Vaneisa: The Gentle Observer—remembering the ‘Cultural Sprangalang’

The following column on Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall, who passed away on Friday 2 October 2020, was first published in the Sunday Guardian on 30 January 1994:

“Why you want to write about me?” he asks suspiciously on the telephone. “I doh like publicity. I’s just ah ordinary man making mih living.”

Dennis Hall, this ‘ordinary man’ lives almost subterraneously beneath his stage persona, ‘Sprangalang’. He demurs, then reluctantly agrees to meet at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop where he is to pick up some lighting equipment. At the appointed time, a sky-blue panel van pulls into the driveway and Sprangalang’s familiar figure emerges.

Photo: Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall.

“Why you want to write about me?” he asks, as he lights a cigarette and gazes out the window. “I’s just a normal citizen trying to put back something in de country for the air I does breathe.”

He insists he is an utterly banal, unknown character, unworthy of attention. But he can barely finish his self-effacing remarks because every passer-by shouts a greeting or some picong his way.

Hall’s wit and repartee, delivered in his raw, working-class idiom, have made him arguably this country’s most popular comic. The character, Sprangalang, with his perpetually bulging eyes, his baggy clothes and slippers, a towel draped over his shoulder, is a national figure.

Sprangalang came into existence through a series of events in 1985 when Banyan began producing its Gayelle series for television. Hall was responsible for a quiz segment about Trinidad and Tobago and they had to find a name for it.

At an arts seminar (with Errol Hill and Peter Minshall), Devindra Dookie, Errol Sitahal and Tony Hall jumped out of a coffin to dramatise their grievances. At the same time, there was a midnight show called Dracula and the star was called ‘Draxie’.

Photo: Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall performs.

Gayelle’s quiz character became Draxie. He would step out of an upright coffin, dust himself and ask his questions—but the segment still needed a name.

“One night some fellas from Point Fortin, playing basketball, tell me they in a party—they drink, they smoke, they eat till they head was sprangalang.”

The segment became Cultural Sprangalang until the character took over and was rechristened.

He’s been around the theatre since he was a student at Naparima Boys’ High School doing Shakespeare festivals. Although he was part of the strong dramatic fraternity at ‘Naps’, he went behind the scenes doing technical work. He handled lighting and sound, and was eventually technical director for a few of the Arts Council’s festivals.

“I used to do emceeing at the [Naparima] Bowl,” he says. “I was a poet and more vicious. Now people laughing; in dem days people wasn’t laughing, they did ’fraid me.

“Of course, in dem days you was doing dem tings to change the country. Today, as you’re older, you know the country won’t change. You know dis madness will continue long after you dead.”

Photo: Revellers enjoy themselves during the 2016 J’Ouvert celebrations.
(Courtesy Sean Morrison/Wired868)

The idealism of his youth has been eroded, but he’s remained faithful to many of the goals he’d set himself. With a few friends, Zeno Constance Jr, Louis Regis and Oliver Williams, he collects cassettes and records of calypsoes. They collect whatever information they can get on calypsonians and are compiling bibliographies and catalogues of their collection.

So far, they’ve published (privately) books on calypso, dealing with the East Indian, the dub and the Rastafarian influences. They’ve also printed booklets on Valentino, Maestro and Black Stalin.

It is an unusual interest, going back to the days when he wanted to be a teacher because he didn’t like what they were teaching children in schools. He didn’t teach, but he began observing trends, people, and using the material on stage.

“Is from ’63 to now I doing dis ting; is about five years I getting pay. I doing it free all the time.”

He couldn’t live off it, so he worked as a statistical clerk with Huggins & Co from ’67 to ’85. He also wrote some scripts for Best Village. In one memorable year, of the 30 plays in the finals, 12 of the skits were his.

“Those were the best years,” he says.

Photo: Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall.

He is emcee at Kitchener’s Calypso Revue Tent and is in constant demand for radio and television advertisements. He is often compared with Tommy Joseph (tent emcee at Spektakula), but he insists their styles are different. He prefers to be backstage and doesn’t really like publicity.

“Tommy is a talker,” he says, “he feeds on that.”

He avoids the media as much as he can, not only because of his temperament, but because he has little faith in their abilities.

“Nobody can assess if the atmosphere is right for stand-up jokes, nobody can assess the audience, what style is suited to them,” he says. “Nobody can assess satire, farce, comedy, clowning, stand-up comedy as opposed to story-telling, as opposed to ole-talk. There is no appraisal. There is no literary critic here.

“If there were literary critics, there would be fewer calypsoes, but more sensible ones. Is two weeks before carnival and as yet there is no editorial analysis of the trends or anything like that.”      

He’s something of an expert on calypso trivia. Ask him what was the Road March in 1959, or who was the Monarch in any year, he can tell you. He remarks that the recorded calypsoes appear to be only uptempo songs, but this year even those are not as popular locally as they usually are.

Photo: Three-time Soca Monarch champion, Aaron “Voice” St Louis.

“For the first time in the life of calypso, it is playing catch up. When we had the [oil] boom, calypso had to hibernate in New York because everybody was interested in things from outside. But when the calypso went out to parties [in New York] nobody was interested in the politics of Trinidad and Tobago. So the party songs evolved.

“If you go to the tents, a lot of the slow calypsoes—social, political, comedy, farce—they still in the tents.”

This is a transition period, he says, that is why it’s such a bad calypso season. The artistes are concentrating on music, so the lyrics are suffering. When they have found the right music, the lyrics will become important again.

“Then we’ll get back to calypsoes of worth.”

Although he claims to live off calypso, and has spent 20 years collecting them, he argues that calypsonians should not be awarded the country’s highest honour—the Trinity Cross.

“When the first set of calypsonians received national awards (Humming Bird medals), we didn’t say nothing, we glad because calypso get recognised. Then another government come and give Gypsy a Humming Bird, we didn’t say nothing to the government. But because it was not a government we like, we boo Gypsy.

Photo: Iconic late calypsonian Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts.
(Copyright Getty Images)

“Then calypso, in the minds of the powers that be, reached the highest level for the best local contribution—the Chaconia Gold. Kitchener get a Chaconia, as he should, but everybody too emotional.

“I don’t know who is the people who say Kitchener should get a Trinity Cross. Dey vex because dey give Derek (Walcott) a Trinity Cross, but Derek is world acclaimed. Historically, the Trinity Cross goes—either if they playing catch up to international people recognising Trinidad, or if it safe to give somebody who they feel will be internationally recognised.

“Contrary to popular belief, calypso is not only an international music. Calypso is a normal domestic music and does only sing where it have plenty Trinidadians. Everything too emotional.”

He blames this emotional impetus for driving people to impractical decisions and arguments. Look at the Doctor of Letters that was awarded to ‘Sparrow’ by The University of the West Indies, he says.

Sparrow’s lyrics have helped to explain how the society functions and his social commentaries were recognised by the University. Kitchener, on the other hand, has made an equally valuable contribution musically and this should be recognised musically.

Photo: Calypso legend Slinger ‘Mighty Sparrow’ Francisco.

“I am saying that the people who gave Sparrow the doctorate cannot give Kitchener a doctorate. They don’t have the authority.”

Everything is too emotional, he says. Trinidadians are not logical at all.

“I remember when Hulsie Bhaggan made the statement how they raping girls. Nobody didn’t care if people was really raping. They had a national conference on race… They subsequently had to go and do something illegal—form vigilante groups. And the same people who raise the race and political talk then went into the place and say ‘crime rate drop.’ Obviously it was crime. Nobody didn’t care.

“Then Mr Hercules get shoot when two fellas try to take away the government car, all of a sudden we shout ‘crime!’ I am suspecting now that the only place anybody seeing crime is in town. Anywhere else is race and politics; but town have crime. Everybody too emotional!”

Wherever he goes (in offices, on the street, in his van) people recognise him and call out to him. Everybody wants a joke, everybody turns comedian. They don’t do that to calypsonians, he complains.

“I doubt anybody ever stop a calypsonian and tell him to sing a song for me.”

Photo: Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall in the studio.

All this attention drains his energy and limits his chances to observe people and their normal interactions. He knows the success of the Sprangalang character lies in its extremely local nature.

“By accident or whatever, I recreate very near to the street,” he says. His proximity to ‘the street’ comes not just from acute perception, but from the ability to translate and communicate adroitly and humorously what he sees. He prides himself on being able to distinguish people not only from throughout the islands, but also from different country districts, and different schools.

“Trinidadians are very docile,” he says. “A Trinidadian will tell you if I didn’t know your father, I woulda chop you up. A Jamaican would chop you and then say he woulda chop you worse if he didn’t know your father.

“Dem things you do not learn while you getting harassed. And that to me is why I am losing a lot of the things I learned. Right now I am using plenty thing I learn in the earlier days to survive.”

It’s been so difficult for him to slip out of the Sprangalang persona that he seems to have given up trying.

“I am the Gentle Observer,” he says. “I cannot even protect myself. I am not bold-faced. If they jump on me, I will just dead. But I heading to hibernation and when I can afford to hibernate, I will just drop out of sight.”

He sighs. “Everything is so emotional.”

Photo: The late Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall.
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One comment

  1. Sprang may have aged to the point where he had to leave us but the column, almost 27, has not. Much is left unsaid–necessarily–but what is said still has the unmistakable ring of truth all these many years later.

    While our prayers go out for and our condolences go out to Sprang’s family, our kudos should at the same time go out to Ms Baksh for, in a sense, bringing Sprang back to life.

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