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Sparrow laps up praise at lecture series: ‘The crown is the thing’
The life of the Mighty Sparrow has been a journey which has involved tumultuous developmental phases, shifting physical locations and audiences and continuous conflict 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, materialised in the calypso monarch title and a drive for professional improvement 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 Productions 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 accompanied by the Canboulay Performers, who included David Bereaux performing 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 Douglas. The audience participated eagerly, giving Sparrow two standing ovations, 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 controversies 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 opponents 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 Grenadian parts. He attended St Patrick’s Boys (now Newtown Boys’) where he sang in the choir and performed at school concerts. 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 rising working and middle classes. The American money and desire for distraction had also created an outsized demimonde of hustlers, prostitutes, petty thieves and badjohns.
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 considerable grief. He taught himself how to play the guitar and began an apprenticeship as an entertainer, singing in restaurants, 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 stereotype. He introduced a degree of professionalism which had not existed before and he was fiscally prudent and industrious where his peers had been profligate. He produced 120 calypsoes in his first eight years, said Rohlehr, in a variety of styles, ranging from the polemical social and political commentator, to the ironic observer, the humorous spectator. “The narratives are very finely crafted and complex,” said Rohlehr, likening Sparrow to a “trickster figure” who adopted personas for different 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 Carnival 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 traditional mould and the start of a chequered relationship with his local audience. From the 1960s, his foreign exposure allowed him to cultivate a relationship 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 competition 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 England 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 unanticipated effect of degenerating into a real quarrel between Sparrow and Kitchener and dividing the calypso-loving public between them. The division was to be heightened and became increasingly acrimonious for the next two decades.
One low point in Sparrow-Kitchener relations was in the late 1970s, when Sparrow changed political allegiance 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 trial). Kitchener accused him of being ungrateful. The fact of Sparrow’s emigration from Grenada also resurfaced among the fickle, ferocious public, leading to yet another incident of contention with his audience. 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 necessitated a broadening of his already impressive repertoire. But he was not done with Trinidad and his local audiences.
Sparrow returned to the monarch stage in 1992, after an absence of 17 years, amidst mutterings and imprecations 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 time. As an illustration of this ongoing final conflict, Rohlehr closed his lecture 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 genres—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.”
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 tribute publication.
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 series. 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.