Monday, 9 January 2017

The song of the Sparrow.

In 2015 I presented a show on Haggerston Radio. It was, nominally, a world music show. I used to love doing it and I miss it a little. I had the pleasure of sharing some amazing music from around the world with whoever happened to be listening. One of the songs I most enjoyed putting out there was Phillip My Dear by calypso artist The Mighty Sparrow.

So when I read that the ICA (an institution I hardly need telling twice to visit) was hosting an exhibition called Sparrow Come Back Home about Sparrow's work and career, with additional paraphernalia pertaining to calypso and Trinidadian society in general, I made a point of getting down there as soon as I possibly could.

Sparrow Come Back Home is the name of the show and it's also the title of Sparrow's 1962 album about the irony of only being fully appreciated in Trinidad once he'd left for the US.

Sparrow was born Slinger Francisco on the nearby island of Grenada in 1935 and moved to Trinidad with his father as a toddler. He grew up in the capital city, Port of Spain, where he sang in the choir and joined a steel band. He was given the nickname Little Sparrow by his peers. Edith Piaf had been given the same nom de plume about a decade earlier but that appears to be more a coincidence than anything.

A few years later he upgraded his name to The Mighty Sparrow and began his competitive career on the Trinidad carnival scene in the 50s. He went on to release well over 200 albums in which his opinions on day to day life, love, sex, local and world political issues were all addressed in infectiously upbeat and humorous style.

For the ICA show Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris have made ceramic tiles, album sized, of 228 of Sparrow's long playing and 12" records. As you can see they're nearly as much a joy to look at as they are to listen to. Sparrow on the beach. Sparrow dressed as Santa. Sparrow in the studio. Sparrow looking mean and moody in a sombrero. The artwork goes from full on cheese to faux-naïve to beautifully rendered graphic design.

This makes up the bulk of the exhibition. You can spend a fair bit of time perusing it and to set the scene the curators have provided a soundtrack of many of Sparrow's greatest hits. Unfortunately the volume is set much much too low. I'm surely not alone in thinking calypso and soca need to be played loud.

Once you've looked at, and enjoyed, Sparrow's back catalogue you can get stuck into the meat of the exhibition. Boscoe Holder's 1969 portrait of Mighty Sparrow (above) normally lives in the collection of artist Peter Doig but for the duration of this exhibition it's presiding over a cabinet of calypsonian curiosities expanding further on Sparrow's story.

In 1962 Sparrow came second in the annual calypso competition. Nat Hepburn was 3rd and the fantastically named Lord Brynner took the plaudits that year. Soon Sparrow was at the top and he worked hard to defend his Calypso King and Road March titles. An eccentric rival, Mighty Spoiler, died of alcohol related illnesses in 1960 aged just 34. Spoiler was responsible for 1953's Bed Bug in which he fantasised about being reincarnated as the titular creature for not entirely honourable reasons.

Another rival was Lord Melody (noted for his cover of Sir Lancelot's Shame & Scandal). Melody was a friend of Sparrow's as much as a rival and when he died in 1988 Sparrow paid tribute with his calypso Melo.

But Sparrow's most sustained rivalry was with Lord Kitchener whose London Is The Place For Me gave Honest Jon's the title for their lovingly compiled and wonderful 2002 compilation. Whilst Sparrow, Kitchener, and Melody were duking it out for the title of calypso king Calypso Rose was undoubtedly the queen of the scene. Her collaboration with Manu Chao, Far From Home, came out last year proving that Rose has very much still got it at 76 years old. I hope to write about it soon. Because it's fucking great.

In the following decades Sparrow was challenged by younger, more politically radical, artists. Some of whom felt that the older artists focus on seaside postcard style slapstick humour somehow distracted from the more important focus on social issues. Dr Liverpool Chalkdust had hits in the 70s with Ah Put on Meh Guns Again, Fish Monger, and Kaiso Sick in de Hospital before using the PhD in history and ethnomusicology he'd worked for at the University of Michigan to become Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Virgin Islands.

Even more militant was Black Stalin who rose to fame in the 80s. An ex-limbo dancer who used his calypsos to raise awareness of black nationalist issues. Before he went chutney he had hits with Ism Schism, Mr Panmaker, and Bun 'Em.

Things were getting more politically charged both in the calypso scene and in the Trini society it reflected. Yasin Abu Bakr, a former retired policeman, was arrested after a 1990 coup attempt in Port of Spain. Bakr and his Jamat-al-Muslimeen followers attempt to overthrow Trinidad & Tobago's prime minister ANR Robinson's government ended up with 24 people dead. Bakr had cited courts accepting bribes, sexual corruption, threats to demolish a mosque he'd built on contested land, and the police killing of Abdul Kareem, a Muslimeen teenager as the reasons for the coup. Following an amnesty Bakr received only two years in prison. Sparrow responded with his song Abu Bakr.

Earlier on another unlikely player found himself in the Sparrow story. Van Dyke Parks is better known for his work with The Beach Boys, Randy Newman, and Ry Cooder but, after including calypsos in his 1972 album Discover America, he produced Sparrow's '74 album Hot and Sweet.

It's just one of the fascinating calypso shaped rabbit holes you can fall into at this short, but packed with detail, show. There's stuff about early 20c calypsonian Attila the Hun who managed to combine his musical career with a parliamentarian one. His 1938 calypso The Persecuted Jews bravely, and insightfully, compared the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis to centuries of slavery.

There's a stack of books to look at. Alas they're under Perspex but it would surely be worth, one day, a read of researcher and professor of West Indian literature Gordon Rohlehr's Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad or Earl Lovelace's 1979 The Dragon Can't Dance. Poetry is represented too by St Lucia's Derek Walcott's Fortunate Traveller (1981) and John Agard (representing Guyana) with Man To Pan from 1982.

There's so much to enjoy, and discover, at this exhibition, and, as it costs only £1 to enter, I'd highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the music and culture of the West Indies and Trinidad in particular. If you don't come out more curious than you went in I'd be highly surprised. Even if you can't get along spend some time getting to know this music and why not start with The Mighty Sparrow himself?

No comments:

Post a Comment