What is calypso? At first I really had no idea what it was, let alone that it was a musical artform. I used to think “calypso” was the stuff that played in the background of vacation infomercials showcasing palm trees, hammocks and white sand beaches. But similar to afrobeat (pioneered by Fela Kuti), calypso contains a more profound, historical dimension than what meets the ear.
It originated in the 17th century when African slaves were forced to work on Caribbean sugar plantations. Stripped of their family, community and cultural identity, African slaves created this new form of music in order to reinvent themselves in a new land as well as transform their suffering and oppression into a celebration of the enduring human spirit. In the mid to late 20th century, calypso became a musical medium through which political and social critique had a dancefloor. As I think about it now, calypso is an upbeat mixture of big band orchestration combined with a traditional rhythm section driven by a single calypsonian––a singer/storyteller. Rooted in the West Indies country of Trinidad and Tobago, the calypsonian I want to talk about is none other than Mighty Sparrow.
Sparrow has had a career in calypso since the early 1950s. He has been celebrated in his home country of Trinidad many times, especially during Carnival––an annual national festival. Celebrated on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, Carnival is full of street performances, band parades and live shows. Carnival also awards Trinidadian calypso artists with nationally-recognized honorable medals. Sparrow has won the Calypso King title 8 times, the Carnival Road March 8 times and the Calypso King of King titles twice. His popularity at home has also spilled over internationally with artists like Van Dyke Parks covering his songs.
I recently came across a compilation album called Sparrowmania! showcasing his music from 1962 – 1974. The track “Ah Diggin Horrors” features various percussion instruments that are commonly found in calypso. Oftentimes the sounds are created from glass bottles, pieces of metal and congas. One interesting aspect about Sparrow’s music
from this time is that all the instruments besides electric bass and guitar are acoustic: the brass and sax are not synth patterns, which gives the music much more depth and soul.
“Oriental Touch” is one of my favorites from the album. It tells the story of a Japanese woman who wants to go to Carnival with Sparrow and “jump in a steel band” with an “oriental touch.” This track features really powerful vocals especially during the chorus “Sparrow darling take me with you to Trinidad for the Carnival (you talk bout so much)”. There is an almost pleading tone to his voice, a sense of passionate yearning for his home country.
Words: Scott Silberberg