Sparrow Sang For Me

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the interview of a lifetime. The all time calypso king of the world, The Mighty Sparrow was set to come to Miami for a special show at the Arsht Center called Calypso at Dirty Jim’s.

Non-Caribbean readers, let me explain how big this was for me.

Sparrow is calypso music’s Johnny Cash, our Frank Sinatra, our Chuck Berry, our Elvis. If you want a taste of his genius, just watch this video of him performing “I’m a Slave.”

They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Sparrow and I spoke on the phone for almost an hour. It was one of my proudest moments as a Trinidadian writer. Then the concert got canceled, and here I was, stuck with this awesome interview and nowhere to publish it.

This post has been a year in the making.

The Calypso at Dirty Jim’s concert was to recreate a specific time and place in Trinidadian culture. Sparrow, Calypso Rose, and The Mighty Chalkdust were set to participate. When I caught up with him, Sparrow was only too happy to reminisce about Dirty Jim’s, where he cut his teeth as a young performer.

“I sang at Dirty Jim’s in 1955. It was a regular hall with chairs, unlike some of the other places that had sawdust on the ground, and benches. At the time, it was a step up. It was centrally located at the corner of Charlotte Street and South Quay in Port of Spain. There was a railway across the street, so everyone was there,” he said.

Dirty Jim’s is long gone — in the trailer for the film, calypsonian Lord Superior shows the historic location, now a parking lot next to a crumbling structure.

But the memories of the legendary music hall linger, and the relationships forged there proved to be notable and influential. It was at Dirty Jim’s that The Mighty Sparrow met the man slated to be his nemesis.

“Lord Melody – heh heh – of all people. I sang on him, I sang on his wife, he sang on me, he sang on my wife, and all sorts of things. It was very insulting, too!” he declared. Then suddenly, Sparrow began to sing to me.

“He hit me with: When you wife walking, people say she shaking… She should wear a coffin, for the goods she carrying… that is why they does call she, Belmont Jackass!” You could imagine that?

So I had to come back with, “When they see you madam walking, middle of the street, people does stand up and watch down at she crooked feet. People say she husband nose perpendicular, and everybody does call she Madame Dracula!

Those two songs, Lord Melody’s 1960 hit “Belmont Jackass“ and Sparrow’s 1961 rebuttal “Madama Dracula” are textbook examples of Trinidadian picong, comedic banter with a sting in the tail. It’s an aspect of the artform that is fading, along with the sly nudge of double-entendre, and beats to make the audience dance, not faint from exhaustion trying to keep up.

When Sparrow’s still-sweet voice sang those iconic lyrics into my ear, I knew it was a moment I would cherish forever.

I was happy to hear that unlike more contemporary musical beefs – Tupac and Biggie, most obviously — Sparrow and Melody’s was a prearranged enmity, an extempo war that didn’t spill over into real life.

“That’s what we did — deliberately to give people the impression that we were at war with each other, so they would come out to see us fight,” Sparrow explained. “Some years later on, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and them did similar things. Remember, we were years before them. Later on, we became two of the best Caribbean entertainers. You know, back in those days it was always a twosome.  Ozzie and Harriet, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello. But me and Melody broke up, because Harry Belafonte sort of put his clutches on Mello,” he said matter-of-factly.

Harry Belafonte rose to fame by singing covers of Jamaican folk songs. He was touted by his big American record label as the “King of Calypso” and that left him with a dubious legacy in some Caribbean circles. Belafonte himself has shrugged off the ill-fitting mantle, and gone on to become an outspoken and brave civil rights activist (who this young girl fell in love with on what might be the best Muppet Show episode ever).

Sparrow went on to innovate calypso music as an artform. Click the links to hear what I’m talking about. Sparrow stated out by challenging society through some of his earliest hits like Dan Is The Man In The Van and Pay As You Earn.

His tradition of taking on politics in his lyrics continues to this day, although he no longer resides in the Caribbean. Sparrow is a New Yorker now, and during my interview, he made frequent and earnest mention of Barack Obama, even going so far as to quote almost the entirety from his calypso homage, Barack The Magnificent. “The respect of the world that we now lack, if you want it back then vote Barack.”

So said, so done, Sparrow!

My favorite of Sparrow’s “love songs” are astonishingly raunchy and a little sad. Teresa and Sa Sa Yea are both stories of reluctance and sexual persuasion. Roseis a lover’s lament and a threat of violence. In No Money, No Love, Ivy coldly terminates a relationship with the love of her life, because he cannot provide for her financially.

Sparrow sang about what he observed and experienced, always offered with a salacious spin.

I love his story songs, like Jean and Dinah, Ten to One is Murder, and The Lion and The Donkey. My dad loves some of the naughtier songs, like Mae Mae and Lying Excuses, which is hilarious.

“I have never attended the higher incubators of knowledge and wisdom, come with the whole alphabet behind me name. Whatever I’ve been able to do, is because all I had available to me was early elementary education. But I didn’t let that keep me back. I stand up with anyone of them. If they talking about something I know, you’d swear that he is a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, perhaps Yale, or Harvard?” Sparrow laughed mockingly, when the talk turned to the fact that his music is now being studied and analyzed at an academic level.

“I mean, right now I have some honorary degrees and proclamations of all different sorts. They have Mighty Sparrow Day in New York. Go on my website and you’ll see.”


I love that Slinger Francisco — born July 9, 1935, in Grandroy Bay, Grenada — has embraced this aspect of modern technology. Still, Sparrow remains skeptical of advances in Trinidadian music.

“With the advent of the drum machine, they have stopped trying to be real. They believe that by putting the drum machine at a faster rate, that is in itself, good music. And I am trying to point out before it’s too late — I don’t want to be criticizing these guys — but don’t cause one of your followers, your revelers, to fall and die from a heart attack. It’s too fast!” he exclaimed.

I am not even 30 years old yet and I completely agree with this living legend. When I feel homesick, I reach for old calypso to soothe my soul. Sparrow, Kitchener, The Roaring Lion’s Sacred 78′s. The stuff my dad played around the house on a Sunday morning. I still love new soca music — it fuels my energy to work out or party. But it’s not great music to unwind with after a stressful day or enjoy on a weekend puttering around the house. For those moments, I turn to the legends, many of whom are no longer with us.

There are those who insist that traditional calypso music, with the syncopated rhythms made for “chipping,” twelve bar chord progressions, and live instrumentation; is nearly dead. Now all I hear on Miami’s pirate radio station, is soca, soca, soca. Wine and jam with a reggae touch. When I brought up my concerns, Sparrow raised his voice in protest.

“To those who would say calypso is dead? I would say they don’t know what they’re talking ’bout. I have fans who are old enough to have children of their own. And through their parents, they become fans of Mighty Sparrow. When those children grow up, they come to me and say – I have been a fan of yours since I was so high. And you still moving like that? Sometimes I give them a little gyration, you know? And I point at someone in the audience… this time they ent even say anything, eh? And I point at whoever it is and I say, I heard you, what did you say? Not bad for an old man? Mister, watch yourself, eh? If you think you bad, come and out-gyrate me,” he said, before releasing that hearty bass chuckle.

I absolutely had to end this post with a video, and this one was hard to find. But I’m so glad I did. Sparrow’s Memories is one of my father’s favorite calypsoes. This post, and this song I dedicate sincerely to him. Without you, Daddy – I wouldn’t have as much knowledge about the history of the music of Trinidad and Tobago.

And if Sparrow were to perform this song today, he would have to extemporize a verse for his musical compadre Byron Lee, who just succumbed to cancer this weekend. Their song, Only a Fool, was a hit in 1965, and I know quite a few Americans who know it as the prelude to To All The Girls on Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival.

The video above is a blessing to every Trinidadian around the world who misses their home and their culture. Not only does it showcase Sparrow in his prime, but it shows some of the true flavor of old time Carnival and Trini culture — fancy sailors, minstrels, stick fighting and iron sections. Cultural celebrations I haven’t laid eyes on in a decade.

Thank you to the YouTube soldiers for keeping Caribbean culture alive and showcasing it to the world. Thank you IsDePanInMe and TriniDesi and The Bookmann.

I wish someday Trinidad’s Ministry of Information, or TTT, or TV6 would reach into their mighty archives and start uploading some of their vintage calypso footage to the masses. Lord knows it’s probably gathering dust somewhere. Meanwhile, all we have are fleeting and shaky snippets with awful audio that reveals none of the glory of the music. A brilliant documentary, Calypso Dreams was made a while back, but it isn’t available on Amazon to purchase, and I’ve never so much as seen a screening. The trailer reveals interviews with a number of legends who have passed away, including The Mighty Terror and Lord Kitchener.
I hope this film sees a public release sometime soon.

So why is this post a year in the making? Because I really, really thought this could have been a great magazine article for one of the few Caribbean magazines out there. I pitched this story more than once, waited, and got absolutely zero response. Not even so much as a courtesy “no thank you.”

I can only guess that the story of an elderly calypso king, the opinions of the lion in winter, weren’t compelling enough to motivate the editors to hit the reply button. Or maybe it was because I’m a writer outside of the loop of regular freelancers. I dunno. But that’s the beauty of having a blog — I don’t have to pitch anything to anyone. I can write about absolutely whatever I want to, and nobody gives me a word count or a deadline.

So Sparrow — even though Afrobella most often is occupied with hair and makeup information, this writer wants to give you your due now while you’re still around and making meaningful music. I hope that someday you come to Miami, and perform that Dirty Jim’s review. It sounded like a real treat for nostalgic islanders like myself.

If you’re yearning for some of the music I’ve written about, click here to buy First Flight – Sparrow’s Smithsonian Folkways collection of early calypsos. Volume One and Volume Two are also essential, as is 16 Carnival Hits.

If you’re a Sparrow fan, tell me — what’s your favorite song?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. Wait a minute Bryon Lee died this weekend?!! I must play “The Dollar Song” today.

    My parents LOVE The MIght Sparrow. All my relatives do. “Jean and Dinah” is my favorite song. Thanks so much for this great post Bella!

  2. Paulla Rodrigues says:

    HY,
    I’M Paula Rodrigues,nice to meet you
    saudações brazileiras

    Desde 2007 sou muito fã do bloger, e adoro suas matérias!
    PARABÉNS, ESPERO UM DIA TER A OPORTUNIDADE DE LHE CONHECER PESSOALMENTE!

    BEIJUS

  3. Great post! I think I know of some publications that would take an essay on this topic. You need to move quick, though!

  4. My dad’s Grenadian. Everybody loves the Mighty Sparrow. I actually got to see him perform at the celebration of Grenada’s 75 years of independence last year in Ft. Lauderdale. They had hired him and he came and conquered. I really had so much fun, and it was just great to see my dad who is 67 years old and loves to dance react to Sparrow. Everybody knew all the words to his songs. It was amazing.

  5. Speaking of icons, I just heard that Miriam Makeba has passed. R.I.P.

  6. What a gorgeous post. I can’t wait to show it to my mother, she luurrrrvves Sparrow.

    I’m vexed on your behalf that this article wasn’t published. Doesn’t make sense.

    My favorite Sparrow song is Congo Man.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iocPpL_5Q7Y

    There is so much Caribbean music that cannot be found in any good form. For example, I would love to be able to purchase Carnival music that would actually benefit the artistes, but that’s just not possible here in Grenada. Only bootlegs are available, which is sad because you know the performer his/herself is not seeing any of that cash.

  7. My boyfriend is St. Lucian and he is a HUGE calypso/soca fan- a definite “Carnival Baby”… Sparrow is certainly one of those “oldie but goodies”

  8. Argh, bellas! My computer burned out this morning – complete with power outage and smell of burning. Right now I am using the hubby’s laptop. He has promised to try to fix it tonight, but we need a new power supply. Here’s hoping I didn’t lose anything, I had a second post to put up this morning =(

    And yes – Kweenie I saw the news about Miriam Makeba and wanted to do an RIP post for her today. Tragic news. Her death reminded me of Josephine Baker’s, in the sense that she had a final, triumphant performance and slipped away during the night after the show. Miriam did so many great things with her life. Rest in Peace.

  9. Great post Bella! I had the privlege of seeing Sparrow perform a few years ago and it was one the best concerts I’ve been to, hands down!

  10. WARRIOR11209 says:

    Thanks for the post Bella – my mother would play The Mighty Sparrow on the weekends when we were kids doing our chores – what a sight to see my mother would jump up while cleaning .
    Miriam Makeba will be missed – as a child she was the first singer that looked like me living in Brooklyn , NY.
    Thanks for the links – Even as an older Bella- I just love your blog

  11. Miriam Makeba died. Aw..I had no idea. My mom use to play her records and Mighty Sparrow all the time. Now, I have to take a moment to digest this. So glad you got to talk with The Mighty Sparrow.

  12. Dad and Mom says:

    Excellent post on Sparrow. You know that I could not resist a response. On Saturdaylast he performed at our Parang fete and as usual, he was magnificent. He sang for about 30 minutes and would you believe, he did it for FREE. Sparrow is a genius and his voice is still as sweet as ever. ”Lying Excuses” is my favourite calypso by Sparrow, but there are hundred’s more to enjoy and I hope your readers tune in to his music. He sang a praise song about Obama, long before the election . Perhaps you can post that one if you can put your hands in it.

  13. Well said Bella. As a child I was actually not allowed to entune my ears to the lyrics of lyrics of Sparrow but I love his music never the less. No favorite, but I know “Saltfish Nothing in the world sweeter than
    Saltfish”, and I sure never eat a white meat yet. Btw, I also hear that Byron Lee died over the weekend. Keep it coming!

  14. I saw Mighty Sparrow over the Summer. My choir was lucky enough to sing with him and another church who has a Steel band. It was definitely an experience I will always treasure.

  15. Adam McKell says:

    Thank you for finally deciding to post this article,you are indeed lucky to have had the opportunity to speak to a trully great Caribbean icon who can stand proud in the company of Bob Marley and Sir Gary Sobers. Your choice of ‘Memories’ brought back memories for me as well of my dad who lost his battle with cancer 3yrs ago…he was a fierce fan of the ‘Slinger’ and in many was displayed a lot of his bravado and machismo! As I dry my eyes I thank you for this tribute…

  16. I have seen Sparrow perform live! and each time there is so much energy and enthusiasm. He has aged very well in voice and in body and you are very lucky to interview him in what are still his best years.

    RIP to Byron Lee and to Miriam Makeba..all of these artistes that our parents played when we were growing up I think gave us a wider and more appreciative interest in these genres. Great post Bella!

  17. Great job Bella! I have been lurking for a minute now. But I had to comment! “Wanted Dead or Alive” is my favorite song by the Mighty Sparrow!

  18. It’s 3am and there are near tears in my eyes. Thank you. This one short short post has carried me a long way back. Back to hearing kitch, sparrow, explainer, crazy, carol and carly (carl and carol jacobs), calypso rose and…did i mention kitch? I will sleep now and hope to relive some of those memories in my dreams. Thanks you calypso, thank you belmont, and thank YOU bella.

  19. Nineteen69 says:

    What a fitting tribute to the Mighty Sparrow. He is and always has been a first rate entertainer and a wonderful ambassador for our country.

    I grew up listening to Jean and Dinah, Dan is the Man in the Van etc. Hearing his music all of my life just makes him feel like one of meh uncles. LOL

    WE LOVE YOU SPARROW! And yes, rest in peace to Byron Lee another legend.

  20. Great post. I saw Sparrow in concert as a youngster. Thanks for this post.
    PJD

  21. I was introduced to Sparrow about 5 or so years ago. Now I enjoy his music quite a lot. It is upbeat, witty, and a little risque (sometimes very risque, actually).

    I can’t believe you actually got to interview him. Thanks for this post.

  22. Lovely post! A celebration of Trini culture and West Indian music that we know and love. Being of St. Lucian descent, Sunday mornings were full of Calypso Rose, The Mighty Pelay, Kitch and the rest. I was so heart broken to hear about Byron Lee, however his music will live on. My favorite Sparrow song – well it’s a toss up between “Congo Man” and “Saltfish.” You have to love our double entendres…lol

    Again great post!

  23. My condolences to Byron Lee’s family. I had the honor of seeing him play in the Virgin Islands carnival. I also saw Sparrow perform there. And a few years ago, I was taught by The Might Chalkdust at the University of the Virgin Islands. As a Dominica, I grew up on Sparrow. I love Calypso. Despite all the soca and bouyou for Dominican fans, Calypso will always be the best musical form. Thanks to YouTube, I can keep playing the music while being far away from the Islands.

  24. Strange my favorite Sparrow song is Saltfish. HAHA …because as a little girl..for a few enchanted innocent moments…i really thought he just loved Bacalau….

    I had an AH HA moment that transformed calypso for me for ever…Double entendre revealed. Ha ha. The runner up for me is Lying Excuses…

    but To hear Sparrow in his Hey days with the big band sound….made me appreciate that he was a natural born crooner…like the rat pack singers…but he CHOSE to sing calypso. And what could beat that?

  25. I love Obeah Wedding

  26. I left Trinidad when I was 10. Now, upon hearing the calypso songs after about 40 years and reading your article, I realize how bogus was my material education. They never taught us anything about the history of calypso in school. I could understand now that school was meant for slavery in material life and a demoniac civilization. Thanks for sharing the gift of calypso. I’ve downloaded the songs I loved best from the calypso greats of my genre, The Might Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, and Calypso Rose. I also liked and downloaded Mighty Duke’s “Don’t destroy Calypso Music”. These songs will keep me inspired for the rest of my life. I’m in Florida. If any calypsonians come to this state, please let me know. Thanks.

  27. Wow that is amazing!!!
    That you actually got to interview him.
    I am from Barbados originally and love some of his songs.

  28. Dad and Mom says:

    This post is as fresh as when it was posted. So well written and with so much information about a living legend. He seems not to be enjoying the best of health these days, but his voice is still sweet and strong.
    His is still the BOSS and the interview itself is timeless.
    Long live the real ”BOSS” the mighty Sparrow, Slinger Francisco.

    I am happy that my choice in music had an impact on you.

  29. That is such a terrific useful resource that you’re providing and also you give it away for free. I get pleasure from seeing websites that understand the value of providing a main resource for free. I actually loved studying your post. Thanks!

  30. I’ll right away grasp your rss as I can’t find
    your e-mail subscription hyperlink or newsletter service.
    Do you have any? Kindly let me recognize so that I could subscribe.
    Thanks.

    my website; kredyty w bankach bez bik

Trackbacks

  1. [...] experience actually led me to an old song by a man I’ve written lovingly about before — The Mighty Sparrow. In 1963 he recorded a song called The Old Man and the Donkey. Check it out [...]

Speak Your Mind

*