David Rudder - Biography
By J Poet
David Rudder may be the best calypso/soca singer and composer of the current generation. Each year at Carnival time the streets of Port of Spain in Trinidad explode with music as the island’s calypso singers vie with one another for the title of Calypso King. There are also crowns for best performer and most popular song. In 1986, the first time David Rudder entered the fray, his tune “The Hammer” won awards for Young King of Carnival (best new performer), Calypso King (best performer) and Road March King (best song). Another of his compositions, “Bahia Girl,” won second place in the Road March competition. This unprecedented feat, capturing four of Carnival's top honors, made Rudder the most successful calypso singer and composer to debut in Trinidad and Tobago in 30 years. The last person to capture Calypso King and Road March King was the Mighty Sparrow, back in the early 1950s. Rudder's quadruple crown caused so much jealousy the singer announced his intention to refrain from further Carnival competition in 1988. Since then, Rudder has toured the world playing calypso in venues that still think the genre started and ended with Harry Belafonte.
The tradition of calypso goes back to slavery days. Calypso made use of African rhythms, jazz, British and French folk music, rock’n’roll and popular styles from neighboring islands like Haiti and Guadalupe. In the early days, before people could read, calypsos were the newspapers of the black community. The singers commented on politics, made up satirical songs about the slave masters and helped keep resistance alive. In the mid 1940s there was a mini-calypso craze sparked by the Andrews Sisters who had a hit with “Rum and Coco Cola” a calypso by Lord Invader.
Early calypsonians like Attila the Hun, Kitchner and the Mighty Sparrow made use of soul, jazz, salsa, and other Caribbean rhythms, creating a kind of world music decades before the term became a catch phrase. Singers often made comments about the political or sexual lives of public figures that would be considered libelous elsewhere. On occasion, governments toppled because of the overwhelming public response to a vicious parody, but because of their popularity, the singers remained immune to prosecution. Trinidadians tend to be macho, so if you're a public figure and someone makes fun of you, you’ve got to “take it like a man” or you'll loose face. In the ‘30s and ‘40s the ruling class did attempt to censure the singers by asking singers to take their songs to the police to be censored, but the singers would take a false song to the police and sing the real lyrics at Carnival. Once or twice the police tried to stop the shows where the libelous songs were being sung, but riots broke out so they finally gave up.
David Rudder grew up in Belmont, in 1953, a working class neighborhood outside of Port of Spain (Trinidad’s capital.) The house next door was a “pan yard” [headquarters of a steel band] so Rudder's head was full of calypso from an early age. “People in Trinidad are open to all kinds of music; salsa, compas, reggae, mambo,” Rudder said in an interview in 1989. “Zouk, the pop music from Guadalupe has made an impact in Trinidad, and calypso is starting to gain in popularity on other Caribbean islands as well.” This cross-pollination is creating a kind of international musical outlook.
American soul musicians like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder inspired Rudder as much as Mighty Sparrow. He admired Wonder because he was physically handicapped. Rudder has a slight limp from a childhood bout with polio and decided if Wonder could overcame his blindness he could deal with his slight handicap. Rudder acquired a reputation as a back-up singer in the calypso tent run by Lord Kitchener, while making his living as an accountant with the Trinidad Bus Company.
Rudder taught himself guitar and began writing songs for Charlie’s Roots, a band fronted by his friend Tambu (Chris Herbert). The band’s name originally was Roots, and they did session work for Rawlston Charles of Charlie's records [one of the top calypso labels]. They were like the Sly & Robbie of calypso, backing up and producing tracks for many calypso singers. Charles told them they should do their own gigs as a live band and bought them the equipment they’d need to play outside the studio. As a tribute to his generosity they became Charlie’s Roots.
In 1986 Tambu had laryngitis and Rudder to sing “The Hammer” a song he’d written for the band. Rudder stepped up and he rest, as they say, is history. Rudder had already released a few singles under his own name, but “The Hammer” gained him international recognition and got Charlie’s Roots a contract with Sire Records. They released Haiti (1987 Sire), which included “The Hammer” and other tracks from Rudder’s previous albums including The Hammer (1986 Charlies) credited to Charlie’s Roots (1986 Charlies). In 1987, with Rudder and Herbert sharing lead vocals, Charlie’s Roots helped Rudder win Rudder win Calypso King for “Haiti” while Tambu's “This Party Is It” won the Road March Crown. Rudder released The Power and the Glory (1989 Lypsoland) with influences including samba, reggae, zouk and other global beats under his own name, then dropped out Carnival competition. Sire released two more Rudder albums This Is Soca (1987 Sire) a two album set that included one disc that collected Rudder’s early tunes and a bonus LP of songs by Duke, Stalin, Shadow, Gypsy and others and 1990 (1990 Sire) which took the government of South Africa to task for apartheid.
Leaving the yearly Carnival competition allowed Rudder and Charlie's Roots to pursue their own destiny. He moved to Canada and the band started touring the world bringing calypso’s message of racial unity and political awareness to people from North America to Southeast Asia, and the band is constantly searching for ways to make their music as international as their lyrics. Frenzy (1991 Lypsoland) is a high charged album of modern soca; Lyrics Man (1994 Lypsonland) is a carnival driven collection of up tempo rockers; Tales from a Strange Land (1995 Rituals) features lengthy songs that sound like short stories set to music accented by jazz, blues, reggae and steel band music; Beloved (1998 Lypsoland) has a bit of techno in the mix; Zero (2000 Lypsoland) alternates between old fashion horn driven calypso and quieter almost singer/songwriter moments with acoustic guitar; Blessed (2003 BangaSeed/Lypsoland) deals with the Middle Eastern conflict; and Eclectica (2005 Lypsoland) lives up to its name with a wide rage of Caribbean flavors from Trinidad, Jamaica and Cuba. Rudder’s most ambitious work so far is David Rudder and Friends sing the Music from The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club (2006 Lypsoland). The songs on this double CD are from the musical The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club (2004) a collaboration between Rudder and Canadian-Trinidadian author and playwright Tony Hall that tells the story of a violent night at one of Trinidad’s most notorious nightspots.