The Doc, The Hammer and the Shoe Box - History of the Steelband Music Movement - Rudolph Charles

A Prime Minister and a steelband legend build an alliance to benefit pan and a community

History of the Steelband Movement

by Dalton Narine

Provided by, and republished with, the expressed permission of: the Author

Global - 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 factories.

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.

Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams
Prime Minister 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 ajar.

Rudolph Charles
Rudolph Charles

“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 minister.

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.

Desperadoes practicing at their Laventille facilities for Panorama

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 the hill.

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 office.

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 bedrock.

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 jacks.


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 understood.

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.

Desperadoes’ Laventille facilities
Desperadoes’ Laventille facilities

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 life.

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 her.

“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 Dr. Williams.

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.”

Desperadoes on stage for Panorama in the Queen’s Park Savannah
Desperadoes on stage for panorama in the Queen’s Park Savannah

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.

Anthony McQuilkin
Anthony McQuilkin

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 political era.]

“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 band music.”

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 night.”

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 way, too.

“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 leadership.


(All media content here facilitated by When Steel Talks)


The author 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.

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