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The Mighty Sparrow: Gender Warrior
The Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco) has been accused of misogyny and supporting repressive patriarchy via his songs, but this criticism needs to be revised to see Sparrow as an enabler of women as well, Prof Patricia Mohammed says.
Mohammed, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, was delivering the final in the series of tribute lectures to Sparrow, If Sparrow Say So, at UWI’s Daaga Auditorium on Wednesday night.
Her lecture was titled Who Taking Advantage of Who? – a line taken from Stella, one of Sparrow’s songs.
Calypsonian and two-time calypso monarch Singing Sandra (Sandra DesVignes Millington) contributed to the lecture with an interpolated tribute, telling of Sparrow’s mentorship of her, and other women.
Mohammed’s lecture began acknowledging the social value of Sparrow’s oeuvre. She said his lyrics and songs (and music in general) were a “means of retrieving archived collective memory.” His songs allow individuals to access personal memories as well as “a slideshow of political, economic and social issues of the time” they were performed.
Sparrow’s music captured the mood of independence in a unique way, said Mohammed. This was as an insider-outsider, as he came to T&T from Grenada with his mother as a babe in arms and was never allowed to forget it, especially when it suited his antagonists.
Apart from his social and political commentary, said Mohammed, songs examining “man and woman ting” comprise 93 of his repertoire of some 200 songs, and Sparrow was “best known for his undressing of the anatomy of sexual politics in the region.”
Her own experience of Sparrow began, she said, at Naparima Girls’ High School, when Sparrow was invited to speak to and perform for “rows and rows of impressionable young girls” and he sang the raunchy Sa-Sa-Ye and The Lizard for them.
This incident, like many of Sparrow’s calypsos, was not a thoughtless or miscalculated gesture. There is a subtle perception at work, which is not necessarily accessible to the casual observer interested in simple moral equivocations. In general, said Mohammed, “if he slurs women’s sexuality, he also castigates male behaviour.”
If the Village Ram, Sa Sa Ye and Mae Mae are unambiguous, in Stella, for example, Sparrow’s protagonist is a man who is determined to not take advantage of a young lady, but the young lady insists. Phillip My Dear (about the intruder, Michael Fagan, who was found in the Queen of England’s bedchamber in 1982) is essayed from the point of view of the Queen. Benwood Dick is the story of a cuckold.
The Sparrow of the songs, said Mohammed, is a shape-shifter, not necessarily belonging to any of the characters or protagonists he creates and the women he addresses, Maria, Jean and Dinah, Maharajin, Mae Mae, Melda (and many more).
As a social agent, Mohammed also compared Sparrow to the early English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who introduced into the mainstream the voices and stories of the lower orders, who did not have access to the official languages and literacy.
Like Chaucer, she said, Sparrow introduced the stories and language of the lower orders of society into the literary canon, bringing them to wider consciousness, and inserting them into the archive of collective and formal academic memory.
In this, Mohammed placed Sparrow alongside CLR James, Albert Gomes, Sam Selvon, VS Naipaul and others whose writing had also had the same agenda and effect. She quoted Naipaul’s observations that calypso had the ability to reduce sometimes horrific personal events to insider jokes, like The Congo Man.
Sparrow’s links to the past also included a canonical relationship with the past masters of calypso who had preceded him. Mohammed recalled the calypso dialogues of the 20s and 30s which dealt with the sordid male female relationships, bringing them explicitly to public consciousness for the first time. Sparrow had copied these songs’ style and technique, but had also improved upon them, she said. In doing so, Sparrow enabled the continuation of the gender dialogue into the 1960s, which had “ushered in a second wave of feminism post-War”.
The same progressiveness, Mohammed proposed, could not be said of contemporary calypso, chutney and soca offerings, since “the lack of censorship and freeing up of sexual mores have diminished the intelligence of contemporary calypsonians”.
Mohammed concluded that while Sparrow’s work was used to reinforce patriarchal gender oppression, neither the songs, nor their singer, were as unambiguous as critics claimed.
Sandra: Sparrow and me
To reinforce this point, Singing Sandra entered the lecture to recount her personal experience of and with Sparrow.
Sandra began her professional life as a Best Village singer and had not considered calypso until calypsonian Dr Zhivago saw her perform and took her around to audition for tents in 1984. She got into Sparrow’s Young Brigade tent, and his first words to her, after seeing her perform, were: “I hope you not in this for the money because you won’t last.” But, she said he continued, “I think you will be a force to reckon with.”
Thus began a relationship with Sparrow which lasted many years, up to the present. Sparrow also mentored several other women calypsonians, including Marvellous Marva, Lady B, Tigress and Natasha Wilson, she said. She remembered Sparrow as a perfectionist, impatient with mediocrity, and a consummate professional. She recalled a trip to Aruba, where Sparrow had surgery and travelled the same night, performing with stitches, which burst during performance.
The Sparrow series
The If Sparrow Say So lecture series began with a lecture by Gordon Rohlehr at the Central Bank on February 14. The other instalments were delivered by Prof Hollis Liverpool, Earl Lovelace and calypsonians Relator and David Rudder.
The lecture was also interpolated by snippets of Sparrow’s calypsoes sung by David Bereaux, accompanied by the Canboulay Players, and on one or two occasions, by Sparrow himself.
After Prof Mohammed delivered her lecture, a formal presentation of a cheque for $100,000 was made to Sparrow to assist in defraying medical bills. Canboulay Productions director Rawle Gibbons, during the course of the presentation, said Sparrow had not asked for any help, but he and Canboulay had taken it upon themselves to organize a tribute and collect money. The sponsors included Guardian Media Ltd, UWI, the Ministry of Arts & Multiculturalism and National Quarries.
Gibbons said while this was the end of the lecture series, it was not the end of the activities. He said DVDs of the series would be produced and the lectures would be taken around the region.