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Thompson: Education, school days and 50 years of More Sparrow More!! (Part One)

“In the fullness of time, when Slinger Francisco’s massive oeuvre is unreservedly appreciated for its immense breadth and depth, rigorous scholars and casual calypso lovers alike will point to one special year, the Carnival season of 1969, when the Mighty Sparrow’s More Sparrow More!! album was released.

“There had been several summit points in the King’s career path prior to then but 1969 was undoubtedly the first truly pinnacle moment in terms of the completeness and majesty of a single album.”

Contributor Owen Thompson pays tribute to a classic album by calypso legend Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco in the first of a four-part series:

In the fullness of time, when Slinger Francisco’s massive oeuvre is unreservedly appreciated for its immense breadth and depth, rigorous scholars and casual calypso lovers alike will point to one special year, the Carnival season of 1969, when the Mighty Sparrow’s More Sparrow More!! album was released.

There had been several summit points in the King’s career path prior to then but 1969 was undoubtedly the first truly pinnacle moment in terms of the completeness and majesty of a single album.

Photo: Calypso legend Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco.

After his emphatic arrival in 1956 with Jean and Dinah, there had been, year after year, a constant flow of outstanding product. We had been treated, in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, to sublime offerings, compositions of extraordinary lyrical quality, served up with stage-craft hitherto unseen in the calypso world since 1881.

That was when the Canboulay Riots erupted and marked the culmination of ordinary folks’ fight to celebrate the carnival as they wished, giving birth to something that eventually came to be known as calypso. Something else, called Carnival, started happening every year to mark the occasion and, after gradually surmounting race and class barriers, calypso tents became an integral part of the Carnival season hoopla in the weeks leading up to the annual on-the-street revelry.

In the almost 90 years that elapsed between that first canboulay extravaganza and the release of More, Sparrow, More, many great calypsonians had come and gone, delighting audiences with vintage kaiso. To my mind, though, Sparrow’s 1969 ten-track masterpiece, released in the final year of such a seminal decade, still stands, as an ensemble, as the most outstanding calypso album ever produced.

The first full calypso album, Calypso Carnival 1958, had been released merely a decade earlier by—surprise, surprise!—Sparrow. Today, 50 calypso seasons later, and with all the respect due to Messieurs Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts, Winston “Mighty Shadow” Bailey, Leroy “Black Stalin” Calliste, Fitzroy “Melody” Alexander and David Rudder, a better calypso album has never seen the light of day.

Nothing as good, as complete, as pure, as poignant, as powerful and as enduring as More, Sparrow, More. Academically, musically, lyrically, sociologically, artistically, educationally!

Photo: Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco performs as an emerging calypso talent.

Other Sparrow albums have flirted with perfection without quite attaining it. Several notable compendia, outstanding and masterly, have not been without some shortcomings which prevent them from being placed in the perfection category where More Sparrow More!! abides. For me there are four which fall into that category.

The first is Hotter Than Ever (1972), which includes Rope, Toronto Mas, Winer Girl, Wum Pum, Drunk and Disorderly, Miss Ruby, More Cock, Melody 72, No Love and Donkey Cyah Wine.

The second is Sparrow vs the Rest (1976), featuring How You Jammin So?, Music and Rhythm, Saltfish, Witchdoctor, My Woman, Fatman, The Statue, Pan Jam Fete and We Kinda Music.

Album number three is Pussy Cat Party, (1979), with all of Ah Doh Come So, The Robot, Alien Woman, Kerry Packer, The Bomb, Obeah Man, Rip Off and Pussy Cat.

The fourth and last is the 1980 25th Anniversary Album, which boasts no fewer than 12 tracks: Gu Nu Gu, Love African Style, Save The World, Play Yuh Mas, Mas in Caracas, You Mad, London Bridge, Dead or Alive, Don’t Drop de Tempo, Rum is Macho, Tobago Gyul and Interdependence.

More Sparrow More!! is a fecund compendium of much that the great poets, writers, painters, essayists, philosophers and thinkers have been driven to hold up as a mirror to Man since homo sapiens has had to come to terms with the world around him.

Emerging out of a two-island state that is but one of the many isles dotting the Caribbean Sea only six and a half years after first celebrating political independence following centuries of colonialism and doom-burdened by the lingering, not-so-collateral damage of that experience (slavery, race and class strife, economic and labour disparities, inherited mental, psychological and psychic scars), this masterly calypso album astonished many by so sophisticatedly reflecting so many of the shortcomings and incongruities inherent in life in that tiny country and speaking so well to the human condition.

Photo: Calypso legend Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco.

Half a century later, with all its Renaissance richness, musical perfection, lyrical poignancy and consummate clairvoyance, Sparrow’s magnum opus still stands head and shoulders above all in its realm.

In 1969, the year the album was released, I was still in mid-primary school, reading all about Janet and John, Chicken Licken and Hen Len, Duck Luck and Drake Lake, Turkey Lurkey and Goat Loat. We also read about the poor chicken on whose head the sky had fallen and who decided to go to see the King to express her distress. We were also vigorously schooled about cows jumping over the moon, about geese laying golden eggs and Pussy going to London Town to see the Queen.

Such readings were considered key to our “education,” to setting our imaginations to work. Conscientious, our primary school teachers never let up, unceasingly drumming it all into our ears. The bright students were, supposedly, the ones who could quickly assimilate it all, who could grasp the supposed inner logic and extract the necessary grammatical and moral lessons.

The strict primary school ethic of the day urged us to speak “proper English,” admonished us for listening to Sparrow, warned that all that Sa Sa AyThe Lizard and Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me stuff was not for little boys and girls, insisted that this business of bongo dancing was for idle village men, was adamant that cockfighting was wicked and evil and there should therefore be no glorification of it and forbade us from entertaining thoughts about the whys and wherefores of a man “takin’ away a nex’ man woman.”

“If mih head was bright,” is Sparrow’s unforgettable lament, “ah woulda be a darm fool!”

Fortunately for my particular group, we had teachers like Lennox Denoon, who clearly understood that forcibly banishing from our environment the stimuli of the “disharmony” More Sparrow More!! brought to our 8- and 9-year-old minds would ultimately be to the detriment of the children it was his duty not just to teach but, more importantly, to educate.

Photo: Young Matura football fans enjoy some 2015/16 National Super League action at the Matura Recreation Ground.
(Courtesy Nicholas Bhajan/Wired868)

The limits were delineated, the taboos defined and the bans imposed; it merely made More Sparrow More!! seem more interesting, more appealing to us. My classmates, my schoolmates and I didn’t stop trying to come to terms with the approved stuff in our books that was being forced down our throats and was thought to be so necessary for a sound education but which in reality made so little sense to us.

Looking back today, we can explore the sheer quality of composition and lyrical content; we can look at the album’s ground-breaking power in terms of the advancement of the art form; we can delve into the masterful use of nation language; we can catechise the poignancy of societal insight and socio-political commentary; we can analyse the raw, no-nonsense tackling of the burning issues of the day; we can expound on the depth of perception of the dilemmas of the human condition and we can hold a magnifying glass to the procedural norms of the art form that were then still evolving.

Indeed, one of the many merits of More Sparrow More!! was the extent to which it underlined Sparrow’s ability to take the tenets of the art-form to another level, the steadiness with which he continued almost single-handedly to guide the calypso towards identifiably new (distinctly Sparrovian!) pillars that would come to define the medium.

We can talk—we must talk!—of what all of that meant in terms of the societal moment (1969 in post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago and the turbulence of the 1960s across the globe) and of how, beyond any other form of expression native to the land and cultural context in which the work was produced, More Sparrow More!! so powerfully illustrated, translated, stated and faithfully rendered the myriad marrow-deep issues with which a country and a civilisation were grappling.

In the process, it revealed itself to be an artistic undertaking that compellingly captured several of the ageless dilemmas of man.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part Two as Contributor Owen Thompson pays tribute to iconic calypsonian Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco and his unforgettable album, More Sparrow More!

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