When Trinidadian music superstar SuperBlue was 13, he decided to turn his mother's washtub into a steel drum.
His impulse was not unreasonable: Most steel drums are fashioned by hand from 55-gallon oil drums. (The container is heated to thin the metal and then pounded with a hammer until each portion of the top rings out a different note.) But as things turned out, it was an inauspicious beginning to his musical career.
"I took the tub, pound the inside with a hammer to sink it, to make a belly," he says. "Then I build a fire and burn the tub, so the notes would stretch, so you have the ring" that characterizes the steel drum music that West Indians call pan. "But I couldn't finish because I had bust out my fingers," he says. "I didn't cater for all that pain."
His mother was furious when she discovered her tub ruined and she gave him licks with branches from a caimite tree.
But just as she had to continue doing laundry, he had to keep playing music. And now some Trinidadians speculate that SuperBlue, 39, is poised to do for soca music -- an uptempo style of calypso -- what Bob Marley did for reggae: bring the music to a worldwide audience.
It's a long shot, but even if he doesn't become an international star, the former fisherman will continue to lord over Trinidad's music industry. Tonight SuperBlue headlines a concert at downtown's International Square; the event marks D.C.'s Caribbean Carnival, which starts this morning at Georgia and Missouri avenues NW with no fewer than 18 bands.
There is nothing in American pop music that compares to the epic music competitions that take place every pre-Lenten Carnival in the Trinidadian capital, Port-of-Spain. There, during the two-day Road March, carnival bands play on flatbed trucks as their masqueraders promenade from the city's downtown stage to the uptown Grand Savannah Stage. From Monday morning to Tuesday night, thousands of groups pass through the Savannah; some play calypso, some play soca, some play steel drums.
All of them strive to look and sound the best. Once the trucks pull up alongside the stage, the musicians play for as long as it takes the revelers to dance across the platform; depending on the size of a troupe, crossing can take several hours. The event is filmed by television crews -- it's the only thing on Trini TV for two days -- and is seen internationally on cable.
At the end, the National Carnival Committee tallies how many times each song was played as the bands crossed the Savannah. Whichever song is performed the most brings its composer the coveted prize: Road March Monarch.
The competition is fierce: fierce among the bands and the extravagantly costumed masqueraders, fierce among the calypsonians who vie for the Road March monarchy and other titles.
SuperBlue has been Road March Monarch seven times. That's more than any other calypsonian except for the legendary Lord Kitchener, who has been performing since 1937. According to Von Martin, a Trinidadian who lives here and whose "Caribbeana" radio show has been broadcast on WPFW since 1977, SuperBlue stands a chance to "break out" soca because of Ice Records, which recently released his third album, "Happy Carnival." With offices in New York, London and Barbados, the calypso and soca label is run by Eddy Grant, a singer/producer from Guyana best known here for his reggae hit "Walking on Sunshine."
Not only that, adds Martin, SuperBlue has a strong following among young people. "His energy attracts them. He's like magic onstage. You want to dance, you want to forget your troubles," he says, "so you wave them away and move to SuperBlue."
Others point to how influential SuperBlue has been at home. Traditional calypso is a gentle-sounding music (think: "Day-O") and its lyrics are characterized by sly double-entendres and satiric commentary. Soca, which evolved from calypso during the mid-'70s, is very different. It's "jump-up" music, with indelible hooks and a galloping pace meant to drive its audience into a frenzy.
Most soca songs are celebratory: Blue's catalogue includes such titles as "Bacchanal Time," "Happy Carnival" and "Flag Party." And ever since he started winning the Road March, young musicians have been leaning toward soca; even old-style calypsonians with long careers behind them have incorporated elements of soca into their songs.
SuperBlue, too, thinks he may bring soca worldwide attention, but he's not taking all the credit. "Jamaican music has opened the door for the rest of the music from the Caribbean," he says. "Like Bob Marley and the Wailers, just so SuperBlue and the Love Band is determined to spread soca to all four corners of the world."
In the meantime, he's touring as frequently as he can (tonight's show is his third appearance here in a month), and he divides his time between Port-of-Spain and Brooklyn. And he's already rich enough to be weighed down by an assortment of chunky gold jewelry, including a bracelet patterned with Mercedes insignias and the words "out of many, one people." It cost him 3,000 American dollars. The thick gold chain around his neck holds a heavy cross and a jeweled crown medallion. He's careful not to wear them in Brooklyn. SuperBlue's Roots
SuperBlue, whose given name is Austin Lyons, was born in Port-of-Spain on the West Indian island of Trinidad. His Grenadian mother raised him and seven other children in the small village of Point Fortin. Austin didn't know his father; he met him once four years ago, and even though SuperBlue was already a household name in the Caribbean, his father wanted nothing to do with him.
Before and after school, the teenage Austin collected grass to feed the pigs he raised for money. Despite his washtub fiasco, he was convinced he was meant to play the steel drum. Music, after all, was in his blood -- "it's the first note in the key of life," he says now, "the doctor hits you and you sing."
So he started cadging old, ready-to-be-discarded drums from neighborhood steel bands. He formed his own group, the Apple Stars Steel Orchestra. "We were an in-the-backyard band," he says, "and that's where we played, songs by Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and other great calypsonians."
When he finished with his schooling, Austin's mother wanted him to learn a trade. Instead, he made his way to Port-of-Spain, where he picked up the name Boy Blue because of his dark complexion: "They say I'm black till I'm blue."
He fished for sharks, kingfish and bluefish, but most of his time was spent shrimping. The acid in the shrimp seeped through the protective gloves he wore and blistered his fingers. His pay was the equivalent of $9 a week. He lived on boats and earned extra money by painting, cleaning and scraping them. He was 17.
In his off hours, Blue composed songs. One of them was inspired by rhythms he used to hear in the Point Fortin market. It was the relentless pounding drum patterns of the Baptists who held street meetings; it was, he explains, "a colorful, bouncing, joyful rhythm." Titled "Soca Baptist" and released by a local label in late 1979, the song infuriated the island's Baptists, who deemed it disrespectful. It was quickly banned from television and radio -- which served only to make it more popular on the streets. The controversy became so bitter that Prime Minister Eric Eustace Williams appeared on national TV, urging both sides to "let good sense prevail."
Not surprisingly, when Carnival rolled around, "Soca Baptist" brought Blue his first Road March monarchy. To this day, Blue insists that he never imagined that religious people would have responded so angrily to a song he's convinced came from a holy source. "That song was sent to me," he explains. "I am just the instrument. I pray for the songs, and God uses me as a vehicle to talk to his children, to please his people, to make them happy, to entertain them, to inform them and to educate them through music."
Ask Blue how he writes a Road March-winning song, and he pulls back and grimaces, knotting his eyebrows. "I can't put that in the paper," he growls. "I can't give out that formula."
But he will say this: "Everyone who wants to win the Road March feels that speed is the thing, but speed isn't the thing. The rhythm has to be spicy hot, but at the same time you have to have character, story, melody, soul, and you have to come up with something unique.
"You have to remember with soca that the song must make a statement because, you know, calypso is poetry."
Indeed, SuperBlue has a singular gift for capturing the popular imagination. His latest Road March winner, "Signal for Lara," is a delirious celebration of Trini cricket player Brian Lara, a record-breaking athlete in the Michael Jordan mold. Blue turned Lara's achievement into myth: "The ball goes over rivers and seas, in the sky of the West Indies/ The ball whistling through the trees, like a jungle tropical breeze/ It bounce in the neighbor's yard, break two windows and hard/ Missing ball on the go, last seen in Tobago."
Radio programmer Martin thinks that part of what makes Blue's songs so appealing is their strong African influence. "He's different from other soca performers in the sense of his rhythms. There's been an Afro-religious sensibility in his music, from Soca Baptist' in 1980 on." The rhythmic music that Blue has adapted from the island's Baptists, says Martin, "is very African, in terms of its drums and shucking the body." Despite the competitive nature of calypso, Blue is careful not to dis other musicians: "My mother always said, don't compare yourself with others or you'll become vain and bitter," he says. "For in life there is lesser and better persons than yourself."
It's not just his competitors who whisper none too softly that SuperBlue won't succeed beyond Trinidad because of drug problems. "They have their own ideas in their heads of what they think I am," he says. "There was a time when I used to smoke heavy cocaine. I don't know why we do things at times. It was a dark phase."
He says part of what drove him to coke was pressure to win again after his first three Road March victories. "Also, I was engaged to marry, and then everything vanished. So I went back to Trinidad and sat out and didn't do anything from '86 to '89."
Now, he insists, he no longer smokes. "But once you smoke, always it will stay with people."
In 1990, he changed his name from Boy Blue to SuperBlue. "I was looking for the superness in me," he explains. Playing Their Songs Trinidadian music has enjoyed occasional periods of international popularity, usually because foreign artists were recording calypso songs. During the '30s, such stars as Executor and Roaring Lion recorded for American labels like Decca and RCA. In 1948, the Andrews Sisters had a huge hit with "Rum and Coca-Cola," a song by calypsonian Lord Invader, who later successfully sued them for royalties. Not long after that, Harry Belafonte was popularizing calypso here -- and collaborating with Trinidadian artists like Lord Melody, who wrote "Creature From the Black Lagoon." More recently, Arrow's "Hot, Hot, Hot" became a worldwide hit; that song owed much of its success to a smirking cover version by New York Doll-turned-Manhattan-lounge-lizard Buster Poindexter. Can soca music really pierce the consciousness of American pop music fans in the way that reggae has? "Both musics perform similar functions," says Martin, "but their rhythms are different. While reggae was created in Jamaica, it is a combination of different forms and influences. Non-West Indians are able to deal with it a little bit easier.
"The calypso beat is much heavier, and soca is more Afrocentric in terms of the celebration and the drum -- the drum is pounding you," he says. "But there's so much stress and difficulty now, so much crime. We need to let off steam. SuperBlue's music serves that." "It is said that a man could get a vision to build a temple. He doesn't necessary have to live to see it build in full, but he could lay down the foundation, the posts, the structure," SuperBlue says. "But I do believe it's gonna happen.
"In the Caribbean, the people is gonna tell you who is the man. You just listen." CAPTION: Trinidad's SuperBlue, in town for D.C.'s Caribbean Carnival: "I am just the instrument. I pray for the songs, and God uses me as a vehicle, to talk to his children." CAPTION: "Like Bob Marley and the Wailers, just so SuperBlue and the Love Band is determined to spread soca to all four corners of the world."