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 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.
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?