The argument for the Mighty Sparrow as the greatest and most visible figure in the history of calypso can basically make itself. But, in the U.S. market at least, it’s been difficult to appreciate the vast breadth of his recorded output, a problem that Strut Records seeks to solve with its new compilation Sparrowmania! Wit, Wisdom, and Soul from the King of Calypso, 1962-1974. Although the collections misses many of Sparrow’s most prominent tracks (“Jean and Dinah”, for instance, or “Jack Palance”), it presents a serviceable cross-section of Sparrow’s work, one that doubles as a useful introduction to both the Mighty Sparrow and the course of calypso throughout a culturally turbulent period.
If calypso is, with a nod to Chuck D, CNN for Caribbean people, this collection proves that Sparrow’s forays into the topical are as compelling as anyone’s. “Kennedy & Krushchev” functions as both a call to arms and an update from the front of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Turn the ships in the opposite direction / any retaliation will be met with explosion”, resulting in a different kind of “Cuban jam session.” This might be a kind of endorsement of U.S. strength but it’s also a doubled-voiced celebration of Americanism that, on its other side, might serve as a cutting protest against all varieties of imperialism, since the joy with which Sparrow approaches a nuclear showdown reveals a mind that is content to let the superpowers destroy themselves.
This track, with its odd blend of whimsy and danger, offers a lesson in Sparrow’s basic approach: his is a voice of rare exuberance, and he’s a sharp storyteller. At the risk of sounding a bit too high minded, his songs frequently move with a narrative stride that is almost Faulknerian in its ability to be at once inscrutably elliptical and deeply evocative. He is a master with the sudden, startling message: “Every man in the gang had a white-handed razor” (from the indomitable “Ten to One is Murder”); “I heard he had . . . something in the bladder / and a double-dose of leukemia” (“Sparrow is Dead”). Sparrow’s work, like his flexible performing persona, is marked by elasticity and an unnerving verbal dexterity—his skills, if not his chronology, overlap with rap’s pioneering MCs and you wonder whether it’s just a question of influence or whether these artists are all drawing from a shared matrix of rhetorical situations. Probably both.
The music itself often pushes in unexpected directions. While everything is played with an eye trained on the calypso tradition, several tracks suggest a surprising shagginess within that tradition. In other words, Sparrow has surely earned his title as the King of Calypso but he is no kind of purist, and one thing these recordings show us is Sparrow’s skill at folding separate idioms into his brew of calypso—sometimes with mixed results. “She’s Been Gone Too Long”, for instance, is a garagey, decidedly silly slice of mid-60s pop done in a Caribbean accent. (Taking place, as it does, in the US, the song’s adoption of the tropes of American pop might well stand as a sly revision of the blanketing imperialism of American pop.) And “Mi Son Cha (Sparrow & His Troubadours)” is a wandering instrumental that flirts with blandness. When Sparrow reaches out he might occasionally lose some of his focus, as several tracks here prove, but, in their own way, they each work to shade our image of his art. Unfortunately, much of this material is plagued by sub-par fidelity, a problem that likely originates with the master tapes but is nevertheless distracting for music produced in the 1960s and reissued in 2012.
The promotional materials accompanying this release evoke the case of Fela Kuti as a model for a mainstream renaissance of Sparrow. You get the sense that, possibly for reasons the label never intended, this is an appropriate comparison: in terms of the sheer volume of recorded output, the challenges posed by a figure like Fela exist for Sparrow as well. How do you find your way into a discography so tangled and diffuse? Sparrowmania! goes some distance towards answering that question but its scope is sadly foreshortened. This will be a welcome compilation for veteran Sparrow watchers, since it puts a frame around a fruitful period of important, if frequently uneven, recordings. For the more casual listener, however, a better introduction will include some of his work from the ‘50s.