Remembering Rudolph Charles


by Dalton Narine

Prime Minister Eric Williams & Rudolph Charles
Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams (wearing glasses) takes in a practice session at the Desperadoes panyard with leader Rudolph Charles (in hat) at his side (Government Information Services via the Digital Pan Archive)

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

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.

Rudolph Charles
Rudolph Charles

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.

“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 – the late 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 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 the 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 in the boycott led him to believe the band faced alienation from Pan Trinbago, jeopardizing subsequent festivals. The Doc was ready to take his side 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,’ 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.

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.”

WITCO Desperadoes - Rebecca (Panorama Finals 1983)

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Dalton Narine
About the author, Dalton Narine

Dalton Narine watched a movie among friends and was harassed for watching the credits roll. He was 12. They laughed at his quip that someday his name would be scrolling like that on a movie screen somewhere. Little did they know it was a prescient warning.

A similar scene played when Narine stopped learning the piano and walked into a panyard. Nobody believed him until they saw him playing classical music on pan on J’Ouvert. Eventually Narine co-founded the iconic PAN magazine and became senior editor.

Narine, an award-winning writer for two newspapers and a magazine, started working on a novel. But the chair of Columbia University film school steered him toward a screenplay instead. Your story is a movie, the professor said. Today Narine is working on his final draft, with two more screenplays in his head.

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