The following is the fourth and final instalment in Owen Thompson’s four-part series on the classic album, More Sparrow More!, by iconic calypsonian Slinger “Sparrow” Francisco:
There are other equally telling avenues that allow us to arrive at meaning and afford us powerful glimpses into the unique quality of the album. There is much room for the structuralists to pick content apart.
Much can be said about the water-tight latticework that underpins the entire work. In the manner of articulation of issues and stories and plot outlines, there is a fertile, subjacent marriage between social and mental structures.
Witnessing a volatile moment of massive social ebullition and effervescence, Sparrow, artist and creator, furnishes narrative voices and offers restless personae that embody and speak directly to and of the societal ferment: the restless male; the vocal mouthpiece of elements of ‘subversive’ cultural elements, yearning to be heard; the Bongo performer; the cockfighting chronicler; the concerned civil rights advocate faced with the violent death of Martin Luther King; the insecure male whose fragile ego continually needs fresh female conquests to reaffirm his self-worth.
All components of the complex latticework of a society ill-at-ease with itself, compelled to deal with the social, psychic and mood vortices by which the culture is being overrun, emanating from a deep subconscient that informs, determines and directs thoughts, behaviour patterns, core aspirations and creative endeavour.
Sparrow juggles back and forth, voice, character and posture-wise, an exceptionally talented artist adroitly bestriding the crucible of transformation and concussion, perfectly mirroring all that is at the heart of the significant, structural mutations that are taking place within the culture of his society.
All this is played out with natural, unbridled vigour in a landmark calypso album. And with sublime artistic dexterity. Beyond the literal significance of words spoken or verses sung, more indicative of meaning is what those mental structures convey about what is really happening below the surface in a society in the throes of change.
In this respect, the diagrams drawn of those central to stories and events say more than the words themselves about the real meaning of the context mirrored by More Sparrow More!!
The manner of evocation of a bongo ceremony says more about what is really happening in society with regard to the attitude to bongo than the active undertaking to paint bongo in a more glowing and acceptable light. Ditto the breaking down of taboos and inhibitions with regard to cockfighting or the churlish manner in which a male proudly speaks of his desire to not allow the latest possibility of female conquest to slip through his fingers.
In this respect, the profound, latticework-like fabric of More Sparrow More!! is a more reliable indicator of meaning, a much more accurate aide to gauging the authentic significance of the work.
All of this speaks to the punctiliousness of an artiste, writer, image-conjurer and scene re-enactor acutely conscious of how the tools of his trade must be used to maintain the rapport with his audience and gradually invite it into carefully measured levels of revelation and resolution, via vigorous, line-by-line, rhythmic nous, rhyme scheme wizardry, concise character juxtaposition and weighty metaphor deployment in such a way as to make sure that pollination arrives at the perfectly opportune juncture.
It underlines the exceptional achievement of a master craftsman so on top of his métier as to be able to serve up not 70% or 80% but 100% perfect product, every component of all ten pieces of the More Sparrow More!! album being of unimpeachable quality.
Two excerpts from Bongo provide excellent illustrations of Sparrow’s expertise. We are struck by their combination of mastery of colourful description, sublime naturalism, metaphorical evocation of a pre-eminent cultural ritual and penetration into the psychological mutability of those at the centre of events.
“Wid Mellow on de cutting drum
And Moses on de base,
Matilda waist going up and dong,
Priscilla still one place.
Fire in yuh heel, Matilda,
Bend dong low!
Big, fat Priscilla too slow.
(…) When Priscilla see she getting licks,
She start jumping up and dong
and she fall dong like a ton of bricks
and frothing on de ground.
Raise up, Priscilla! Raise yuh head!
Oh Lord, Priscilla, don’t dead!
A thousand people jumping and everybody shouting.”
(Segue into a piercing bongo drum interlude)
Bongo! Bongo! Bongo, Matilda, bongo, Mama!
Apart from the poignancy of the description, the power of the naturalism, the in-depth ingression into the essence of the ceremony, we are treated to the inherent cadence of the bongo rhythm in perfect harmony with calypso strains. Truly outstanding.
Too young in 1969 to even dream of being allowed to go to a calypso tent, I have been reliably informed that, during that More Sparrow More!! season, Bongo was one of the numbers Birdie almost always performed and that the enactment dynamics with audiences was hair-raisingly powerful.
In 1977, I was old enough to see him perform his tribute to Hasely Crawford following the latter’s Olympic 100-metre triumph in Montreal the year before. The performance was like seeing the race all over again. I will never forget it.
Never to be forgotten as well is More Sparrow More!! Half a century after I first heard it (as much of it as was deemed fit for radio play), the album remains just as pulsatingly alive and compelling to me.
In my mind’s ear, I still hear its ten tracks and I still sing them all with no less boyish relish than if I were back among my 8- and 9-year-old chums in the schoolyard of Scarborough Anglican Boys.
Officialdom’s long-lasting prohibitions have failed to deny me, deny us all that crucial stuff about life, love and the universe that Sparrow and More Sparrow, More!! had to offer us, starting half a century ago.
And Chicken Licken? I can scarce remember ever sparing a thought for the poor little avian on whose head the sky had threatened to fall. What any of us ever meaningfully derived from that unfortunate creature’s mishap—or were supposed to—is completely beyond me.
I think we have all come round to seeing that no matter how far out of his way Joseph Oliver Cutteridge had gone to seek to convince us, it was always going to be hard to make a cow jumping over the moon easy to accept. And I am not sure whether Chicken Licken, Hen Len, Duck Luck, Drake Lake, Turkey Lurkey and company continue to form part of the syllabi of self-respecting educational institutions today.
I am, however, certain that the beginning of my real education came with that first pinnacle moment of Sparrovian takeover. And my sense is that the same is true for many of my contemporaries who today, as men and women close to their sixth decade of existence, better appreciate what the ten tracks of that splendid album were really saying to us as we made our way to school every day, impeccably clad in blue shirts and khaki shorts, pleated skirts and seamlessly pressed blouses.
We were, all of us, as obedient as obedient could be to our well-intentioned teachers, who were there to do what was asked of them, which was to school us.
Hindsight suggests to me that it was with the advent of the Sparrovian might of More Sparrow More!! in 1969 that we began to be educated.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read part one of contributor Owen Thompson’s four part series which pays tribute to More, Sparrow More! a classic album by calypso legend Slinger “Mighty Sparrow” Francisco.