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Rudolph Charles lives
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Laventille legend Rudolph Charles, the Desperadoes leader who left an indelible mark on the steelband as well as the hill’s innovative music and its overall sound system.
To paraphrase calypsonian David Rudder in a different way, the dragon still walks the trail. This, despite his untimely demise at a relatively young age in 1985. At 47, he left the nation an immeasurable legacy that perhaps guarantees historical reference for the ages. Well into the far reaches of space, unfathomable as that may seem. But that’s who he was. The unwitting progenitor of beast mode, where good and bad coexist at opposite ends of the continuum of steelband lore. The Hammer he was. Also answered to Trail and Charlo. One and the same icon of the realm behind the Bridge, where the instrument was birthed.
Of course, Pan, the bold-faced outside child of percussion, fully recognised and relished the innate skills of this tuner of substance. And what made the man—who dressed like a guerrilla warlord—was his swagger, sense of style and a remaking of excitement from a high ceiling that had an imposing view of Port-of-Spain, as far as the eye and ear could comprehend, well past the Panorama stage.
You could tell.
Years now Despers has been neck-locked in a struggle of its soul.
“He took us to ten Panorama titles,” says his wife, Carol, from Los Angeles. “He was a phenomenal person, and as a leader and panman, there’s none, none to meet his climax. We should mark the memory of what he did for pan and move on.”
For Rudolph to move on, it would take the death of his father Sydney, an officer in the Prison Service, who succumbed to diabetes in 1953 at 44 while rearing nine of 11 children, two of whom died young. By all accounts, he excelled at cricket and in the classroom. He proved to be a good singer, too, says elder brother Gerald, who taught himself on his mother’s upright bass. Rudolph also served as an altar boy at Our Lady of Laventille, where the family worshipped. But he had his stubborn ways. If he didn’t have money for school he’d stand his ground. Ma Georgie, as matriarch Georgiana was known, would have none of it. Luckily, neighbours pitched in with a shilling or so.
Meanwhile, as Sydney lay dying, he gathered the family. Lennox, the intellectual who retired as a director of Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, remembers the chill of deflation and fear in the room. “He asked my mother what she was going to do, and Ma said, ‘God will provide.’ It was a teary moment.”
Rudolph was 15, a Tranquillity student on the ascent. In a few years he would find his own groove.
“The creativity of the family comes from Ma Georgie,” says musician Aldwin Albino. “We used to go to someone’s house and cut loose. Gerald was popular, playing with my group and top bands.”
Rudolph found a job at the General Post Office and a penchant for classical music. Bach and Beethoven were instrumental in his foray at tuning a tenor on the sly. In time, he became one of the leaders of a small band, Spike Jones, the new kids on Despers’ block. Their popularity chafed at the elders’ nerves. Join, or else, they threatened.
“Rudolph turned around the band musically,” Gerald recalls. “He was trained to take leadership.”
In 1959, after the steelband clash with San Juan All Stars, Rudolph met Brenda Wallace as he was pushing pans up Laventille Road. At 16, she oozed with virginal purity. Next day, they connected at a standpipe, fell in love and brought Cheryl Wallace into his world in 1960. The following year he led the band—as in the military, the first man on a climbing rope.
A Desperadoes soldier, William Thomas, alias Thunderbolt, and Brenda threw in their lot in the tuning process. She burning the drums over a bonfire and he sinking the face to groove the notes. Over the years, Rudolph sought assistance from respected tuners toward fashioning his goal of a unique Desperadoes sound. Which he would achieve within a decade by virtue of his inventions: the nine bass, 12 bass, rocket pan, quadraphonics, Yin Yang, harmony pans and a marked improvement on the fourths and fifths tenor.
“At Carnival time, he looked like the devil self,” Brenda recalls.
Carnival over, he’d fast and meditate a whole week. “Then all the women would gravitate toward him.”
What with charisma and personality, Rudolph no doubt carried a Bob Marley complex. He married Carol in 1973, the same year he visited Cheryl in Montreal where she lived with her mom. In a classic show and tell, he emptied a bag of assorted drugs on the table and lectured her about the fork in the road she should never take. Her friends called her “square.”
In 1984, Rudolph’s life changed dramatically when doctors broke the news that he was diabetic. He’d always foretold his death at the same age as his father. The diagnosis came when a bandmate rushed him to the hospital after a car struck him and rolled over a leg.
Notwithstanding Panorama and festival victories piling up, a rift between factions occasionally flared, according to double second player and confidant Leslie “Mitch” Warner.
“He’d say, ‘Leslie boy, I have some real serious criminals in this band but if I don’t appear stronger, they’ll walk over me.’ Some players accused him of siphoning money. But I knew he wasn’t. Too fair. A gentleman.”
A floral designer and senior caregiver, Cheryl, one of Rudolph’s six children, whose own family includes sons Tristan Lalla, 31, an actor (White House Down) and hospital supervisor Brandon Lalla, 34, insisted that her father spent his last penny on the band.”
Thunderbolt concurs, adding that he and Rudolph, as community leader, got homes and jobs for the people, “including players.”
In March 1985, Cheryl, the doting daughter, has a recurring dream. She tries to reach her father on a dead phone. Then writes about her concern over changes in his lifestyle. Not to worry, he responds, it won’t happen again. Her dreams are so exact, like Ma Georgie’s, they scare her.
It is Friday. An uncle calls from Trinidad. Where’s your mom? She looks Brenda in the eye. He died, didn’t he?
Brenda learns that on Wednesday he held a meeting of the elders at his home, then travelled to the southland. Thursday they were treated to lunch at a Chinese restaurant on a whirlwind tour of his favourite haunts, including a roti shop in San Juan.
That night, she says, he was hallucinating and fighting his demons with half a sword, running across the road to Berlin, where he lived, and falling between a wall and a fence, bruising his face. It wasn’t like natural, she admits. He died in his house, though he was rushed to the hospital. But the end had already come, she acknowledged.
Citing her memory of him as a health nut, Cheryl swears her father had never dabbled in drugs. Guarantees it.
“I don’t think he enjoyed it. Tried to talk him out of it. When he got the news of his diabetic condition, he decided that was going to be the end of his life.
“I accept that he died. But that he had to die? No. The man that he was was no longer the man that we all knew and loved and cared about.”
“Artists are living a part of their life that they were supposed to live,” Brenda philosophises. “They’ve lived it and they had a purpose, and they lived out their purpose and then they moved on.”
Compelling and three-dimensional, Rudolph was the the spirit of the hill. A flesh and blood sculpture mirroring the structure gracing the panyard.
Thirty years after his death, he lives. And you bet the next time his extended family and cadre see him will forever be in the moment. Or tomorrow, please God.
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