Rip the shirt off SuperBlue’s back. Take the sequined cap off his head. Strip him to the bone if you have to. But don’t you dare touch the whistle around his neck.
Last Carnival, that magic whistle made SuperBlue the pied piper of Trinidad’s soca children. Blue devils celebrating J’Ouvert morning with their traditional jab-jab rhythm sang the sexy soca song that SuperBlue had masterfully crafted. In the blazing afternoon sun, masqueraders playing everything from Queen Isabella to Las Vegas showgirls followed DJ trucks booming out the opening command of his song: Blow your whistle.
Through the streets of Port of Spain, the jab-jab rhythm filled the Carnival celebrations and the traditional Trini movement, that erotic rolling of the hips known as wining, took on a religious fervour as SuperBlue’s music cried out in ecstasy: I feelin’ to wine on something.
Calypsonian Crazy, surrounded by 30,000 whistles, couldn’t believe that anyone could come from behind with a record released a whole five weeks into the season to beat his Penelope.
“Jab Jab was made to gain power the closer we got to Carnival,” SuperBlue says as he fondles the blue whistle around his neck. “Take away the music, the lyrics, the costumes, and you’re still left with a rhythm you can party to.” Combine that with a Baptist chant, some Baptist rhythm that hints at African shango and leans into soca, throw in a good Carnival story and a whistle, and you have a SuperBlue sound. But it was the whistle that did the trick.
The whistle? “There’s a comfort you feel when you blow a whistle,” SuperBlue says, caressing the one around his neck. “A granny and a child out of pampers can blow a whistle. There’s a sense of comfort, a sense of power that comes from blowing a whistle. Why you think is a whistle they give a referee? Why you think is whistle make a child’s eyes light up? The whistle is like the jab-jab. It’s been there forever. If I can only find a new way for people to blow the whistle I can redefine an age-old sound.”
SuperBlue could be the one to do it. His ability to put his ear to the ground and pick up the natural rhythms and sounds that Trinidadians take for granted is nothing less than astounding. That’s why people have been on his side since the day he tied up his head in a scarf and put on blue robes like a Baptist priest and climbed on stage to sing Soca Baptist at the Masters’ Den.
It wasn’t an easy road to stardom.
In a small southern Trinidad town called Point Fortin, in a humble wooden house, Jesse Harry raised her son Austin Lyons along with his four brothers and three sisters.
SuperBlue remember his childhood home as “a place you could see the trees, a place you could see the forest.” His mother was a loving person but a loner, a woman who tried in every righteous way to make a buck to support the children her husband had abandoned.
He took his mother’s hand and walked to the market where the Baptists stood on the edge of the road with their candles and baskets. “I used to listen to their singing and chanting. Somewhere in between the music I realised a feeling, music wanting to come out.” One neighbour used to play pan every night, while another, Mr Stafford, whose fat wife Fatima used to make pone and sweetbread for thew children, used to let the poor boys from the neighbourhood play his guitar.
Austin Lyons had three dreams. He wanted to be a professional footballer, sail the world and sing calypso. He left school at 16 and took a job as a deckhand offloading boats from the small islands of the Caribbean. Then he got a job on a shrimp trawler. The first day he showed up for work, a man called Pidgeon pointed to him and said, “Way, boy, look at he. He so black. He black till he blue.”
From that day on, Austin Lyons was nicknamed Blue Boy. His Jack London adventures on the high seas began. Venezuela, St Croix, Colombia. He used to sing on boats.
In 1979, Blue Boy came ashore from a fishing trip determined to make his third dream come true. He went to audition at Sparrow’s calypso tent. He was never heard. “There was a big line of people trying to get in the tent, and I guess I wasn’t pushy enough,” he shrugs. Next, he tried Kingdom of the Wizards with his soca song Kaya (a Jamaican word for marijuana). He failed the audition. But before he left, he made a deal with the management. He would sweep up the trash and empty the garbage every night after the show.
“So every night I took off my shirt, rolled up my pants and worked. I didn’t have extra clothes to bring, and I didn’t want to spoil my clothes.” That Carnival season, Blue Boy listened hard but asked for no advice about the singing career he dreamed of every night when he returned to a fishing boat to sleep. “I didn’t want anyone to insult me,” he says, slumping in a chair and pulling a cap over his eyes. After Carnival, he returned to fishing.
Then came a trip that changed his life. “We went to Santo Domingo, and as I was coming off the boat I didn’t have my immunisation card to show I had my yellow fever vaccination. The officials locked me inside a prison hospital. I was lying on the bed and I started to tap my fingers. Out came the words. ”
Listening to a prayer meeting/Baptist people preaching/With a leader in front and people shaking. Soca Baptist was born.
No-one took much notice of the bouncy soca song when Blue Boy returned to Trinidad. A friend took him to Romeo Abrahams, who had a record shop on Prince Street in Port of Spain. Abrahams made a tape of Blue Boy singing with a guitar and took it to Coral recording studio, handing it to the much-overworked arranger Pelham Goddard, who slipped it in his pocket after Abrahams begged him to take it.
“When I listened to the tape, I was struck by the chorus: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh like soca Baptists,” says Goddard. “I thought the song sounded different. It had a power to it.” Goddard did an arrangement. In the studio, Blue Boy, head lowered, watched the tracks being laid down. When the time came to sing, he froze. Goddard, realising the problem, dimmed the lights, and Blue Boy sang the song that would rock Trinidad and Tobago for a decade. Never before had soca blended so effortlessly with Baptist music.
But the Baptists didn’t like the song, and protested loudly. A Carnival decree banned Soca Baptist from being played on the radio. The then Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, removed himself from the controversy with the words “Let good sense prevail”. Blue Boy was excluded from the Calypso Monarch competition.
But the jury was still out, and on Carnival Monday and Tuesday masquerade bands defied the ban and played Blue Boy’s song everywhere. Soca Baptist became one of the most thrilling Road March victories (the popular choice of the masquerade bands on the streets) in the history of calypso. It sold a record-breaking 18,000 copies and ushered in a new era in calypso. Soca with a soul-filled sound renewed drained masqueraders. The chip-chip songs that helped masqueraders drag their feet along the hot streets were gone with the wind. In came the bouncy melodies of Blue Boy, compelling you to jump and wine.
With the ring of a bell, the life of Austin Lyons changed. The next year he captured the Road March title again with Ethel, born from his fascination with comic strips. He lost the crown in 1982 with a late release called Omalay, but reclaimed it in 1983 with Rebecca, an idea he borrowed from the Bible.
Despite being sued for copyright infringement when he called an album Superman, after the American comic strip hero (three thousand albums had to be recalled, and the release was renamed SuperBlueBoy), Blue Boy bounced back in 1984 with Lucy. Sparrow knocked him out of Road March contention with Doh back back, but Blue Boy ended up fifth in the annual Calypso Monarch finals.
By then big offers were coming in from big producers. Blue Boy was tempted to leave Spektakula Forum (formerly Kingdom of the Wizards) to perform at the Calypso Palace. “Is now the nightmare began,” he says, leaning back in the chair and holding his head. Management squabbles kept his song Retreat, a mournful cry against war, from being released. Blue Boy tried to fight his way through the calypso season with a poorly recorded cassette copy of the song. He managed to make it to the Calypso Monarch finals and placed last.
He thought things were looking up in 1986 when he was offered his own tent, Culture House. Blue Fever, a nationalistic song called The Pledge and Carnival Eruption–the only song for the season written to commemorate 200 years of Carnival in Trinidad–kept him in the running for Monarch. “I reached Skinner Park for the semi-finals. And I got a bus ticket to come back.”
In 1986, David Rudder, the co-lead singer of the popular brass band Charlie’s Roots, with his own style of Shango and Baptist rhythms, took over town. Blue Boy’s problems snow-balled. In 1987 he sang Jenge, about an African jumbie or spirit. Nobody was impressed. Rumours flew around that he had sold a leading road march contender, Nani Wine, to Crazy for US$IO to buy cocaine. A deathly thin Blue Boy admitted he had had a drug problem, but denied he had sold the song to Crazy for such a ridiculous amount.
Blue Boy hit rock bottom. Shaken by his mother’s death and domestic problems, his personal life was in a shambles. He began freebasing, mixing cocaine with marijuana and smoking it. He didn’t bother to sing in a tent that year. By 1989 he was benched. Rumour had it that he had reached a point of no return. He lost his house. He owed too much money in back taxes to get an exit visa to leave Trinidad.
The songs Blue Boy wrote between 1987 and 1989 are a vague memory. “I don’t sing them, I don’t deal with them,” he whispers. “I don’t find they are me.”
Then, as fate would have it, Blue Boy’s second childhood dream opened up a door. Trinidad and Tobago was on the verge of qualifying for the 1990 football World Cup finals: there was huge national excitement. Allison Ayres brought a rough sketch of a song called The Road to Italy. Blue Boy filled in the gaps, enriched it, and gave it a religious flavour. Trinidad and Tobago was behind him all the way. Blue Boy changed his name to SuperBlue.
For Carnival 1990 SuperBlue reached the Calypso Monarch finals again and was runner-up for the Road March with Poom Poom, a song, as David Rudder put it, with an amazing amount of energy on the road. SuperBlue was on the comeback trail.
In July 1990 Trinidad and Tobago was shaken by a bizarre coup attempt. SuperBlue was performing in Canada when he heard the news. He called Mother Muriel, a Baptist in Point Fortin. In her words of comfort SuperBlue saw a sign and turned it into a prophecy. “She saw a monkey and two pigeons, and said, Soon, Trinidad and Tobago will rise again.”
SuperBlue began to construct a song based on the chant Get something and wave. It became the runaway Road March for 1991, an anthem of freedom and release. “It was successful because it celebrated the notion that people are free,” says calypso expert Dr Gordon Rohlehr, Professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies. “SuperBlue blends party song with story-telling. He uses refrains that people can sing along to. He makes people feel part of the song.”
Guitarist/arranger Wayne Bruno, who replaced the late Junior Wharwood as guitarist on SuperBlue’s latest work, says: “SuperBlue’s music is simple. It’s very basic, but its simplicity is not a handicap. His music has room for very complex arrangements. That’s what makes it so suitable for pan. His rhythms are very rootsy, very infectious, and his melodies are equally acceptable to brass bands and steelbands. The melody stands up anywhere it goes.”
Singer David Rudder, who is making it internationally with his version of Shango and Baptist beats, says, “There’s an earthiness about SuperBlue’s music. There’s something that’s very much in touch with the feeling of the ordinary man and the Trinidadian spirit. His lyrics are different. He’s very folky and has a strange way of putting things together.”
Even Pelham Goddard, who has arranged 11 Road Marches in the last 14 years, continues to be fascinated with SuperBlue’s talent. “He always has a different beat from the regular soca beat. Every SuperBlue song is a different approach in rhythm. His bass lines are unique. They have a driving force and they go with whatever beat he has. His chord structure fits under his melody so neatly, and the way he sings, in a progressional pattern, injects the music with a feeling of power. He can take one motif and build it into something like a war cry.”
“I think his music is inspired,” says Bruno. “I don’t think he knows himself where his inspiration comes from, but whatever it is he opens himself up to it. Very few people can do that, whether it is conscious or unconscious.”
“Super seems to need the pressure of the studio to pull everything together,” says Denzil Patterson, who has produced SuperBlue’s music since 1989. “For months at a time he sits up all night with a guitar trying things till he drops asleep when morning comes. Then he goes in the studio and tries to pull the pieces together. Some people say he takes so long he go’ break your back paying for all that studio time. But I just sit back and let him do his thing.”
“When you come out of a studio working with SuperBlue,” says Goddard, “you feel very tired, frustrated and stressed out. But you’re satisfied because you know you have something really great.”
SuperBlue’s methods of creating music are hard to figure out because he keeps so much of his life a secret. He won’t admit what religion he follows. “I have application inside for good relationship with God,” he says, dismissing the question. He doesn’t know why he ties his head like a Baptist when he sings. “I do things and is only after a while I think, wait nuh, why I doin’ that? Tying my head is one of those things.” But he’s sure about the feelings coming through his music. “I hear soca as a cry. My music is blue man. It blue. It bold. Soca rhythm bold. The boldest music in the world.”
SuperBlue admits that when he wrote his first songs, he used to picture the founding father of soca, Ras Shorty I, in front of him as he sang. “But I would try to stay away from his melodies.” Nat King Cole and Bob Marley colour his music. “When I was growing up I liked the Beatles, and Michael Jackson for being different. James Brown was one of my main men.” His favourite song, he says, is One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus.
In the last 12 years, SuperBlue has been in the Calypso Monarch finals five times and has won the Road March five times. In Trinidad he has become a combination of Michael Jackson, the sharp dresser with the slick moves on stage; Al Green, the preacher/pop singer; and Charlie Parker, talented but reckless. “I keep looking for that sound the way Bob Marley did. I don’t know what it is or where it is, but I know I go find it.”
Goddard is one who hopes so. “Sure, the people love him, but where does he go from here? He has to be able to go beyond Road March and aim for that wide audience outside of Trinidad.”
But right now, SuperBlue can’t be bothered to think too much about that. His mind is on whistles.
“Them people out there ent blow enough whistle yet,” he says.