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Ode to the Mighty Sparrow
It can be argued, demanded in some circles, that Slinger Francisco—“Mighty Sparrow”—is greater, and has made a much bigger and better contribution to Caribbean life, than compatriot Brian Lara, (Sir) Vivian Richards or (Sir) Garfield Sobers. To some, only Robert “Bob” Marley compares to Sparrow, or vice versa. Sparrow has sung for real Queens and Kings around the world, in places, like Japan and parts of Africa, where cricket is not yet played in any real sense. Like Brother Bob’s, Sparrow’s music has lived on its own! Yet, the man who once claimed that he is “Trinidadian by boat; Grenadian by birth”, and proclaimed himself “Calypso King of the World” long before anyone else did, and who, officially, was 78 last July, has always been such a humble, if mischievous, ambassador for us all; everyone’s friend. Sparrow has helped so many people in so many ways, it probably could not be counted in another lifetime! Even if you disagree with those, you must allow that he has also sung about cricketers, women, men, politicians, fellow calypsonians, every other situation, with equal fervor, as only Sparrow can.
The man has a tune for every occasion, all wonderfully composed; even better sung. Mighty Sparrow is a living, still, thankfully, genius—absolute legend— to be fully celebrated, always and forever! I use present tense because I will always hope, and pray, that he will be with us for some time yet, even as he battles, in hospital in New York, with a suspected stroke. The news brought tears to my eyes! As he himself would put it in that strangely grotto voice, “M’boy, the Old Man will keep on trying, regardless!” I could not try to match many other contributions to such a wonderful life, but as a former West Indian cricketer, I too, with many others, were either praised or demonised, by Sparrow. Who could forget “Kerry Packer”, when Sparrow suggested that we, the real West Indies cricket team then, were all banned from playing for West Indies, 1978 and 1979, because cricketers had suddenly started to make relatively decent livings for their efforts, courtesy of the Australian’s World Series Cricket. According to Sparrow, the establishment were jealous, still wanting us to operate like servants, not like the representatives we were!
“Maria” and “Ten to one is murder” were the first calypsoes that I heard from Sparrow. I have since tried really hard to not only hear all of his renditions, and attend his concerts whenever possible, but to collect all of his music. They are so many, I am still trying!
Those two, though, gave a vivid introduction of the life that Sparrow had led, overall, always loving and warring, both at exactly the same time! I would suggest that “Slave” is Sparrow’s best tune ever, by a million miles; like the Hallelujah Chorus, an anthem! The only other calypso that comes close, but not parallel, is Winston Bailey’s—Mighty Shadow—“Poverty is hell!” “Slave” is much more succinct, a tune for all times, good and bad, and always relevant, to this very day! Another magnificent rendition was a calypso that really epitomises the West Indian diaspora and its dilemma of love of beloved country, balanced with love of self and trying to make a good, productive life. After being, as he put it, treated badly in his own home, and having to move to live in New York to make a good living, Sparrow produced “Sparrow come back home”, a song which described West Indians brilliantly, with natives desperately begging him to come back to Trinidad & Tobago. He eventually did: “I make up meh mine to ketch the aero-plane, back to Port of Spain; but from Piarco to the city, they start back heckling me; a woman shout ‘Look de hog, yuh did bong to come back, yuh dirty dog!’............”
Sparrow’s greatest opponent, and perhaps the man he respected most, must have been his arch rival, Aldwyn Roberts—Lord Kitchener —the banter, picong and insults going back and forth for decades. In sports, perhaps Dennis Lillee against Sir Viv, in cricket, Smoking Joe Frazier v Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard v Roberto Duran, in boxing, or Michael Jordon v Larry Bird, in basketball, could compare! Yet, the real mettle of Sparrow came out when “Kitch” died, Sparrow openly chastising the then feuding politicians in Trinidad & Tobago about their fight to ‘claim’ that other calypso maestro. Sparrow suggested that “Kitch is neither PNM nor UNC (The ruling political party at the time), but simply a Trinidadian, one of the best people that this country has ever produced!” Sparrow left what he was doing overseas to get to T&T for his chief rival’s funeral and openly cried there. That is greatness personified! He also suggested that “we must never wait until someone is dead to revere them and eulogise them. We must give them all of the praises, their due, when they are alive, when they can enjoy them!” Quite! Let us all hope that Mighty Sparrow endures to celebrate much more success! Enjoy!