I was talking music with my good friend Victor the other day. Victor, you should know, is Trini to de bone — a walking encyclopedia of calypso and soca who becomes a one-man rhythm section whenever there’s a bottle and spoon within reach, and a one-man winin’ section whenever the music and the mood’s right.
So when Victor talks about Trinidadian music, I listen. On this particular occasion, we were listening to and discussing David Rudder, the man who has taken calypso and soca in so many wonderful and different directions it wouldn’t be stretching things to say he’s practically reinvented the music.
In the middle of our discussion, a Rudder tune came on that I wasn’t particularly keen on, and I said so. Victor’s response was quick and merciless.
“Keep on listening,” he instructed me. “This man’s ahead of all of us.”
I kept on listening.
And listening, and listening, and listening.
Victor, of course, was right.
Since that night, I’ve come to understand and appreciate David Michael Rudder’s brilliance even more — and I’m speaking as someone who’s been a devoted fan since he emerged full steam from the soca pack in the 1980s with Bahia Girl and The Hammer. Rudder, I’ve concluded, has achieved something I would have thought was virtually impossible: he’s taken the music of Sparrow and Kitchener, of the Roaring Lion and Atilla the Hun, of their lordships Melody, Blakie, and Beginner, he’s absorbed and appreciated every note, every word, every nuance, and he’s taken it to new levels, with soaring melodies and words that have earned him the soubriquet “lyrics man.”
Rudder’s musical roots couldn’t be more Trinidadian — he was born in Belmont, Port of Spain, in May 1953, a stroll from the Savannah, the spiritual home of Carnival, and within earshot of neighbourhood steel pan and shango yards. But Rudder’s influences stretch way beyond Trinidad and the Caribbean, and the 20-plus albums he’s recorded over the years have reflected and incorporated everything from jazz to Latin to the African rhythms of Fela Kuti.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rudder’s never hesitated to pay tribute to the musicians he’s admired, frequently while they’re still with us, more often after their passing. To give you just a slight idea of the scope of his musical appreciation, here’s a partial list of the cultural giants Rudder has honoured in song over the years: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, the Roaring Lion, Fela Kuti, Mastife (a legendary Trinidadian stick fighter and “badjohn”), Lord Blakie, Compay Segundo, Ella Fitzgerald, Andre Tanker, Frankie Francis, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzie Gillespie, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lord Melody, Leadbelly, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Growling Tiger, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Scott Joplin, Woodie Guthrie, and the late, great West Indian fast bowler Malcolm Marshall.
Why do this? I asked Rudder recently. His reply was a simple one, disarmingly so: “I just want to say to these guys, just in case no one recognises you, I recognise you.”
Rudder’s body of work has embraced many topics over the decades, and his observations on everything from political chicanery (Panama; The Banana Death Song) to the social woes of his beloved Trinidad (Ministry of Rhythm; The Madman’s Rant) to the indomitable spirit of Caribbean women (Carnival Ooman; Bacchanal Lady; Dougla Woman) to cricket (Here Comes the West Indies; Rally Round the West Indies) to regional and global woes (Jaffa Road; L.A.; Haiti) have been very much in the great tradition of calypso.
To me, though, Rudder’s greatest musical gift has been his ongoing celebration of Trinidad and its people. I’m talking songs like the sublime The Ganges and the Nile, Limbo Break, Calypso Music, Permission to Mash up the Place, Dedication, Long Time Band, High Mas, Song for a Lonely Soul, Dus’ in Dey Face, The Rational Anthem and Trini 2 De Bone. I’m not Trinidadian, but every time I listen to any one of them I wish, fervently, that I were.
Which is one of the reasons I was surprised, to put it mildly, when I heard a couple of years back that Rudder, perhaps the man who has paid more musical homage to Trinidad than anyone in the history of calypso and soca, is living mainly in Toronto these days. How come? I asked him.
The answer, it turns out, couldn’t be simpler. Much as he loves Trinidad, he needed a break. “I was feeling creatively drained,” he told me. “I never got writer’s block, but I was starting to scream inside myself at the country, so I just came here to kind of chill for a while.”
He may be chilling in Toronto, but Rudder’s heart and soul remain firmly rooted in Trinidad, and he still spends a considerable amount of his time there.
But enough from me about David Rudder. He’s the lyrics man, after all, and here, in his own words, are a few of his observations about the Caribbean, about music, and about life in general.
On V.S. Naipaul, the celebrated author whose views on his native Trinidad are often less than positive: “I have a feeling he’s a failed calypsonian. I think that’s what he’s been trying to do all his life.”
On today’s pop charts, both in the Caribbean and internationally: “There’s no subtlety; these kids can’t write.”
On the music he listens to: “Anything that passes by, but I do love Fela and Miles.”
On the Caribbean and its people: “We were brought here on the same ship, but the English-speaking Caribbean does not know what is going on in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and vice versa, or the French-speaking Caribbean. We are looking outwards to different places and at the end of the day all we have is ourselves. The only way a family can be strong is to stay together, regardless of language, race, ethnicity, or whatever.”
On how his music might influence listeners: “People say artists can make a change, but I’m not sure about that. What we can do is suggest, and if it does do something, if one person is moved by it, it is a tiny bit of success.”
Count me as one person who’s been moved by it, David.
Oh, and before I sign off — thanks, Victor.