According to the Trinidadian writer and broadcaster Isaac Fergusson, “Even politicians were afraid of Sparrow and what he would reveal about them in a song. Until he came along, most calypsonians were semi-professional. People paid them with rum and food – a treat, rather than a salary. They survived on the gratitude of the people. Sparrow changed all that. He wore a suit like a businessman and insisted on being paid. He could be demanding, but musicians loved to play with him, because he treated them the best.”
Despite conflicts with the establishment behind Trinidad’s fabled carnival (1957’s Carnival Boycott documented his strike for fairer pay for male calypsonians), Sparrow is nevertheless an eight-time winner of each of the carnival’s Road March and Calypso Monarch awards, and is often dubbed Calypso King of the World.
The lyrical sting of calypso and the instrument associated with it, the steel pan, may be pop’s most embedded form of resistance. Starting in 1740, the legal banning of the African-style drum (made of wood and animal skin) under slavery and colonialism encouraged the invention of the steel pan. Hammering industrial metal into tempered scales, steel pans were made out of oil drums from the island’s chief export; this was music made by any means necessary, to defy those who benefited most from the island’s resources. Calypso’s lyrics, too, became a forum for thrashing out the issues of the day, reporting on anything from industrial disputes to sexual peccadilloes.
Colonial-era education and studies of the English poets remain foundational for Sparrow. “We always wanted to belong to the English side of things, because that’s all we knew,” he says. “As we grew up, America became a second part of us. But going to England felt like going home.” Throughout our conversation, Sparrow sings to make a point. “Remember this?” he asks, before breaking into Rule Britannia: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
When his mother Clarisse brought the 18-month-old Slinger and his elder brother on a small boat from their native Grenada to Trinidad, they were moving from one UK colony to another. Though both islands like to claim him, his ancestors were involuntary immigrants. Sparrow’s gripping track The Slave, from the 1964 album True Life Stories of People, Passion and Politics, set a template for how Caribbean music could interpret its bloody history. Fergusson recalls his friend Bob Marley confiding: “When I heard the Mighty Sparrow sing The Slave, I knew what I wanted to do with my music.” Over a propulsive afro-cuban jazz rhythm, Sparrow’s pointed enunciation and swelling attack on the chorus build a narrative that presages Marley’s Redemption Song. “I got to make a brilliant escape / But every time I think about the whip and dem dogs / My body starts to shake.” As Sparrow soars into the line, “Lord, I wanna be free”, the track stops so abruptly that it feels as if the listener is leaping from a cliff into the ocean to escape the slave-catcher’s dogs at their heels.
Mighty Sparrow - 60 million Frenchmen
Sparrow is a great performer who deserves all the honours and awards showered on him. But we must also recognize and celebrate the genius of those who actually wrote his lyrics.