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


author: Dalton Narine

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

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

“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.

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