Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : February 14th 2014 Contents A5
Friday, February 14, 2014 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
The life of the Mighty Sparrow
has been a journey which has
involved tumultuous developmental
phases, shifting physical locations
and audiences and continuous con-
flict and reinvention in Prof Gordon
Rohlehr s estimation.
Nonetheless, a few themes recur.
Chief among these are a continuing
identity quest and reinvention as the
market and time demanded; a desire
for the validation of kingship, mate-
rialised in the calypso monarch title
and a drive for professional improve-
ment of calypso, while maintaining
links with the not always reputable
tradition from whence he came.
Rohlehr essayed this summation
at the Central Bank, Port-of-Spain,
on Wednesday, delivering a lecture
entitled My Whole Life is Calypso.
According to Canboulay Produc-
tions director, Rawle Gibbons, the
series is a result of Sparrow s recent
hospitalisation, which had triggered
a realisation of his mortality.
The event was billed a "lecture
performance" and was attended by
Sparrow and his wife, and accom-
panied by the Canboulay Performers,
who included David Bereaux per-
forming songs which interspersed
Rohlehr s lecture.
At moments, Sparrow was offered
and accepted the mic and sang
excerpts from some of his classic
songs, like Jean and Dinah.
Also in the audience was Arts &
Multiculturalism Minister Lincoln
The audience participated eagerly,
giving Sparrow two standing ova-
tions, and there were some shouts
of "cheque" directed at the minister,
referring to a cheque for Sparrow.
Gibbons said such a cheque would
be presented at the end of the series,
in the sum of $100,000.
Rohlehr set as his central question:
"What has Sparrow given to calypso
in his six decades and what has
calypso given to Sparrow in return?"
To answer this, he focused on con-
troversies and moments where
calypso evolved around the axis of
Sparrow, who, he said: "Reinvented
himself decade after decade."
Sparrow s beginnings, said
Rohlehr, were relatively conventional.
He emigrated from Grenada with
his parents at the age of 21 months
in 1937, a fact which would be used
by his calypso and political oppo-
nents in later life to brand him an
"outsider" when convenient, and
culminate in the infamous moment
where he invited hecklers and judges
at the monarch semis to kiss his
He attended St Patrick s Boys (now
Newtown Boys ) where he sang in
the choir and performed at school
During his formative years, said
Rohlehr, the society was in the grip
of labour and other social traumas
and those defined the consciousness
of the young Slinger Francisco. It
was an era when aggressiveness and
assertiveness were necessary to make
sure one was not advantaged.
In the post-war years, the society
had changed somewhat, thanks to
the American bases even if the
change was not all for the better.
Increasing incomes created new ris-
ing working and middle classes.
The American money and desire
for distraction had also created an
outsized demimonde of hustlers,
prostitutes, petty thieves and bad-
At the time, calypsonians were
popularly portrayed as interested in
drinking, gambling, fathering
unwanted children by women of
dubious character---and Sparrow s
decision to pursue that calling after
leaving school caused his mother
He taught himself how to play the
guitar and began an apprenticeship
as an entertainer, singing in restau-
rants, before trying the tents.
He made his first tent appearance
in 1954 and won the monarch title
in 1956 with Jean and Dinah.
However, despite beginning as a
"traditional calypsonian," ostensibly
celebrating the demimonde (the
grotesque humour, violence, and
characters of "street" or the "yard")
in his calypsoes, Sparrow defied the
He introduced a degree of pro-
fessionalism which had not existed
before and he was fiscally prudent
and industrious where his peers had
He produced 120 calypsoes in his
first eight years, said Rohlehr, in a
variety of styles, ranging from the
polemical social and political com-
mentator, to the ironic observer, the
"The narratives are very finely
crafted and complex," said Rohlehr,
likening Sparrow to a "trickster fig-
ure" who adopted personas for dif-
ferent performative purposes.
After 1956, Sparrow capitalised
on the success of Harry Belafonte s
calypso album in 1957, and accepted
engagements in the US, along with
Lord Melody early in 1958, in the
middle of the Carnival season.
These career moves, and the fact
that he accepted the then princely
$500 to perform in the Jaycees Car-
nival show, said Rohlehr, did not
endear him to other calypsonians.
Atilla the Hun, the senior calypsonian
of the era, commented that Sparrow
was "the antithesis of kaiso."
A life in calypso
The criticism marked the first
break in his career from the tradi-
tional mould and the start of a che-
quered relationship with his local
From the 1960s, his foreign expo-
sure allowed him to cultivate a rela-
tionship with and become a symbol
and icon to a transnational audience
of West Indian, and to introduce
calypso to an international audience.
He returned to the monarch com-
petition in 1960 and won but lost
the following year to Dougla to which
he responded angrily to the judges:
"Calypso is my whole life."
At this moment, the importance
of the validation of holding the
monarch s crown solidified as a trope
in Sparrow s life.
This carried over into the next
phase of his career, the rivalry with
Kitchener, whom, Sparrow claimed,
he encouraged to return from Eng-
land in the mid-1960s, so as to
broaden the field and expand the
range and reach of calypso.
It was also, Rohlehr opined, the
desire for a worthy rival, to endorse
his supremacy when he did win the
crown, which he continued to do.
The rivalry had the desired effect,
in that it increased the variety of
calypso, but it also had the unan-
ticipated effect of degenerating into
a real quarrel between Sparrow and
Kitchener and dividing the calyp-
so-loving public between them.
The division was to be heightened
and became increasingly acrimonious
for the next two decades.
One low point in Sparrow-Kitch-
ener relations was in the late 1970s,
when Sparrow changed political alle-
giance from the PNM to the ONR,
and sided with his attorney, lifelong
friend, and fellow Grenadian émigré,
Karl Hudson-Phillips. (Hudson-
Phillips defended him at his gun
Kitchener accused him of being
ungrateful. The fact of Sparrow s
emigration from Grenada also resur-
faced among the fickle, ferocious
public, leading to yet another inci-
dent of contention with his audi-
But in the public mind, said
Rohlehr, the two became, rather than
antagonists, a dyad, an inseparable
composite icon of calypso.
Nonetheless, this fresh round of
conflict drove Sparrow to the US,
where he continued to cultivate the
West Indian émigré public and take
calypso to international audiences.
To appeal to this international
audience, said Rohlehr, Sparrow had
to reinvent his persona. It also neces-
sitated a broadening of his already
impressive repertoire. But he was
not done with Trinidad and his local
Sparrow returned to the monarch
stage in 1992, after an absence of 17
years, amidst mutterings and impre-
cations that he was too old.
He won that year (with Both a
Them), and thus began the conflict
which defines the final stage of his
career, said Rohlehr: The battle with
As an illustration of this ongoing
final conflict, Rohlehr closed his lec-
ture with a detailed description of
a 2001 concert at Pier 1.
Commenting on his impressive
range and stamina---he performed
22 songs divided into different gen-
res---what defined the Sparrow at
66, said Rohlehr, was his customary
location in conflict, between "his
pursuit of a younger man, and his
defence of an older one who would
not go gentle into that good night."
See editorial on Page A28
Sparrow laps up praise at lecture series...
'The crown is the thing'
SPARROW AND GML
This was the first in a series, If
Sparrow Say So, organised by
Canboulay Productions. Other
instalments will be delivered this
month at venues throughout the
country by Earl Lovelace, Prof
Hollis Liverpool, David Rudder, and
Prof Patricia Mohammed.
Guardian Media Ltd is proud to
be the media partner in this project
to honour the Mighty Sparrow, the
world's most eminent calypsonian.
On Wednesday night, at the
event in Sparrow's honour, GML's
general manager, marketing,
Cyntra Achong, presented Sparrow
with the first copy of a special
Titled For Sparrow, with Love,
this collector's edition was
subsequently published with
yesterday's T&T Guardian o mark
the start of the five-part lecture
Guardian Media Ltd ---through
the T&T Guardian, CT Vibe 105.1fm
and CNC3---is the exclusive media
partner for the series. CTVibe
105.1fm will carry the lectures live
for those who are unable to attend.
Calypsonian Slinger Mighty Sparrow Francisco, third from left, and his wife, Margaret, second left, look pleased as
they take in one of the performances of his songs during the If Sparrow Say So lecture at the Central Bank
Auditorium, Port-of-Spain, on Wednesday evening. Arts and Multiculturalism Minister Dr Lincoln Douglas is at left.
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