Diamonds are forever

Sixty years ago, as a young calypsonian named Andrew Marcano made his tent debut, no one could know he would become calypso’s living conscience. Geoffrey Dunn recounts the life and times of the inimitable Lord Superior

Lord Superior. Photograph by Richard Mark Rawlins, Courtesy Geoffrey DunnKitchener, Superior, and Melody in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1962. Courtesy Lord Superior; hand-colouring by Michael HorneSuperior (far left, in bow tie) and the Mighty Sparrow (lower right), with Skipper, Brynner, Lester, Spider, and Tiny Terror in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy Calypso Dreams; hand-colouring by Michael HorneRelator and Superior exchanging lyrics. Photograph by Richard Mark Rawlins, Courtesy Geoffrey DunnPhotograph by Richard Mark Rawlins, Courtesy Geoffrey Dunn

It was during the Carnival season of 1954 that a shy but ambitious sixteen-year-old kid from Rio Claro made his way into Port of Spain to appear in his first calypso tent, the Victory, run by the well-known promoter Ivan Assee. The young performer was then known by his given name, Andrew Marcano — or simply as “the kid in short pants” — and he was still nervous, he recalls, when it came to performing in front of large crowds. As he prepared to take the stage, the tent’s master of ceremonies would herald “the youngest calypsonian performing in Trinidad!”

The Victory was one of the premier tents during the 1954 season, with a star-studded lineup that included the likes of Spoiler, Spitfire, Striker, Viper, Cypher, Pretender, and the incomparable Lord Melody — who would win the calypso crown that season with his song “Second Spring”. Another young rising star that year, Lord Blakie, went on to win the 1954 Road March with his jocular “Steelband Clash”.

Indeed, I would argue that 1954 marked the dawning of the Golden Age of Calypso. Lord Kitchener was still in exile in England, but he had recorded a memorable calypso that year, “Is Trouble in Arima”. Another young kaisonian, an eighteen-year-old native of Grenada then known as the Little Sparrow, also cut his calypso teeth that momentous season. But it was the kid in the Victory Tent who would first make his mark.

The youngster — soon to be given the sobriquet Lord Superior by kaiso legends Spoiler and Melody — had one of Victory’s big hits that season, and became one its most popular draws. His bawdy calypso called “The Coconut Tree” was considered, at the time, a bit risqué for a teenager to be singing, but he pulled it off with a delightfully comedic delivery. The song tells of a “a lady up in Laventille / with coconuts in a quantity.” But for the poor boy from Rio Claro, “the tree’s so high / you can’t pick no matter how you try.”
The wily teenager, however, was not to be denied.

I got a long rod and I started trying
I pushed the rod high up
Until I reach the tree top
High up into the tree
Until I find the jelly.

The punch line, which the young singer delivered with animated gestures, always brought down the house. A half-century later, when I first asked the Mighty Sparrow about meeting Superior in the mid-1950s, he acknowledged that “Supie had a hit before I I did.” He imitated Supie’s “coconut jooking” gestures and began to laugh. “That was a real funny song,” Sparrow mused. “And very popular.”

 

The precise date of the meeting of these two calypso icons escapes both of them. The details have long been lost to the fog of memory. By 1955, Sparrow had his first hit with “The High Cost of Living”, and the following season he captured the imagination of the nation with his anthem “Jean and Dinah (Yankees Gone),” which won him not only the Road March title, but also his first calypso crown.

It was at some point during that era — Supie believes it to be 1955 — that the promising calypsonians were formally introduced. One night, while performing on the notorious Gaza Strip (a string of bars and bordellos frequented by tourists and American sailors on west Port of Spain’s Wrightson Road), the young Birdie and Supie were arrested together with Striker and Intruder for singing calypsos along the roadway. “We were raffed up, and sent off to jail,” Superier recalls, “when suddenly I realised that Sparrow had somehow escaped. I have no idea how he did it. I guess he flew away.”

In 1956, Superior performed at the Young Brigade Tent on Duke Street, along with Sparrow, Melody, and a popular calypsonian from then-British Guiana named King Fighter. In the aftermath of Sparrow receiving a mere $40 for winning the coveted Calypso King title that season, Superior wrote a popular song titled “Brass Crown”, which helped unify the calypso fraternity into demanding a more substantial award for its monarchs:

The calypsonian needs some consideration . . .
The queen getting everything, and little goes to the calypso king
She gets refrigerators, sewing machine, radios, and even motorcars
Sometimes a Simmons bed
And all the king gets is a brass crown on his head.

The song led to the famous Dimanche Gras boycott of 1957, and an alternative King competition was held that season at the Globe Cinema. “The song became a political catalyst,” Superior recalls. “It was very effective. Dr Eric Williams [then premier] stepped in and formed the Carnival Development Committee to oversee the competition.” The following year, when Striker was named Calypso King, he received a substantial $1,000 award.

Superior was always pushing, always making noise, always an innovator. He consistently refused to accept the status quo. In 1959, he became the first kaisonian to produce his own record. “I felt that I needed to control my own destiny,” he says. “I felt compelled to break away from the old colonial mentality.”

 

In many respects, Superior’s career in calypso has been more than a bit unconventional. Like one of his heroes, the American crooner Frank Sinatra, Supie has done it his way. And he’s paid his dues.

During the 1950s through the early 1970s, Superior rose steadily in the ranks of Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso hierarchy. In 1974, he won the South Crown in San Fernando, besting the likes of Duke, Lord Shorty, Maestro, and hometown favorite Black Stalin. Singing his hit “San Fernando Carnival”, he placed fourth at the Big Yard that season behind Sparrow, Shadow, and Kitchener (pretty stiff company), and just ahead of Bomber and Chalkdust. The following year, he defended his South Crown and won again — but the titles meant little to him.

Shortly thereafter, he retired from the annual competitions. “I didn’t have bad feelings,” Superior says about his decision. “I just wanted to go in a different direction with calypso. I wanted to explore the possibilities that the music presented. I saw the competition as very limited. For me, the national competition was a dead end. I believe that to this day.”

Superior never looked back. He embarked on a decidedly different path to most other calypso performers from the Caribbean. He spent a good portion of the next quarter-century performing as a solo act around the world, most steadily in the Virgin Islands. He also made big noise in T&T when he sued the government trying to get a radio license. The battle lasted twenty-five years, and in the end, he won. But it took a lot out of him.

“I couldn’t give up,” he says of the process. “It was a matter of principle. What I was looking for was opening up the media. In some ways, it’s worse now than before. We have forty radio stations, but very few of them pay homage to our national culture. We won the battle but lost the war.”

Following the death of Kitchener in 2000, Superior made a conscious decision to return to the calypso trenches in T&T. “I felt I had a lot to contribute,” he says. “And I was concerned about the direction the artform was heading.” Superior admired Kitchener because he was a “consummate calypsonian,” in his view, “a poet, musician, and singer. Those were the traditional components of a kaisonian. He was a true showman.”

 

I first met Superior during the Carnival season of 2002 at Mas Camp (now De Nu Pub) in Port of Spain, when my partners and I were producing the documentary film Calypso Dreams. Superior had not been on our radar when we first set out to make the film, and he had contacted us through a mutual friend when he learned of our project. I was immediately impressed by his interest in the filmmaking process, and by his familiarity with the vernacular of cinema. He was also an ardent student of calypso history. Details mattered to him. We began a discussion that afternoon — about calypso, film, politics, and life — that has continued for more than a decade.

Superior’s expertise in both calypso and film made him an invaluable contributor to Calypso Dreams. Not only did he provide critical performances and interviews for the film, he also worked with co-director Michael Horne in producing the film’s soundtrack, and he provided beautiful background guitar riffs for several of the on-screen performances. Calypso Dreams simply would not have received the international acclaim that it did without him.

Following the release of the film, Superior was once again in demand as a performer, and he became a roving, international ambassador for the artform. In 2004, he was honoured for his then-golden anniversary in calypso by UNESCO, at a forum in São Paulo, Brazil. His brilliant performance there included engaging renditions of many of his hits, including  “Brass Crown”, “Yuh Still African”, “Trinidad Carnival”, “San Fernando Carnival”, and his crowd-pleasing double entendre, “Put the Woman on Top”.

Since then, he has received a variety of awards from organisations at home in T&T, most recently the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association. Presented earlier this year, the award identified Superior as “the persistent force behind the opening up of the airways” in Trinidad and Tobago, and singled him out for his “outstanding and pioneering contribution to freedom of expression for all citizens,” a contribution, the association acknowledged, that came “at great personal cost.”

 

As he celebrates his Diamond Jubilee, Superior has no intentions of resting on his laurels. In spite of some recent health challenges, he still performs regionally and internationally with the talented Lord Relator, who has given Superior the nickname of “World’s Greatest.” (Superior, for his part, views the younger Relator as “one of the most talented calypsonians of all time.”)

In 2006, Superior formed the Vintage Kaiso Brigade Tent (which, in various incarnations, has included Relator, Stalin, Valentino, Bomber, Twiggy, Mudada, Poser, Explainer, Rio, Brother Akil, Luta, Brigo, Regeneration Now, and the late Mighty Duke), which he continues to stage during Carnival season. And three years ago, Superior launched the annual Corporate Calypso Monarch Competition as a way of supporting and encouraging the artform in the private sector.

But perhaps Superior’s biggest thrill of all came last year, at the second inauguration of US President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, to which Superior was invited following the release of his song “Black Coffee”, which chronicled the political ascendancy of African-Americans in the United States and creatively referenced the election of Obama. Its catchy chorus asserted:

Any citizen and their spouse,
Can drink black coffee in the White House.

And he and I are also working together once more, this time on a sequel to Calypso Dreams called The Glamour Boyz Again. It features a brilliant acoustic performance by Sparrow and Superior that was filmed a decade ago on the rooftop of the Hilton Trinidad. It’s slated to stage its world premiere in September this year, at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.

If Sparrow is still calypso’s king and David Rudder its high priest, then Superior remains its conscience. He continues to lament the fact that there’s not enough airtime for calypso on Caribbean radio. While he recognises the popularity and driving force of soca, he says that its “rhythms are more for the body and not too much for the mind.”

He openly wonders if calypso is on its last legs. “We don’t have traditional calypsonians any more,” he laments. “I am talking about those who play their own music, write their own music, and perform their own music. The real calypsonians are almost extinct. I’m beginning to feel like I’m all alone. There’s just a few of us left.”

It’s hard to dismiss the growing pessimism of the usually ebullient artiste. “Calypso used to be all about story and philosophy and humour and social commentary with a biting twist, masking and double entendre,” Superior asserts. “Somehow, we’ve gotten too far away from that. We have to take calypso back to its roots. That’s where the artform is always the strongest — at its roots.”