Above: David Rudder performs as a guest at the Calypso Monarch Finals, 1995. All photos by Mark Lyndersay.
A consideration of David Rudder on the eve of his 65th birthday by Mark Lyndersay
So here’s how this started.
Dennis Ramdeen, who helps David Rudder with marketing and promoting his shows, contacted me (and a whole bunch of people) to post, in his words, “a note to David that speaks to what he means to you or telling of any special Rudder moment you can share.”
Except that a note really won’t cover it, because as I rolled Mr Rudder around in my head, the virtual griot began picking up incidents, random, quirky splinters of memory like a crisp, new lint roller.
One sentence led inexorably to another and so this is how things really got started.
First let me tell some stories that even David doesn’t know.
Long before I’d ever met him, before he stepped out from behind the backup singer’s microphones, our mutual friend, Ronald Reid was reading one of my youthful and quite terrible efforts at doing a musical (big Rice-Webber fan) and mentioned a friend who had a song book, that is, a literal book full of songs that he was continuously writing. That was David Rudder.
Years later, I was coaching Alicia Afoon, the daughter of the late photographer Edgar Afoon, with whom I had a loose partnership and tight friendship when he had an electronics store and processing lab at Long Circular Mall.
Alicia had been struggling with learning to do mechanicals for artwork, so I let her work in my studio during the day, teaching her how to rub down Letraset and prepare an artboard for reprography.
Her first project was the artwork for an album by Charlie’s Roots featuring David Rudder that sported a still life of a panman’s tuning hammer shot by her father.
Early the next year, I’d meet David for the first time, interviewing him for a column I’d been doing called Portrait, which featured an environmental portrait of a subject and a capsule story about what they were doing that merited them being featured in the Guardian.
The storm of The Hammer and Bahia Girl was still to descend on T&T, but I’d heard the music, and my biggest worry was that I’d blight the lad by being so effusive about his work.
We met at the apartment in the Belmont plannings he lived in back then with his mother and in the way these things go, my damned strobe wouldn’t work.
So I did a passable photo of him with the light streaming through the door, barely filtered by the white lace curtains that fluttered and swayed as I sweated the difficult situation.
Early the next year, after he’d won pretty much everything offered for calypsonians that Carnival, I photographed him for the Sunday Guardian magazine for a story about his triumphant year written by Valentino Singh, the first time he visited my studio.
There was no air conditioning back then, but the photo was something of a benchmark for the paper. Shot on medium format transparency film, it broke an almost perfect record of mis-registered colour on the cover of the magazine, prompting Therese Mills to shoulder open a space for me to photograph regularly for the paper.
I’d do photos occasionally for David’s manager, Ottie Mieres, on other projects and I remember once he mentioned the simple directive he got from Mr Rudder at the start of their professional partnership.
“I need to be able to leave something for my children,” Mieres recalled Rudder telling him.
Such and elegant and clear mission. To do that, he’d have to do well for himself while guarding his legacy.
I took note.
For most of the next two decades, I’d photograph David from stageside and he moved on to enjoy a rewarding visual partnership with the excellent commercial photographer Harold Prieto, who certainly delivered for him.
Their work was enviable in the best way. I wish I’d shot all of it, but he was in good hands and our encounters would be mostly driven by the needs of the media houses I was working with.
I reviewed some of his albums and wrote one of my favorite headlines for a review of his 2000 release, “Big numbers in Zero.”
He was responsible for one of my media award near-misses, a photo I did for the Trinidad Express for a story about his album Wrapped in Brown Paper.
That shoot included at least one ill-conceived photo that paired him with the model from the album cover and some brown paper, but the shot that really pulled it together was much simpler.
I wrapped his head in the paper parents use to cover their children’s schoolbooks and tore open a vent for his eyes, a determined glare that carried the photo.
Friends at Royal Bank, who sponsored the awards back then, told me that the conversation over the best feature photo was heated, with at least one judge advocating for the image, but I lost out.
Rudder would spend the Carnival of Wrapped in Brown Paper singing on the road for Roots, and he told me that women would compliment him on the photo, saying that he had eyes like Denzel Washington.
“Nah,” he reported correcting them, “Denzel Washington have eyes like me!”
Five years ago, David Rudder gave me the opportunity I wasn’t ready for in 1987, choosing me to photograph the portraits he needed for promotion (Disclosure: He pays me for this work).
Then in 2014, he ran a word by me, the title of his next album, Catharsis.
So I brooded, pondered and dictionaried.
What image in an era of inch-sized album artwork would convey this idea of release, of transitioning from one state to another, while featuring the artist?
What followed was a hot morning at a graciously loaned pool and periodic explosions of Mr Rudder from the cool blue shallows of its chlorinated waters.
David was, as is his custom, patient with the process and attentive to my direction.
Finally, I thought I had it (but who can tell anything looking at a two-inch screen in broad daylight?) and we moved on, staging a calmer, post-cathartic image for the back of the album (more on this here).
It’s probably the best album cover I’ve ever shot, though probably not the best known, and it shows the artist rising in a violent surge from the pool, his skin still covered with a second skin of water that’s frozen, gleaming on him.
You may note that I haven’t written much about his music.
That’s because he’s reached the enviable place of amassing an oeuvre, a body of work so expansive that it defies silliness like the identifying of a favorite song.
It is, in a word, pervasive.
David’s work now warrants study and appreciation, the kind of consideration that’s due to an artist whose art is as successful at cross-examining the societies in which he lives as it is at offering us a window into his thinking, loves and despair.
As I write this, David Rudder is probably in rehearsals for his upcoming concert in celebration of his 65th birthday, and in the best traditions of the calypsonian, he’s having a birthday party that his fans will pay to attend.
He’s hardly the first. Sparrow practically invented that strategy, so it’s nice to have the tradition continue.
He seems to be planning to do 65 songs for the occasion, and he has earned the right to frame his work with whimsy when he feels the urge.
The singer, composer, performer and businessman has also sent word that we should do more pictures while he’s here.
Roll on up, Mr Rudder. Opportunity awaits.
Mark Lyndersay is a photographer and writer living and working in Trinidad and Tobago. His writing about technology is found at TechNewsTT and his photography is here. A long running series of photo essays, Local Lives, considers T&T culture and its Carnival. He has covered Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival celebrations for the last four decades. He writes a weekly column for NewsdayTT and contributes to Caribbean Beat.