David Rudder: The Breakthrough

One of the most popular and enigmatic figures in today's calypso, Rudder has chosen a direction that few people expected. Here's what he's aiming for

  • David Rudder. Photograph by Harold Prieto
  • Rudder’s sons, Isaac (left) and Khafra (right). Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Trinidad calypsonian David Rudder. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • In concert with the veteran claypsonian Roaring Lion and Eddy Grant of Blue Wave Studio in Barbados. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Family: Rudder has a close rapport with his two young sons Khafra, 9, and Isaac, 5. He has always made a point of spending time with them and has often brought them on stage with him. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Photograph by Abigail Hadeed
  • Photograph by Abigail Hadeed

No doubt about it. David Rudder has booked his place in the history of Caribbean music since his dramatic debut in 1986.

“Almost overnight David Rudder became a national hero of the order of Marley in Jamaica, Fela in Nigeria and Springsteen in New Jersey,” wrote Daisann McLane in Village Voice when Rudder in his first calypso year captured every calypso title imaginable. “This moment was like Sparrow’s arrival in 1956, like Shorty’s (introduction of) soca in 1974. David Rudder is the first of a new generation of calypsonians and he’s opening up a whole new way to write, sing, feel and see the thing. His music transcends culture, race, and class. You don’t have to be from Trinidad to feel the power and the integrity in it.

Gordon Rohlehr, the Professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies and a long-time calypso analyst, hailed Rudder’s poetic lyrics. Music broadcaster Alvin Daniel said Rudder, like Sparrow, Shorty and Shadow, was responsible for translating the calypso, and its new upbeat form soca, into the musical and lyrical language of a whole new generation.

Rudder’s musical voice seemed destined to grip the world. At least that’s what Trinidadians thought.

David Rudder was born in the Port of Spain suburb of Belmont on May 6, 1953, one of nine children. At the age of one, he suffered from polio, which left one leg damaged. His mother Elsie says she used to cry when boys teased him, and David would comfort her. He spent much of his early childhood with his grandmother, a Spiritual Baptist. He was baptised three times: as a Baptist by his grandmother, as an Anglican by his mother, and as a Catholic when he started school. There, it was art, painting and sculpture that really interested him.

He grew up near a Belmont panyard, constantly echoing with the sound of the steelpans. Also nearby was a Shango yard, one of the many centres of Trinidad’s African-derived folk religion. Both influences colour his music; the chanting of the Shango Baptists is at the heart of his songs. It was a neighbourhood where boys dreamed of being entertainers. Before Rudder started singing as a youngster with a group called The Solutions, he was an apprentice to the late Ken Morris, a master craftsman known for his copperwork and Carnival designs.

In the early days, Rudder acquired a reputation as a back-up singer in the calypso tent run by Lord Kitchener, one of the great legendary calypso singers. For years, he worked behind the scenes in calypso tents and studios, watching the action. He made a living as an accountant with the bus company

Rudder’s first big break came when Christopher “Tambu” Herbert, lead singer with the pioneer calypso band Charlie’s Roots, fell ill after an exhausting tour of Guyana, and suggested his friend Rudder as a temporary replacement. Rudder stayed on as a co-lead singer, and built a reputation for his scintillating performances and for his own compositions. Charlie’s Roots produced and played music for the Carnival productions of the most innovative and controversial Carnival artist Peter Minshall, and Rudder’s music became closely involved with Minshall’s bands.
Long before Rudder established himself in the calypso arena, he was known as one of the few singers who wrote all his own songs. His popularity flowed from his obvious talent and from the radically different image he cultivated of himself as a singer. He did not take a calypso name, and didn’t drink or fraternise much with other calypsonians. “He lives clean,” says Sparrow, calypso’s most successful monarch, who calls Rudder the “heir apparent of the monarch supreme”. “He’s not like most of us who are backstage with a beer or a whisky. He gives good interviews and handles himself well. I can’t find anything about him to criticise.”

Rudder spent much of his spare time reading or being with his children, whom he regularly brought on stage. His first son Khafra, named after the first black Pharaoh of Egypt, was born in December 1984, almost exactly a year after the death of Rudder’s father, an oilfield worker in La Brea in south Trinidad. His second son Isaac was named after the best friend of the character he played in a TV series, Sugar Cane Arrows.

Rudder’s future looked very bright in 1986 when he was crowned Young King, Calypso Monarch and Road March King and wrote the winning Panorama tune. His music was seen as radically different, a new generation. If anyone was going to put soca on the world map, as Marley had done with reggae, Rudder was the man.

But eight years on, Rudder has not made the international breakthrough people expected. He is not on the big-time charts. “Why,” people ask, “didn’t Rudder make it!”

Rudder is aware of the gossip, and is very clear about what he is trying to do. And it has little to do with popular expectation.

“People like me just have to keep on doing what we’re doing,” he shrugs. “Sometimes you know what you’re doing has the capability of becoming top of the line, but you don’t really hope for that, you just do the work. Nowadays, we have a music where someone just needs a microphone and a box to talk over a rhythm track. Why should anyone invest in a music that takes more money and effort to make?”

Rudder recognises the reality of the music business. “In the beginning I tried to establish soca as a world class music. I got myself in a position with people who could make that transition for soca if it were going to happen. But watching how things operate, you realise what is really happening. You go into it naive. Like other people you see a man and think, ‘I can do that.’ But then you realise it’s not about that at all. It’s what the market calls for, the economics. For the record companies it’s also about: if I have a good thing going, why mash it up?”

Rudder says he outlined the whole music situation in his song Feeding Frenzy. “But people missed the point. The song was about the frustration of a little music saying, ‘I good too if you only give me a chance.’ “But as much as I scream, the rock guitar dominates the song.”

Now, Rudder believes soca is a music that will always “quietly sell.”

“That’s the best we can hope for when a people don’t support their music. That’s the best we can do in a society where people become fragmented like this one.”

Rudder thinks of 1986 as “a leap forward and two steps backward”. “The people tried to go forward but they didn’t know where they were going, so they stepped backward. If I had had Bahia Girl any other year, I’m not sure it would have been a road march.”

Rudder’s theory about soca is that after the new consciousness which the black power movement of 1970 brought, Trinidad and Tobago started to reinterpret its own music. “The whole soul thing made people start to feel a different vibe. People began to look inward instead of outward. They mixed soul music with calypso music and a disco beat and that was it. It wasn’t really about party songs. Soca wasn’t about the beat. Calypso was an oratory, how those soul men used to sing with the ‘yeh yeh’ and the ‘woh woh’. It was about singing calypso with a soul feeling. That’s why today you see everyone has a different definition of soca. People have a concept of what soca music is, depending on their own musical experiences during that soul-searching time.”

Rudder’s colleagues have their own theories. “When my thing wasn’t happening and David Rudder was happening I felt sure Rudder would take soca music ‘out there’,” says the six-time Road March King, SuperBlue. “I don’t know why Rudder’s music didn’t go further.”

Robin Foster, the recording engineer who does some of the mixing of Rudder’s tunes, says, “I think maybe David came big on the scene a little late. If David sang Bahia Girl when he was 25, instead of when he was almost 35, maybe things would have been different. But the man is my partner. I’m going down with him.”

McLane has the opposite view. “David came out a little too early to get in on the World Beat thrust: 1986 and 1987 were too early to try and launch that career on the international scene. But I think the most obvious problem was that David had the bad luck of getting hooked up with a record company that didn’t have a clue how to market him.”

In retrospect, Rudder agrees. When he signed a six-year contract with London Records in 1987, he thought the pieces would fit together. Instead, it seems that the company was looking for another version of Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot, soca’s biggest-selling record ever.

“My perception of American record labels is that if they don’t hear Hot Hot Hot, they don’t know what the music is,” says American pannist Andy Narell, who has worked regularly with Rudder. Narell plays on Rudder’s Long Time Band and included Rudder singing his Hammer on a jazz album by the same title, which hit the jazz charts in the US.

“Why David isn’t on the charts is still a puzzle to me,” says Narell. “He is the kind of artist who has the depth and charisma of someone like Marley. He can transcend a lot of boundaries. I’ve seen what he does to an American audience. He really mashes up the place.”

Arrow, who created one of soca’s best-sellers, is defiant. “I think every company is looking for another Hot Hot Hot, and why not? It’s been my passport to success. Rudder was on the same track, giving the world happy, danceable music. He made a surge forward and then he went back. Look at his songs like Haiti and 1990. The non-Caribbean world out there is not concerned with that. They want happy dance music. They want to have a good time.

Arrow insists that Rudder is targeting the wrong people. “He has to make a decision. People want to say he’s the next Bob Marley but Marley’s music was danceable to people outside the Caribbean. The music must transform the people into that kind of world. That’s what the music failed to do after Bahia Girl and Hammer.

Many people are quick to point to the good old days when Rudder and soca’s most successful arranger, Pelham Goddard, pounded out hits together and their musical group, Charlie’s Roots, played them.

“When Charlie’s Roots was at their peak they were like the Beatles of Trinidad. I never understood why David felt he had to pull away. I have yet to be satisfied with David’s music after 1986 and 1987 when Roots were at their peak,” says McLane. “It’s like nobody had the time to really record them together properly and there was David breaking off on his own and recording his own products. People didn’t have time to become familiar with the sound and he was spinning off trying to do more sophisticated things that people didn’t understand.

In 1990 Rudder began to stray from Goddard towards musician-arranger Wayne Bruno. Rudder says that, because of other commitments, Goddard was not available to do an entire album. But consciously or subconsciously, Rudder was leaning towards experimentation, and he remains determined to divide his arranging work between Goddard, who he sees as capturing the old-fashioned calypso drive, and Bruno, who leans towards a pop/rock jazz pot-pourri.

While Goddard begs off commenting on Rudder’s decision, Bruno is one of Rudder’s staunchest supporters. Like Rudder, he is determined not to measure success by hitting the foreign charts. “It’s all a matter of what people mean when they say Rudder isn’t making it. If they’re judging his work artistically – lyrically, musically and personality-wise – I think David has made it. People’s goals might be different from his. They’re probably weighing success in a material sense, or by a massive hit that goes worldwide like Hot Hot Hot. But I don’t know if David would measure success by a Hot Hot Hot rather than a 1990.”

Music critic and editor of the Express Keith Smith, who has closely followed Rudder’s career, says, “I am sick and fed up of people talking about Rudder not making it. When he burst into the limelight in 1986, the wider public did not know who he was. His growth as an artist over the last seven years has been incredible. Had he not made it he would still have been an accounts clerk in the local bus company drawing a monthly stipend and living in government housing. Instead, he is a popular entertainer in the Caribbean, his songs are dissected by university professors, he makes a good living performing around the world.”

“So what do people mean by not making it? If they mean he’s not an international star like Shabba Ranks, say, listen to the two musics and you’ll see why. The problem is not Rudder, but the world. Rudder is a profound class-act. His music is lyrical, musical and danceable – he does not speak to the violent, crass and stupid. That’s the pop world’s loss. The truth is Rudder just keeps on making it.”

The biggest concern people seem to have – making it big on a major record label – is precisely what Rudder has hoped to cut himself loose from.

Two years ago, Rudder quietly severed his ties with London. He now produces his own music along with Bruno. He no longer feels that a contract with a major record company is the vehicle through which an artist “makes it.”

“The person who’s going to make an impact is the person who does new things,” he says, “the person who does what he or she feels. This music is going to be established but on its own terms. I think what happened to Derek Walcott (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992) is part of establishing this music. It helps to focus on the inspiration from this area. I think we have to start focusing our attention differently and thinking of success in different terms. It’s dance, music, literature, painting — art all together. We have to build a whole cultural movement. This whole thing is about people, not charts or money.”

But not all of Rudder’s audience grasped what he was trying to do. When he released The Power and the Glory in 1988, the tide seemed to turn against him. He thinks it was his best album, and one cut from it, One More Officer, is still among his most requested songs in the other Caribbean islands; but at home Rudder faced ruthless criticism.

“That album wasn’t so much about me being positive. It was about me recognising how negative the society is and seeing the beginning of the downhill flow. It was a last thread I tried to pull. And now there’s so much disappointment. We missed a golden opportunity. But I can’t worry about that. I’ve decided I was pampering the society. Now I’m going to call a spade a spade.”

Seven years into his international career, Rudder can count successful tours in Europe, North and South America and Japan. He wrote songs for a Hollywood movie, Wild Orchid, and he’s been featured in Newsweek, Vogue, The Los Angeles Times and other places where calypso never reached.

“I think coming out of a band the way I did, I made a lot of people think that they could be part of that world that calypsonians had exclusively to themselves. I hope I made people realise that although we’re limited in many ways, we don’t have to be mediocre. We can go beyond this point. There’s always somewhere to burst out.”

Among his colleagues and supporters there is endless speculation about his future. “David has found his space and there are so many spaces and not enough people to fill all the spaces available,” says SuperBlue. “There’s still time. I don’t believe David’s time has passed. He has a spiritual feeling that is timeless.” “David still has a lot of untapped talent,” says Arrow. “Out there it’s Sparrow, Rudder and myself. You always hear those names. It’s sad there aren’t more names on the soca bandwagon. Reggae had so many names. With soca, we’re like John the Baptist in the wilderness. Most people are concerned with being a hometown hero. But to progress you have to let go. David is trying to do this.”

“You know calypso is a long-time lifer’s game,” says McLane. “It’s an entertainment genre with an average age which would be considered old in pop culture. What would you say the average age is for those making it right now!? About 45? David just turned 40. By that account, David hasn’t hit stride yet. David is a reservoir. There may be years when it’s not raining too much, but then there will be a flood.”

“I think David’s ahead of his time,” says Bruno. “His success is going to be measured further down the road. I think success is doing what you want and doing it well. He’s not compromising his principles to do what the public wants. He’s uplifted the art form, the country and the people. That’s success. That’s tremendous success.”

“As far as I’m concerned David’s time will come,” says Sparrow.

“It’s a matter of the right pieces falling into place at the right time,” Andy Narell thinks. “It still could happen. David could uproot himself, come to a place like Los Angeles and probably get through. But it’s a big step. I think he feels good about his life. I think he’s not feeling a lot of pressure to make something happen. He’s happy to do the work he’s doing. He has an audience. He can be with his family, be home more in Trinidad. You try to make this big crossover stuff and you have to leave a lot behind. You end up living in L.A. or something like that.”

These days, Rudder just laughs whenever talk of “making it” reaches him.

“You know what” he says. “I don’t care. I don’t have time with foolishness about who like what and who don’t like what. I just do it. I just follow the music.”

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