June 01, 2001
By Raffique Shah
ONE had to be there, meaning anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago, to understand the impact the Mighty Sparrow's "Jean and Dinah" had on calypso as an art form when The Birdie sang that song in 1956. I was just 10 years old when it hit the airwaves-well, on the two radio stations we had at the time-but I remember it as if it were yesterday. My only recollection of a kaiso that had had a similar appeal was Blakie's "Steelband Clash", the Road March in 1954. But whereas Blakie had everyone chipping and chanting his "Mama, when de two band clash, If you see cutlash (sic)"-I can still hear the notes being played by Sunny Side Kids of Freeport-Sparrow triggered a virtual revolution with "Jean and Dinah".
One could sense then that unless he was a flash-in-the-pan, here was a man who was destined to alter calypso forever. From schoolyards to playgrounds, boys and girls sang "Jean and Dinah", even though as children we hardly understood the theme of the song. And I'm writing about little Indian boys and girls, Africans (negroes, in those days), Chinese, everyone. But while we the young ones found it infectious, and older fans thrived and wined and did whatever else to the jumpy beat of the calypso, not so our parents, especially older Indians.
From the moment he sang "Jean and Dinah", Sparrow was viewed by most adult Indians as a vulgar calypsonian who was dismantling their religious and cultural values (they understood that Sparrow was singing about "jamettes"), hence he was anathema to them. Indeed, while we children could sing Spitfire's "Post, Post Another Letter For Thelma" or Killer's "In A Calabash" without fear, we ran the risk of being spanked for singing "Jean and Dinah". Worse for us Indian children, the precocious and outspoken Sparrow was soon seen being chummy with Dr Eric Williams-the wily politician knew how to capitalise on a good thing-who had just won his first election leading the PNM. That, and the fact that Sparrow was of Grenadian origin, made him unacceptable to most Indians, especially those in the country districts.
To compound his image as the new "bad lad" of calypso, Sparrow immediately ran into war with the Carnival authorities over prize money for calypsonians when compared with the generous prizes other participants in Carnival got. After his runaway victory in 1956, Sparrow refused to participate in any more competitions staged by the authorities until the prizes offered to participants in the Calypso King competition were increased. But he added to his repertoire of hit songs every year until he re-entered the competition in 1960. With "Ten To One Is Murder" and "Mae Mae", he really was monarch of all he surveyed. Really, if "Jean and Dinah" was his "test piece", these latter two numbers defied description.
"Badjohnism", which at the time was characterised more by hand fights than use of weapons (oaky, there was the odd slash with a razor, or a few chops with a cutlass!) was celebrated in "Ten To One Is Murder". Characters like "Goldteeth" (several "tesses" carried that title, but there was one "original"), Masifay (more a ladies' man than a "badjohn", I am told by those who knew him), "Cutouter" (these two formed the subject of a calypso by **), Boysie Singh, and others with equal "reputations", formed the lore of the day.
"Mae Mae" was a totally different kettle of fish. Its sexual innuendoes were hardly disguised, and not even its haunting melody made it acceptable to rural Indians. To be caught whistling its melody was cause for a good cutarse! Sparrow, the Indian community argued, was far too vulgar. By that time, too, the second real general election was imminent, and as has been traditional in Trinidad, battle lines, or more pointedly, race lines, were being drawn. And since Sparrow was now seen as being a PNM point man, his victory in 1960, and with that his added stature, worried rural Indians.
When, therefore, in 1961, seemingly out of nowhere one Claytis Ali, calypso sobriquet "Dougla", stormed the carnival season with two monster hits, "Lazy Man" and "Split Me In Two", rural Indians did not care that he was a "dougla" (which, for many of them, was worse than being a "caphar" or "negro"). The mere fact that he carried an Indian name was enough for them. Better still, he beat Sparrow in the finals to snatch the crown, although The Birdie rendered one of his immortal hits, "Ten to One Is Murder" in the competition. Dougla's victory was seen as a sign of things to come later that year, what with Dr Rudrunath Capildeo returning to Trinidad to lead the opposition DLP. Doctor versus doctor, the beginning of what Lloyd Best terms "doctah politics".
Dougla really did beat Sparrow that Dimanche Gras night. When you reflect on the lyrics of "Lazy Man", you see the genius of a Spoiler, who had unfortunately passed on, having won the crown in 1953 (with "Bed Bug"). And "Split Me In Two" was Dougla's comical take on the race situation that had reared its head again: after all, it was an election year. Sparrow was not exactly excited about being beaten by this George Street barber. It must have been a difficult decision for the judges, but it can never be said that they "gave" the crown to Dougla.
But Sparrow felt that he had been robbed. The following year he returned with "Robbery with V" ("They put a man with no originality, no stage personality, they trying to make me look small; but all he have is a deep tune, no melody at all."). Dougla did have a baritone voice and in his short stint on stage (he died sometime in 1963/64) definitely lacked variety. So his "Teacher Teacher" (1962), while it was a hit of sorts, in no way matched Sparrow's "Federation" and "Sparrow Come Back Home", which saw the Birdie return to winners' row.
But 1961 was a turbulent political year: there was the introduction of the highly controversial mechanical voting machines, a move that was strongly opposed by Capildeo's DLP. It was also an election that saw racial violence erupt in the Barataria/San Juan areas. And to make matters worse, with all the suspicion surrounding the voting machines, Dr Eric Williams had predicted the PNM would win 20 of 30 seats-which it did.
In the run-up to Independence in 1962, certainly in the eyes of most Indians, Sparrow was seen as a mouthpiece of the PNM. In 1960 he had sung "Pay As You Earn", "Leave De Damn Doctah Alone" and "Who Doh Like It Could Get To Hell Out Of Here" (about the Patrick Solomon affair-I do not recall the year) seemed to rub salt in the wounds of the opposition. But by Independence, too, many younger Indians had gravitated to Sparrow's style of calypsoes and for us he was the undisputed champion of the art form. So that conflict between the younger ones humming or singing or playing Sparrow's songs (either in juke boxes or in "radiograms", for those who could afford them), and the older Indians seeing him as "the enemy", raged for many years.
Interestingly, in 1962, at what would be the biggest political occasion for the country, Independence, Sparrow did not fare well. In a competition that was organised to crown the "Independence Calypso King", a one-and-off title that was coveted because of its significance, Sparrow was again beaten. Lord Brynner (Kade Simon) won the title singing: "Because this is your land, just as well as my land, It is you place, and also it's my place; So leh we put our heads together like one happy family, democratically, educationally, to live independently." On the competition night (we were glued to our radio sets), Brynner came across like a winner. In retrospect, though, Sparrow's song "Model Nation" was much more appropriate for the occasion: "Trinidad and Tobago will always live on, colonialism gone, our nation is born; We go follow our leaders, who always do their best, In order to achieve, we got to aspire and we bound to be a success."
In the golden years of the 1960s, we would get many treasures from The Birdie: Dan Is De Man, Village Ram, Congo Man, Melda, Rose, Maria, Education, Mr Walker and Sa Sa Yea, to name a few. Sparrow was undoubtedly the most prolific calypsonian of that era, producing an LP (that was long before CDs) every year. In his career, he has produced more than 70 albums, which must rank him at the international level among singers. But not his genius, not his display of a voice that was the envy of others (he recorded his first ballad, "Only A Fool", as far back as in 1965), not his enjoyable calypso-war with Lord Melody that produced gems like "Madame Dracula" and Melo's retort, "Belmont Jackass", could sway Indians. He was "ah PNM", thus undeserving of praise for his genius.
It was not until the 1970s that more and more Indians started appreciating Sparrow's works. In fact, many who had migrated in the 1960s (mainly to Britain then, but later to the USA and Canada) proudly played their Sparrow LPs for their Trini and foreign friends. At home, too, his image had started changing: he gradually shed his balisier clothes for a more objective position. His 1971 number, "Good Citizen", was social commentary at its best, coming on the heels of the Black Power revolution that had highlighted the inequities in the society. By 1981 he had openly broken with the PNM and identified with Karl Hudson-Phillips's ONR.
Out of that experience in which the ONR captured some 80,000-plus votes (but not a damn seat!), came some more vintage Sparrow: "We Like It So" was typical Sparrow: he was able to laugh at himself, the "picong" he was subjected to by PNMites as he campaigned for Karl. "Human Rights" came in '82 and "Capitalism Gone Mad" in '83. But while he focussed on social commentary that had at long last become acceptable to Indians (after all, it was anti-PNM commentary), he did not miss out on the "Soca" beat that had by then taken the country by storm. "Sexy Marajin" triggered probably the first frontal assault on Sparrow by an Indian organisation, the Maha Sabha. The group argued that the song portrayed Indian women as being vulgar, and there were calls for him to stop singing it, just as Shorty's "Indrani" invited condemnation, mainly from Hindus.
During that politically transitional period Sparrow also sang party tunes like "Drunk and Disorderly" (Road March, 1972), "Doh Back Back" (84), and "Soca Pressure" (85). He was now a celebrity, and most of all he was no longer "ah PNM". So his Indian fan club grew. This really spoke volumes about how artistes were (and continue to be) treated. The mere fact that he had jumped the PNM ship made him acceptable to the same people who were harsh on him in his earlier, but no less successful, years. In the current scenario, one can see a similarity in the way Winston "Gypsy" Peters and M'Ba were looked down at by Afro-Trinidadians when they opted to support the Indian-based UNC in 2000. Theirs was a case of reverse racism-or more appropriately, they were charged with "tribal desertion".
Today, Sparrow is a calypso icon, King of the World, Dr Bird and much more. Today, when Sparrow stages special shows at which he still dishes out naughty numbers like "Salt Fish", "Mae Mae", "Village Ram", "Phillip My Dear", "Miss Mary", "Congo Man" and "Willy Dead", many Indians, and not young ones at that, can be seen enjoying themselves, singing along with the King. Indeed, the man who started out his career with a daring-but-infectious song ("Jean and Dinah") that glorified and villified whores, is the darling of all of Trinidad and Tobago. And to think that up to 30 years ago he was shunned not only by Indians, but also by "social" Africans and others of similar ilk but different races, is the darling of all of Trinidad and Tobago.
It must be rewarding for him, this brash young Grenadian who turned the calypso world upside down back in 1956. His coming of age, in a manner of speaking, is so inextricably tied to his varying political loyalties, it must be a lesson for all those involved in calypso, and more so the entertainment industry. But, like most outspoken calypsonians, he always had the guts to sing what he wanted to, and it mattered not what others thought about him or his songs. That is what distinguishes a good calypsonian from a fly-by-night mercenary. Sparrow is, without doubt, the best calypsonian in the Caribbean, and by extension, the world.
My choice for Sparrow's best song ever? Slave! It encapsules one of the most important events that shaped the history of the west, if not the world, in five incisive and dramatic verses. No other artiste, and very few writers, has come close to defining what slavery really meant, dramatising the Middle Passage, the trauma of life on the sugar plantations, and the bigger challenges that faced the slaves when they were finally freed.
For me, it ranks right up there with the top 50 songs on the Millennium-and I mean worldwide, not just in Trinidad and Tobago.
Copyright © Raffique Shah