Friday, June 19, 2009

Friday Night in Prospect Park: Almost Like Being in Trinidad with David Rudder / Samantha Thornhill at Celebrate Brooklyn!

The skies had cleared (momentarily, we hear), the night was almost like the summer promised for this weekend, and there's no place where we'd rather have been tonight than than Prospect Park with Celebrate Brooklyn!

Well, maybe Trinidad, but this evening came pretty close with a rousing show with David Rudder, one of the top calypsonians ever, called "the Bob Marley of soca" by the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner. Opening for him was Trinidad native but longtime Brooklynite, our Williamsburg neighbor Samantha Thornhill, a spoken word artist, slam poet and rising star of kiddie lit.

It was a great night of words and music featuring two superb performers.

Of course, most people there - many of them West Indians, and the majority of them Trinidadians - were there to see David Rudder. For those not in the know, here's his bio from the All Music Guide:
One of the few calypso singers to write his own songs, David Rudder helped to usher in a new era for calypso music. His many hits include "Bahia Girl," "Bacchanal Lady," "Panama," "Engine Room," "Rally 'Round the West Indies," "Knock Them Down," and "The Ballad of Hulsie X." The title track of his 1988 album Calypso Music remains one of the best selling songs in calypso history. The title track of his 1986 album The Hammer was covered by steel drummer Andy Narrell as the title track of his own album. Rudder's 1990 album, 1990, was named "best calypso album of the year" at the first Caribbean Music Awards at the Apollo Theater in New York while the title track was named "song of the year" at the Nefeita Awards. The following year, his album Rough and Ready received three Sunshine Awards. According to the Village Voice, Rudder is "the first of a new generation of calypsonians and he's opening up a whole new way to write, sing, feel and see the thing. His music transcends culture, race, and class. You don't have to be from Trinidad to feel the power and integrity of it. Things will never be the same again."

One of nine children, Rudder hails from Belmont, Trinidad. Much of his early life was spent with his grandmother, a devout Baptist. The chanting of Shango Baptists remains the foundation of his music. Rudder's talents as a vocalist were evident from a young age. By the time that he reached his 12th birthday, he had already begun singing with a calypso band, the Solutions. Throughout his teens, he sang backup vocals in a calypso tent run by Lord Kitchener. He supplemented his income as a singer by working as an accountant for the Trinidad Bus Company. Recruited as a substitute for Christopher "Tambu" Herbert, lead singer of the popular Charlie's Roots, in 1977, Rudder impressed the group so much that he was invited to remain as a co-lead singer following Herberts recuperation. Together with the group, he continues to perform for the Carnival productions of Peter Minshall.

But even those who came mostly for the music seemed to appreciate the exciting, vibrant poetry of Samantha Thornhill. This is from her own website:

Long story short...

Trinidadian-born Samantha Thornhill started writing poetry at age eleven and edited her high school literary magazine. She attended Florida State University, where she earned her B.A. in Creative Writing, then later graduated from the University of Virginia with her Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry. Aside from coaching the Virginia Slam team for two years, Samantha was and still is an eternal member of Black on Black Rhyme and Cave Canem, two organizations keen on promoting poetry in general, Black poetry in particular. For several years, Samantha served as a program director at the Children’s Aid Society in East Harlem, where she built and nurtured youth development programs. Samantha currently teaches poetry to first year acting students in the Drama division at the Juilliard School. She is the author of the young adult novel, Seventeen Seasons, which is forthcoming from Penguin Books. She lives in Brooklyn.

If you want the longer version (fascinating to us, anyway), you can find it here.

For us, the journey to Prospect Park began with the G train to its Smith-9th Street terminus.

On the way we sat and watched the Hershey food-pun advice ads at every station. You know the ones:

Hmm, we think some leftist artists were at work at Myrtle-Willoughby. Anyway, then it was the F to 15th Street/Prospect Park and we surface for a second time.

We got there a bit early, but already there was a crowd.

There were some good seats left, though.

Eventually Celebrate Brooklyn!'s executive producer Jack Walsh (how does he look so young after thirty years of this?) and artistic director Rachel Chanoff came onstage and gave the usual annnouncements. They also said that there were two winners of airline tix from sponsor JetBlue hidden under two seats in the audience.

Well, we didn't win but glad that Joan, the nice lady above, did.

Assemblymember Jim Brennan and Councilmember Kendall Stewart, who said his district has more Trinidadians than any constituency in the U.S. were introduced. Mr. Stewart asked all those with a Trinidadian heritage to raise their hands. Lots of hands went up.

Eventually Samantha Thornhill was introduced, and she began a set of wonderful spoken word performances. She's got great stage presence and varied poems. The first one, about a preacher who's called to say goodbye to his wife, who was fatally pinned between a truck and a tree, was a rich evocation of the paradox of human strength, illustrating that the things that kill us are exactly what keep us alive.

She did a couple of Trinidad-based poems, using a distinctive accent (normally Sandra sounds like she came from Florida) in "West Indian Woman Speaks from the Dead," describing a ghost coming to dance with her widowed husband at a New Year's Eve celebration, and in a poem for her own mother, who apparently had the same dismayed reaction to her daughter's first boyfriend's dreadlocks as the woman in the poem -- but when the mom locked herself out of her car, the guy used his dreads to pop open the lock. So her poems run from very poignant to very, very funny.

We loved the odes to her breasts, a wonderful celebration of the well-endowed woman; a moving poem called "Why Sandra Can't Pray," about the mother of a young man who died in a prison rape; and finally her magical, magisterial longpoem/performance at the close of her set, about the childhood and career of someone people our age and a little older all revered, the unparalleled queen of folk music, Odetta.

We can't wait to see the forthcoming picture book for kids and adults from Scholastic Press. Samantha got an appreciative round of applause as she left the stage.

Then, after intermission, changing of the set, as it got dark and real quiet and then really loud, David Rudder came on. The crowd went totally wild, and no wonder.

We're here to tell you it ain't just a Trini thing. We were up on our feet - okay, partly because everyone else was and we couldn't see - but if you don't want to start moving when you hear a song like this, you need to see Dr. Feedzmore.

We'd rather be in Trinidad every February too, especially when, as David Rudder said, it's below zero with mounds of snow on the streets of Brooklyn.

Every song was great, but some of the best ones are from his latest (2009) album, Trinidad Stories. Like "Oil and Water" and the tribute to his hometown, "Belmont."
The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian review said
Trinidad Stories is a return to roots. . . it’s lyrically powerful and musically delightful. Colours, Children of the flag, Oil and Music, Belmont Carnival Tuesday, Trini Prance are my favourites; that’s not to say the other songs on the 13-track CD aren’t great. Far from it!

Trinidad Stories is a amalgam of some of the best song writing and musical talents T&T has; names like Ian Wiltshire, Kernel Roberts, Machel Montano, Pelham Goddard, Jeremy Ledbetter and Daryl Braxton. Musicians on the various tracks read like a who’s who in soca. It would take a whole newspapers to give them credit, plus supporting acts. Trinidad Stories is soca at its brilliant best, but more than that it is a return to self... a true turn to the Rudder we love. He hasn’t lost his touch. What are you waiting for? Go buy his CD!

It's hard to recall a more appreciative audience at a concert. Rudder's fans love him to pieces, and no wonder. There was a joy and verve to the entire evening.

As we made our way across Ninth Street to the Seventh Avenue subway stop, we could still hear "T-T-TND, T-T-TND" and other David Rudder songs in our head. We're grateful to have witnessed his performance, and Samantha Thornhill's tonight - another great summer evening in Prospect Park. And they brought a respite to the constant rain. . .

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