Sparrow alive, calypso dead

By Raffique Shah
February 23, 2014

Raffique ShahThe Mighty Sparrow’s resurrection from a coma seems to have awakened many a dead, although the miracle I hoped for most, breathing new life into calypso, appears to be beyond the Birdie’s prowess.

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.

2 thoughts on “Sparrow alive, calypso dead”

  1. Growing up in the country, I always listened to Sparrow’s renditions and sought words that I did not know the meaning of, then go to the dictionary for an explanation. Calypso for me was more than the rendition of a story through song, it was an education as well. In daily conversations we can always borrow a word or line of a calypso to clarify or strengthen a point that we need to make. We are fortunate to be in a land where we can use the phrase “We like it so” that can connotate so many things to so many people. We can say “Captain the ship is sinking” and there is no need to explain to the local population what that means. We can go back many many years to the space exploration by the Americans and Russians to see how relevant Sparrow’s calypso was when he sang “Sparrow is very sorry for the poor little puppy in the Russian satellite”. There is no reason to feel sorry anymore, men are now living in space. Thats how far we have come from and calypso was there. Spoiler sang about “people making children by wireless” many many many years ago, and today a child does not necessarily have to be the product of a biological mother and father. Spoiler also sang about “himself tell himself” something of a parody then but today we find politicians behaving in exactly the same way spoiler envisioned. The calypsonians are our eyes and ears, they are our interpreters of events and lifestyles, they are our sociologists and sometimes psychologist. They sometimes make us laugh like Kitch’s “tek your meat out meh rice” rendition of the smart Bajan. If we are to be clinical about the art of calypso we will find that we need the calypsonian more than we need politicians, we need them more than we need comedians, we need them more than we need psychologists, se definitely need them more than we need sociologists. They are an integral part of our lives and when we are down we look to them, when we are happy we want to hear them. Calypso is culture, life and soothers of our emotions. Calypso will live on after Sparrow is gone and we must always remember where is emerged from – the whips and belts of our slave masters.

  2. Raffique,

    Thanks to you for recognizing the wrongs meted out to well deserving citizens of this country.

    You deserve recognition hardware too

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