Simple as plain water.
“A man’s passion
could be a flat white stone in the river.”
That remark by Trinidadian poet
Mervyn Taylor in a recent chat about mas, pulls
me in like a compelling storyteller.
That’s because I’m
mulling over events that spanned 24 years since
an opportune visit to the Los Angeles home of
Rudolph Charles – The Hammer himself,
the headstrong leader of Desperadoes on Laventille
hill. He migrated there to be with family,
but the development of pan had always been his fire.
The Carnival over, he’d be in chilly LA engaging
himself in various aspects of the art – tuning,
inventing, metallurgy (the technique of working
with metals) and forming relationships with drum
Come to realize a tossed stone
skipping along the surface before descending as
metaphor would create concentric rings – wavelets
that would riffle outward, away from, say, the politics
of the era.
Dr. Eric Williams
Consequently, Prime Minister
Dr. Eric Williams’ passion was a dear friendship
with the Hammer.
The Hammer’s fetish was
a strong kinship with the people on the hill.
The hill’s obsession was
the national powerhouse in St. Ann’s.
A love triangle of sorts, each
of the three had a natural association with the
other two, life operating on different planes yet
in synchronicity. And it was all there in
a shoe box under the bed.
An American man and I were chatting
with Rudolph in the living room when, an hour into
the conversation, the Desperadoes leader called
out to his wife, Carol, to bring him the box.
It came to us as a wee vault that likely held the
BIG mystery of the culture’s Nativity.
Instead, it was stashed with letters and documents
from the prime minister, some of them in his handwriting,
all addressed to Rudolph Charles.
But, why me? Rudolph had
told family and close friends that he would die
young, like his father, Sydney Charles, who passed
away in his mid-40s. So his soul had to have
seen the signs.
My American friend, Rick Powell,
would later establish the moment as a deliberate
move to push history my way. It may be difficult
to know the inside of a man, but each print or television
interview I had with Rudolph left the door increasingly
“Go through the box,”
Rudolph said, swinging the door wide with no lack
of subtlety. “Read whatever you want.”
By then, the mood in the room
had mellowed, at variance with the animated spirit
that greeted us in the white noise outside a small
house with a miniature pool in Inglewood.
“I’m so glad you
came,” he’d said. “When
you go back, tell them Rudolph Charles don’t
live in a big house with a big swimming pool like
a few foolish people say. Tell them the truth.”
He was sensitive to “the
jealousy” of the handful on the hill that
decried his post-Carnival “abandonment”
of the band for the glamour of LA. Rudolph
countered that he was an indefatigable operative
in the band, home or abroad. And he’d
always delegated responsibility to others on the
hill. The lowdown would also explain his sanctuary
in America, where he sought inner peace and gathered
knowledge about people, life and the arts.
It was his boast that he could hold his own carrying
on a conversation with anyone, including the prime
After settling in, we watched
as he resumed tuning a quadraphonic, a lower register
double second he co-invented with Bertie Marshall.
He hobbled around the pans, two up and two down
hanging on a rack. A few months earlier in
downtown Port of Spain, he was almost down for the
count when a driver ran into him and rolled over
a leg. He was already dueling with diabetes,
now he had to fight the fact that an ordinary man
had found his Achilles’ heel. The accident
further eroded his image as pan’s Superman.
“I wanted to cuff him down,”
Rudolph said, “but I couldn’t get up.”
Powell, who grew up in the Bronx,
had picked up Rudolph’s rep from Trini friends.
They referred to him as a badjohn, and so he stiffened
at Charlo’s gall. But Rudolph wasn’t
a bad man. He was a fierce leader.
“One minute he’s
showing his genius and the next he’s trying
to live up to the badjohn reputation of the old
days,” Powell said later about the duality. “It
seemed to be more important to maintain that image
as opposed to being recognized as one who had legitimately
made contributions to the instrument.”
Powell didn’t connect to
the essential emotions of the human condition: terror,
rage, agony, euphoria, compassion, determination.
Much more be in gear with Rudolph’s mountain
of trouble up the hill. Much less assess that
mountain of mail from St. Ann’s right there
in our laps. And that’s elusive when
you’re not born a Despers, as I was –
Franklyn Ollivierra of Phase II being a neighbour.
But Rudolph was older than us
so we never crossed paths growing up on St. John
Street, a small jog from the “panyard.”
You could tell he knew. One night, during
an on-camera interview, amid the babel of notes
spilling into the dark known as coasting, I bristled
at his distress that I was an All Stars player.
“I never could understand
it, how you could be a Despers and play with that
Charlotte Street band,” he said, knowing full
well that our leader, Neville Jules, grew up on
So I couldn’t decipher
this new head he was pushing at his modest home,
goading us up that mound of mail.
I recall in those letters the
art of the Doc’s prose, even as he made reference
to one of his ministers about a problem in the community
that the Doc and Rudolph had chewed over in his
A welfare project for panists
and the underprivileged that provided employment
relief, nevertheless appeared to me as a short-term
response to Rudolph’s appeal for self-sufficiency
on the hill. But I didn’t live there.
Another letter addressed his
proposal for pan’s upward mobility, accelerated
growth, its inventions and funding sources.
Mind you, not only for Desperadoes, per se, but
also for the heritage of the people. Rudolph’s
universal approach didn’t escape me.
After all, he had stifled arrogance when he sought
to change the band’s fighting image by emphasizing
its music, relying on tuners from other bands such
as Ellie Mannette, James Jackman, Emmanuel Riley,
Lincoln Noel, Bertie Marshall and Tony Slater.
He became a better tuner because of that cadre’s
odd mixture of old school and new school.
Also in the dossier, a pilot
program – a document for social change –
built for Desperadoes so other bands could imitate,
and another that tackled the sponsorship issue,
which was spurred by Rudolph’s budget for
the band’s operating expenses. He wanted
to rename the band to appease potential sponsors
but the Doc dispelled the idea. Instead, Rudolph
prefixed the festive designation “Gay,”
for the short-lived Gay Desperadoes. Coca
Cola snapped up the band, but a year or so later
was replaced by West Indian Tobacco.
The mid-60s marking the beginning
of a new era, revolutions fired up everywhere.
So what if the document revealed that a few state
companies would put a hand! That’s so the
private sector could follow suit and spread sponsorship
across the land. All of which made for a good
read, those social programs playing out in a growing
capitalist economy, the oil boom about to blow through
In 1970, Rudolph advised the
PM to establish a partnership among bands to build
instruments. So the Doc met with pan leaders
to foster its formation.
In 1979, during a steel band
boycott for a bigger Panorama windfall, Rudolph
delighted Savannah patrons by leading Desperadoes
on stage Carnival Tuesday. His refusal to
participate led him to believe the band faced alienation
from Pan Trinbago, jeopardizing subsequent festivals.
The PM was willing to hold Desperadoes’ hand
because he held the aces, the kings, queens and
Responding to my voyeurism of
his private collection, Rudolph framed his reverence
to the writer, thus:
“That’s a great man,”
he said. “Pan’s where it is because
of him. But you know our people. Instead
of propping him up they try to bring him down.
We don’t like anybody to know how great they
are.” Were he to bow and say instead ‘how
great thou art’ about the PM, I’d have
The see-you-later, catch-you-at-carnival
moment was rubbing up against us, and Rudolph stretched
it out to say to me: “Now you know where it
is, then, so anytime you want to refer to the history,
then, it’s right here.” A peculiar
habit, that, punctuating his discourse with “thens.”
Then again, it seemed to define him as the man to
seek out in a crowd of conversationalists.
But there would be little time
for such opportunity to develop. Within months,
on March 29, 1985, Rudolph left the noisy hill in
a hush. He was 46. Desperadoes called
for a eulogy. I don’t attend funerals
and declined. The band insisted.
My salutation included the following
bit: “It is not without significance that
Rudolph Charles died the same day and month as Dr.
Eric Williams, for both leaders had successfully
bridged a class and culture gap, as correspondence
between them can attest. Of course, for the
most part, the subject matter was about Mr. Charles’
efforts at elevating the culture of The Hill as
well as the culture of pan.”
With the aura at the church befitting
the death of a general, those letters galloped through
my head. A film would be important for historical
considerations. Barely a week later, on April
10, 1985, a proposal arrived at West Indian Tobacco,
the band’s sponsor. Rudolph’s
wife, Carol, and brother, Lennox, assented to the
project. The elders of Desperadoes endorsed
the script’s treatment and outline; however,
WITCO counted on the band to vet the undertaking.
Eventually, the venture spirited
away. WITCO’s proposed financing waived
payments to the hundred or so members of the band –
which was required of me by the elders – whether
or not any of them would be involved in the filming.
That left me as sole cashier. The response
stunned but didn’t surprise.
Hear Rudolph in a television
interview with me in 1984: “Despers is the
entire community. It’s an amalgamation
of people that gets together to support the band.
When you speak about Laventille, you speak about
Despers. Everybody thinks they’re Desperadoes …and
are entitled to all benefits free, then. Some
would say they go to prison for Despers; some would
say they fight for Despers; some push pan.
But they never pay [to play mas with the band.]
Nothing you could do about it because it’s
their belief, then, that they are Desperadoes and
are entitled to such benefits.”
A few months ago, I reached Carol
Charles in Los Angeles, to resurrect the spirit
but she couldn’t locate the shoebox or the
letters. Twenty-three years. Enough
time for history to slip through the cracks of everyday
I turned to Erica Williams-Connell.
With luck, copies of her father’s correspondence
might be on display at the Eric Williams Memorial
Collection at the University of the West Indies.
Nothing there. Understandably, the Desperadoes
connection would be a boon to the collection, so
Erica’s hoping for a breakthrough.
Shortly after her father was
installed chief minister in 1956, when Erica was
5, the family received a tip about a plot to harm
“It was the steel band
that said no,” she says.
Well, it was the Marabuntas.
They were locked in a protracted conflict with their
neighbour, Desperadoes. At least, to the hill,
the threat provided breathing room for residents
when Marabuntas “became working friends for
Despers,” as Diane Dupre put it. Dupre
is president of the Desperadoes Elders Organization.
She had been a secretary for political affairs to
Harking back to her father’s
upbringing, Erica gives credence to his association
with a steel band man.
“He was from the grass
roots,” she says. “He was the
son of a minor postal clerk who had 12 children.
They lived on Dundonald Street. He was selling
his mother’s cakes and pies around the corner.
So he’d have understood what Rudolph Charles
would do to raise the consciousness of our indigenous
culture. They had an exceedingly close relationship.”
on stage for panorama in the Queen’s
Dr. Williams' interest in steel
band was a vital part of the process by which Trinidad
transformed itself starting in the late 1950s, says
Arnold Rampersad, a professor of humanities at Stanford
University in California, USA.
“He convinced us that the
dreams he encouraged could become reality.
But the convincing ran in both directions, and here
steel band was crucially important.
“Dr. Williams’ keen
interest in steel band was not fake or tactical.
As he assured us that he knew where he wanted to
take us, the music and its creators assured him
that we already possessed the potential for transformation.
The result was a pact between a leader and his people
that was built on a deep and solid foundation.”
So, how did the two leaders hit
it off? I searched the hill for point of view.
In those days, Rudolph would
leave the panyard – and just so go down by
the Doc, says Anthony McQuilkin, treasurer of Pan
Trinbago and a Despers bassist.
“It amused us, because
knowing Rudolph, we could just see him [at Whitehall] – ‘The
boss inside?’ And then he’d walk right
in. We could only imagine what they discussed.
For example, in August, 1966, the Doc sent Despers
to Tobago, not the Police Band, to participate in
Independence Day celebrations. [Further, Despers
cashed in on its success by staging concerts in
Africa, North America and elsewhere during that
“Maybe Dr. Williams saw
himself in Rudolph, a man of daring and vision,”
McQuilkin says. “Rudolph took a band
that was only famous for fighting and changed it
around – took it to the pinnacle of steel
For sure, his decision-making
transformed Desperadoes into a glamour band.
And, of course, the Doc was never out of the loop.
“Then the big shots came
on board because of the band’s relationship
with the Doc,” McQuilkin says. “Leaders
before him didn’t come to these areas, and
this one was championing the rights of the poor.”
Diane Dupre concurs. Politicians
looked at Laventille as a voting cow. “Over
the years, none of the representatives of the area
were ministers,” she says.
With the passing of Dr. Williams
and Rudolph Charles, the hill deigned to beg ministers
to drive up Laventille’s spine to see for
themselves. Morris Marshall was the only one
who saw their plight, according to Dupre. “He
knew the people, the psychology.”
Dupre still hangs on to the glory
years when the Doc, Charlo and the hill had that
love triangle thing for each other. Rudolph
looked to the elders, particularly Wilfred “Speaker”
Harrison, George Yeates and Donald Steadman, all
of whom instilled in him the courage and ability
to keep the hill together. What they forged
was an original leader, a man who would give orders
without following any.
When Rudolph arrived at the PM’s
office he looked like he came out of a minefield,
Dupre remembers. He wore American military
fatigues, jungle boots and a few accessories of
the infantryman – a green towel slung over
the shoulder, unkempt hair and beard. Laventille’s ‘Che.’
“He was seeking commercial
ventures and sporting facilities for the hill,”
Dupre says. “We used to go downtown
for everything. That’s why they put
a gas station up there. They also spoke about
his pan inventions, schools and shops, the news
on the hill, whose grandmother was sick, whose child
was misbehaving, who needed a house. The conversations
were wide and varied. He had that access.
Then they would tell me it’s time to leave,
and they continued their conversation.
“I think they saw themselves
as father figures to people needing guidance –
the father of Laventille getting advice from the
father of the country. Dr. Williams would
tell me, ‘That boy has no respect for me.’
Rudolph was not afraid of him. He’d
say, ‘I ruling the hill and he ruling downtown.’ ”
Rudolph would recant his behavior
and be nice at the next tete-a-tete, because life
wasn’t scripted like the movies – with
rehearsals and re-shoots and stylish lines and stunts
that stretched the jaw. Maybe that was the
key. The hill, personified through the yin-yang
man, engaging the Doc in his own office.
“Dr. Williams admired that
Rudolph stood up to him and teased him. He
lived vicariously through Rudolph,” Dupre
says. “[The relationship] was not boring.
No minutes, no reports, no trade unions. It
was a relief – and exciting, too. Rudolph
would tell him I went out and cuff two people last
Rudolph has been known to cuff
players for infringements, like beating the thin-skinned
pans out of tone. And if the Doc craved other
drama, he’d certainly have been regaled by
the zeppo about Rudolph and the Picton Fort.
How he “seized” it and called himself
Geronimo. Ma Georgie saved the day.
His mother, Georgiana Charles, a PNM Women’s
League member and Laventille elder, never went out
without her handbag, hat and umbrella. Donning
her hat, the fort became a serious matter.
“The [panists] found relaxation
in the movies, which influenced their lives,”
Dupre says. “When he strode through
town with Thunderbolt Williams, the wrestler, some
people saw him as an enforcer. But he developed
his own persona.”
Legend carries that Rudolph toted
a titanic ego, which boomed louder than the basses
he tuned. Yet, there was another lifestyle.
Laid-back, like Gian Maria Volonte who played the
dreaded Indio against Clint Eastwood in For a Few
Dollars More (1965). No, it’s not a
stretch to entwine The Hammer’s debonair mood
with an unflinching panyard mettle, the way Volonte
took to Indio.
Neither could you not compare
him to Despers mas man “Speaker” Harrison,
who had an insatiable appetite for knowledge –
well-read in the arts, law, politics and world affairs.
Rudolph was “Speaker” in that cerebral
“He brought that freshness
to the PM’s workday,” Dupre says. “Took
his mind off the cares of the political. So
he would take in the Desperadoes panyard, too.”
When she lost those two sepia
stones to the river, Laventille hill didn’t
need to assess the impact of the relationship between
the Doc and the Hammer. An example –
with George Yeates administering the crash programme
for low-income residents, he ensured enough work
gangs were employed.
“We called him the pope,”
McQuilkin says. “Yeates was like the
wise old man who sat atop the hill. Of course,
life on the hill improved. People had permanent
jobs. The band had a great sponsor.
We won three straight music festivals with Pat Bishop
[arranger/conductor], after 19 years away from the
competition, plus 10 Panorama titles with different
arrangers.” [The band quit entering
the festival when Rudolph Charles declared there
was no money in victory.]
In a steel band sense, then,
the relationship had at least promoted the development
of commerce on the hill. But that perspective
was compromised when she began to break apart.
Elders had relocated outside the area, moving into
their own homes. Boat migrants from lesser
islands flooded the space. And, Dupre believes,
US television programmes glorifying the culture
of crime crippled the hill like a curse. All
of that took a toll on her, the hill.
Today, a nation casts a wary
eye on the continuous violence coursing through
her veins. It is a virulent strain, this new
rage – and one wonders whether the Young Turks
had ever known her history. Especially how
and why the violence has supplanted the blood of
a pair of dissimilar men who shared a passion for
Dalton Narine grew up in Belmont, East
Dry River and Success Village, Laventille.
He played pan for Trinidad All Stars for 20 years
and Highlanders for a Carnival season.
Contact Dalton Narine:
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