…a Memorable Monday With SuperBlue, Sundar and Leston
By GREGORY McGUIRE
Monday 23rd November 2009, was a night for nobility on the St Augustine Campus of the University of the West Indies. At Daaga Hall on the main campus, Nobel Laureate in Economics Professor Joseph Stiglitz, drew a full house for a distinguished public lecture titled “Economic Performance and Social Wellbeing”. Across the road at the cozy UWI Staff Social Club, less than 400 metres away, another more intimate event was unfolding as the UWI Carnival Studies Centre hosted the 6th annual Kaiso Dialogues—featuring a different kind of nobility.
Awardees on the night were master arranger Leston Paul, Soca Chutney pioneer the late Sunilal Popo Bahora (Sundar Popo), and Soca legend, Austin Lyons— SuperBlue.
The clash of events would have presented a dilemma to many but for those who had been to previous Kaiso Dialogues, the choice was unambiguous. This once in a lifetime opportunity to be up close and personal with local music icons could not be missed, not even for Stiglitz.
Now in its sixth year, Kaiso Dialogues seeks both to expose and extol the works of outstanding local artistes in the various genres of local music, including Calypso, Chutney, Chutney Soca, Rapso, Extempo and so on. It is a privileged forum at which the public can engage the creative process first-hand, direct from the horses‘ mouths, as it were. From experience, one knows that the stories told here, will never be revealed from the performance stage. On this Monday night, those who found their way to UWI were not to be disappointed.
The format of Kaiso Dialogues is designed to allow expert interviewing alongside more general questioning. Each is interviewed by someone with detailed knowledge of the artiste’s work, following which the floor is thrown open for questions from the public.
Leston Paul opened the evening with interviewer Wayne Brune, offering his memories as a child in a middle-class musical family headed by a father who made cuatros. The boy received formal music training on the guitar but was encouraged to learn all instruments if he wished to be successful in the music business. That he did and far, far more. The audience was left scratching their collective heads, trying to figure out the math after hearing that Leston Paul has arranged more than 60,000 pieces of music in a career that is still far from over. By any definition, such output is phenomenal.
The list of artistes whose works have been arranged by Paul reads like a who’s who in the calypso artform. Easily his most famous arrangements were Arrow’s monster hit Hot Hot Hot, which has travelled the world over in various languages and Kitchener’s Pan Night and Day. Arrow he described as the most difficult of the calypsonians he had worked with, a demanding taskmaster who drew the impossible from him. Leston Paul has also worked with Merchant, Poser, Crazy, Penguin, Machel Montano and Iwer George. Chalkie’s description of modern soca music as “two chords and Leston Paul” took new meaning in the context of the vastness of the arranger’s works as well as the mystery that underlies a creative process that not even Leston Paul himself understands. He spoke openly of the pieces of music that baffle him to this day, arrangements that he has no recollection of having produced, of falling asleep in the studio and waking up to put down mysteriously crafted music.
His story was followed by that of the late Sundar Popo who was represented on the evening by his wife Kaysa, a shy but open woman who charmed the gathering with her blushing but straightforward anecdotes of their musical life together.
Increasingly acknowledged as the father of cross-over Chutney Soca music, Sundar Popo scored his first big hit with “Nani and Nana” in 1969. Throughout his career, until his untimely death in 2000, Sundar Popo was regarded as the king of chutney whose emergence opened the way for generations of Chutney singers to join the chutney and soca streams in creating a new mainstream called Chutney Soca/Soca Chutney.
There was a ring of unvarnished honesty as Kaysa responded to the gentle probings of interviewer Alvin Daniell, describing how her husband would tap out the rhythm of a new song on his belly while lying in bed before jumping up to write out the lyrics, all the while asking her what she thought about each new piece.
She gave the audience an insight into Sundar Popo’s childhood singing in the family band, in which his mother sang and his father played various instruments. Of his career triumphs, she spoke with the same humility that many said was characteristic of Sundar, a four-time winner of the Indian Cultural Pageant, winner of the Sunshine Music Awards in 1993, and recipient of the national award ( Huming Bird medal). She spoke, too, of his great life-long friendship with Black Stalin who, in 1995, won the National Calypso Monarch title with his classic “Tribute to Sundar”.
Kaysa spoke shyly about being courted by Sundar in song. Under questioning by Daniell, she said, as far as she knew, he had received no royalties from the hit songs that had been picked up by performers from India, including “Pholourie Bina Chutney” which had been popularized in India by Kemchan and Babla. Other memorable Sundar Popo hits include his Mother’s Day mainstay, Your Mother’s Love, Heartbreak and Scorpion Girl.
Whether by design or by luck, the evening was brought to a rousing climax by Austin Lyons—SuperBlue. Prompted by interviewer Louis Regis, Super opened the session with a rousing performance of his Hello, Hello with back up from the DJ on the side.
The story he would eventually tell was one of trial, tribulation, determination and sheer genius. With the audience hanging on to every word, SuperBlue told the story of his early ambition to be a footballer, inspired as he was by the famous footballers of Point Fortin, particularly Leroy De Leon, a man he described as the best footballer ever. He had the audience spellbound as he rose to his feet, making trademark De Leon moves, feinting this way and that, nimble-toed and light, until mysteriously, the footballer’s movements becomes a dance and the dance becomes flowing through the young man who would first call himself Blue Boy from Baptiste Lane, Point Fortin- which in itself would be forever rechristened Baptist Lane after the calypsonian’s first big hit, Soca Baptist.
It has been decades since, but the Point Fortin legacy of football and Soca continues to inspire the soca genius who, before the UWI crowd, advocated his thesis that marrying soca with soccer will be the key to putting T&T on the road to World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
Alongside the musical inspiration from football was pan music.
A mesmerising storyteller, SuperBlue told of his first boyish efforts to bring music out of pan, following the fashion of seasoned panmen of Point Fortin. An early effort sent him home with burns on his face after he mistakenly used gas instead of kerosene to heat his pan. After that failed experiment, he turned to discarded milk tins, incurring the wrath of his mother in the process.
When he decided to try the music business, the young man packed his songs in his back pocket, took his future into his hands and moved to the city of Port of Spain in search of opportunity and the chance to sing in a calypso tent, determined to succeed and fully prepared to survive purely by his wits.
He found the perfect opportunity at the construction site of the former Spectakula Forum on Henry Street. He held his audience enthralled as he described how he had hung around the site, ingratiating himself little by little, running errands for free, content with the occasional free lunch without pay but always with an eagle eye on the chance that once the building was up, he might get the chance to sing inside.
Not a chance went begging as the young Austin Lyons latched on to any and every calypsonian who could get him close to a tent or a recording studio. His chance came the day he got to tag along with a calypsonian to Coral Studios in Sea Lots, an awestruck youngster, anxious to please, content to “touch nothing”, but understanding fully what was at stake as he knelt and kissed the toilet floor in homage to possibility.
His big break would finally come in 1980 when he recorded Soca Baptist. An official ban by the radio stations promptly catapulted Lyons—then Blue Boy—to his first Road March Title. Seven more Road March and five Soca Monarch titles would follow in the 20 years to 2000. Super Blue’s monster hit in 1991- Get Something and Wave- marked a transition that defines Soca to this day.
With the pride of an ageing father, Super Blue spoke about the success of his daughter Faye Ann, including his strategic decision to avoid the stage until the last minute in Carnival 2009, when he arrived to the uproarious delight of fans to help propel her to the Soca Monarch title.
With one daughter already enjoying stardom and building a legacy of her own, SuperBlue says he is now intent on ensuring the success of his other songbird- Terri, all the while hinting of a possible full comeback into the Soca arena.
In his closing remarks, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Prof Funso Ayegina, described Austin Lyons as a great poet, brilliant employer of metaphors, story teller and human being—to which the great man responded the best way he knew: With an impromptu performance of his music.