airwaves here. Trinidadians need to listen, watch and support their indigenous culture the year round, not just on holidays, religious and music occasions when expected. National cultures are a fragile thing. They need nourishment at the roots, or they wither. Carnival, which has taken generations to evolve and prosper, could just as easily in a lifetime become a mere trick bag of cultural artifacts that Trinidadians dip into once a year to enjoy. It ought to, and must, remain a shared cultural experience.

“Canada, my home, similarly faces the challenge of maintaining its identity in the face of the dominant American culture flowing in from the south. Our best artists, like your own, flock to New York and Los Angeles in search of their fortune - and who could blame them? They know that they can only survive at home, but possibly prosper by producing for an international market that begins in the US.” Etan Vlessing.


That is a faithful reproduction of two conversations, one which took place before Carnival, and another after. Make what you will of them. Cheers.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur