Mighty Sparrow, Sparromania! Wit, Wisdom and Soul From the King of Calypso 1962-1974

Dorian Lynskey

By Dorian Lynskey

on 01.27.12 in Reviews


Mighty Sparrow

Any anthology invites complaints about omissions but Strut can be forgiven for only skimming the surface of the calypso king’s vast output. Born Slinger Francisco, Colin Powell’s favorite musician scored his first hit aged 20 with Jean and Dinah, a playful song about the plight of prostitutes looking for trade after the closure of wartime U.S. bases in Trinidad. More than 300 albums later, he’s still touring and knocking out topical songs like 2008′s “Barack the Magnificent.”

Celebrating a messy, freewheeling spirit

Even within this collection’s 1962-74 timeframe, Sparrow roams far and wide. Like Jamaican music, calypso functioned as a kind of eclectic musical newspaper. One minute Sparrow’s a horndog novelty act, the next a quick-witted battle rhymer, and the next an earnest political commentator in the vein of Fela Kuti or Bob Marley. In a clever bit of sequencing, Congo Man’s mischievously lurid take on African culture – so outrageous that it was banned from the radio for almost 25 years – gives way to a starkly different approach to black history: the angry, moving “The Slave.” Kennedy and Khruschev’s jaunty account of the Cuban missile crisis (“Kennedy is a genius, Khruschev plain rubbish”) represents Sparrow’s topical side, “Sparrow Dead” (from 1974′s Van Dyke Parks-produced Hot and Sweet album) displays his fondness for quirky self-mythologising, and “Bois Bande” is an extended jingle for a Caribbean aphrodisiac (“When a man pass 53 he start losing his vitality”).

With impressively thorough sleevenotes by David Katz, Sparromania! celebrates this messy, freewheeling spirit rather than tidying it up. A more focused collection might have left out his opportunistic attempts to imitate rock ‘n’ roll (“She’s Been Gone Too Long”) and soul music (a soca-influenced cover of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”), or ironed out the differences in sound quality. But by embracing Sparrow’s diversity for good or ill, this presents an honest picture of an irresistible figure who had the confidence to try anything once and the charisma to make even his false moves enjoyable.