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Wednesday, February 1, 2023
David Rudder, Opera Holland Park 2022. Photo Credit: Stephen Spark

David Rudder – High Mas at the Opera

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Opera Holland Park’s big tent was crackling with the static electricity of anticipation. Saturday 20 August 2022 was a day many of us had been waiting for – the return to the UK of David Michael Rudder.

From the first note, it was clear that Rudder was going to be well served by the Tabernacle Crew, which was basically the band familiar to London Calypso Tent regulars, but with Carnival Village Trust chief executive Matthew Phillip on drums and a couple of other changes. Backing vocals were courtesy of the wonderful Soca Divettes, while the imposing figure of Martin Jay, unmissable on stage in a colourful shirt, did the honours as MC.

So we were all set to go, as London Calypso Tent regular G String (Gerry Archer) launched into his set – High Blood Pressure, In Me Zone and Trouble Again. He was rather more than just the warm-up man, as he’s the current (2021) UK Calypso Monarch (and Monarch for 2016 and 2020) and has his own following – one lady said the main reason she was coming to the show was to see G String rather than the main act! To judge from the audience reaction, many others in the house rated him too. Along with the rest of the UK calypsonians, you can catch him in his natural habitat at the Tabernacle on Friday 26 August.

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Then, to rapturous applause, the man himself walked quietly on stage. For those of us who hadn’t seen David Rudder live for many years, time has left its imprint, but no matter: he commanded the vast Opera Holland Park space from the start as he began with Rally Round the West Indies.

He soon decided that there was far too much space between him and the audience so he came right up to the front of the doughnut-shaped stage, sometimes venturing off it altogether to interact with the crowd, with one lady even kissing his hand. Another touching moment came when he acknowledged veteran panman Cyril ‘Scratcherman’ Khamai, bringing the mic down to catch the soft rhythm of the scratcher. Cyril’s eyes shone with delight.

After a long Covid-induced drought, the crowd was thirsting for the thrill of live performance from a big star – and no one was left unsatisfied. Rudder ran through much of his repertoire of the classic compositions that will outlive us all – Calypso Music, Bahia Girl, The Hammer and the darkly humorous Welcome to Trinidad, his 2017 portrait of a place “where half de country mad”. Trini to de Bone got the red, white and black flags flying from the front row to the back of the circle, while Dus in dey Face and Madness turned the opera tent into a fete, all rules about keeping the aisles clear forgotten, as even the staff were too busy dancing.

Of course, he wasn’t going to be allowed to end on even such a high note as that great hymn to Carnival, High Mas. For an encore he wound down the sound to give us his slow, soulful, almost mystical song Spirits. The chorus “Ase ase, namaste, hallelujah – dance”, had an appropriately hypnotic quality to end a magical and marvellous evening.

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Rudder’s charisma and the ecstatic reception he received has only one parallel in this reviewer’s experience: that of Nelson Mandela, when he visited Brixton in 1996. That’s a measure of David Rudder’s unique position as the Caribbean’s griot, the voice of its spirit and of its conscience.

If you missed it, well, you’ll just have to hope it’s not too long before the Lyrics Man returns to our shores. When he does, you’d better waste no time booking your ticket because that show will sell out in hours, I guarantee.

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