By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The king of soca
Calypso--laden as it is with intimations of day-o, the limbo, and un-cola nuts--is one of the few musical forms that can credit its genesis to fuel oil. With roots in the rhythmic patterns and music of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, calypso's antecedents were forbidden by British colonialists. However, when--most scholars agree sometime in the '30s--the natives discovered that discarded 55-gallon drums scavenged from various Royal military installations could be turned into tunable percussion instruments, the music of Trinidad, Tobago, and surrounding areas gained a momentum that defied official sanction.
The sound of the steel drum (or "pan") became the bedrock of modern calypso and its faster, more contemporary variant, called soca (for "soul" plus "calypso"). Although the calypso universe is a competitive one, with top artists claiming kingship, dominance, and various other suzerainties over competitors (what do you expect from a form whose pioneers have names like Destroyer, Growling Tiger, and Executor?), few would dispute the Mighty Sparrow's claim to the throne.
Since appearing on the scene in 1955, Sparrow has won too many regional competitions (held to sort out just who zooms who, chops-wise) to count. Enormously popular both for his skill with the "clean smut" double entendres (an indigent husband urges his wife to auction off her pet feline--perhaps to his friends, mmm?--in the song "Sell the Pussy") that form an entire calypso-soca subgenre and for the way he's introduced political and social issues into what is often merely regarded as party music, Sparrow has also pioneered the form of the "soca ballad," in which he blends popular Western pop tunes into calypso-tempo medleys.
Many of Sparrow's songs are classics, such as "No Money, No Love," "Obeah Wedding," and "Jean and Dinah," and at 62 this global music giant--given equal billing at music festivals with other world music lights such as Cuba's Arturo Sandoval, Nigeria's King Sunny Ade, and Mali's Salif Keita--shows no signs of slowing down. Although the limitations of the road are keeping him from touring with his beloved pans, this is still a remarkable chance to check out an artist who is a superstar in his native land--sort of like catching Garth Brooks leading a bar band in a sleepy tropical resort.
The Mighty Sparrow performs August 16 at Tropical Cove.