By Raffique Shah
February 23, 2014
Ever since calypso’s most iconic practitioner fell gravely ill, no pun intended, I assumed that the Government had quietly funded his medical expenses. After all, here’s the world’s greatest calypsonian in his winter years encountering not-unexpected health challenges, and his country, the land of calypso that he helped brand, enjoying a healthy economy, so much so that the authorities award millions of dollars every year to artistes of relative Lilliputian stature, you would think….
Turns out I was wrong. Sparrow’s family had to meet his expenses in a metropolis where health care is not cheap, a country in which if you cannot pay up, you die. Seems that it was only after Rawle Gibbons and his patriotic crew decided to do something tangible to help Sparrow that the powers-that-be awoke from their slumber, deciding to meet a moral obligation.
Of course, there is always political capital to be gained from such intervention. But that is par for the course, so let’s not gripe about it. The important thing is that Sparrow does not have to worry where the next dollar is coming from for his medications, therapy and so on.
I should note that I was unmindful that Sparrow had not yet received the nation’s highest national award. Given the man’s contribution to the country, I assumed that he had long been so honoured, more so since for many years every Tom, Dick and Harrylal seems to have made the medals-cut.
I recall when Lord Kitchener was given some lesser award—Chaconia, Hummingbird, I don’t remember—and he complained bitterly that he deserved no less than the Trinity Cross. I agreed with him. But when he and I discussed the matter (he had visited me in my capacity as an editor), I counselled him, “Kitch, forget these people and their metals…you have a higher honour…the people acknowledge you as the Grandmaster of Calypso.”
I suppose Sparrow’s exclusion from the top-award-club should not have come as a surprise. After all, our misnamed national awards are really the Prime Minister’s awards, conferred by the PM, who in his or her wisdom or folly decides who gets what.
My interest in the ailing Sparrow being in the country at this time goes beyond these narrow confines. Besides the high calibre lectures that Gibbons organised on the Birdie’s impact on politics and life (I am sorry I missed out on them), his presence and his ability to belt out some verses from his massive anthology of songs brought to the fore the abysmal state of the art form today.
I mean no disrespect to calypsonians who are trying their best, against many odds, to keep traditional calypso alive. But when they listen to the Birdie, or to David Rudder and Lord Nelson (who are also visiting), they must realise that something is radically wrong with calypso.
Calypso is no longer in “intensive care”, as Chalkdust sang some years ago. It is in the morgue, dead, waiting to be buried. I keep hoping that Sparrow’s presence at this critical juncture would somehow trigger a resurrection, inject life into the art form.
Let me see how gently I can put this across. The ailing Sparrow sings one line from “Congo Man” and the audience, schoolchildren among them, joins in to finish the song. Now, this song may be offensive to many, described as morally decadent and worse. That is not the point. What is important is because it is so well structured, storytelling at its best, and so melodic, generations of Trinidadians know it, love it, sing it and dance to it.
Sparrow can make magic with scores if not hundreds of his songs: “Jean and Dinah”, “We like it so”, “Good Citizen”, “Drunk and Disorderly”…need I go on? Nelson can do the same with “La La”, “Disco Daddy”, “Dove and Pigeon” and more. Rudder need only belt out the first line of “Bahia Girl” or “Rally round the West Indies” and crowd-madness erupts. Stalin opens his mouth, “Tonight de Black Man…”
That craft of blending tight, incisive lyrics with great melodies is missing, gone. Last Saturday, I tuned into radio the take in some of this year’s offerings. For one hour I endured hymns and lamentations describing the state of the country, about crime and its impact on communities and the country.
Political commentaries are no different—interminable, not epic, poetry, only they are not poetry in the classical vein of the Odyssey or Iliad. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get my point? Our calypsonians must examine Sparrow’s many forays into the political arena, pro-Dr Williams, anti-PNM, “Good Citizens” as an indictment against corruption, and seek inspiration from them.
I have noted in the past that it will be asking too much of our artistes that they deliver a “Progress” every year. But their failure to sing, among them all, one memorable calypso a year will result in the death of the art form.