King of the Calypso

The night the shadow tore up the town while the mighty sparrow walked off with the crown

The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra give their first public performance at the South Bank Exhibition on September 22nd, 1952. Credit: George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty

The Sparrow won again. It was a close thing, the Shadow was breathing down his neck and threatening to steal his thunder, but Dimanche Gras night the Mighty Sparrow got the votes and they elected him King of Calypso for the third year in a row. The Shadow tied for second with old Kitch, and Chalkdust trailed in sixth or seventh.

This is headlines in Trinidad. Dimanche Gras night down on the Queen's Park Savannah is the tickets-only official launch the night before the Carnival is unleashed into the streets for the last two days' mayhem and jubilation; and coming into the finals there's already been a lot of congestion and one or two controversial upsets. The Catelli All-Stars, who won the Panorama steelband title last year, came unstuck in the play-offs and got eliminated by an unsponsored band called Scherzando. The Mighty Chalkdust ran into some trouble behind the scenes over some excess of sarcasm, and somebody must have had a word in his ear on the government's behalf because he dropped the tune for the finals. (Even so, he was punished in the placings for his cheek.) There are all kinds of outlandish rumors going round about what Wayne Berkeley's up to, and Irvin MacWilliams, and the Baileys, and all the other ranking wirebenders in bandcamps all over Port-of-Spain manipulating miles of wire and foil and fabric into gigantic phantasms: Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, and Adoacer, the Conqueror of Beasts, and the great Bronze Locust of Chaputtee — spectacular hallucinations of Aztec and Insect and the microbes of the earth's crust and God knows what they'll think of next. Stephen Lee Heung's Terra Firma promises 1,500 people dressed as glacial water and Polyps and Neutrons of the Fiery Core.

The whole island is on its toes. Down on the Savannah, the touts are getting $50 for a six-dollar seat for the show inside — the Panorama steelband finals and the official coronation of the solo colussi, the King and Queen of the Carnival, and the crowning of the Calypso King. And all the while, all around, the contest that matters most is out on the streets in the ruck, where the mob chooses the Road March.

The Road March is the people's choice — whichever tune comes out of the din and emerges as the undisputed boss tune of the year, so that come Tuesday every steelband still left on its feet after 48 hours nonstop delirious panning in the streets is down to playing just the one tune and you can't get away from it underwater and somehow you never tire of it.

There were three left in it by the Sunday night. Lord Kitchener had the hot favorite, called "Jericho," which had just the right kind of clockwork oom-pah-pah a winning Road March needs to catch on fast. Sparrow had the Number One chart record out, an especially fleet and artful confection that went "See Miss Mary/(One pound)/Big and hairy/(One pound)" — and between them these two have had the Road March to themselves over the last 15 or 20 years. Sparrow had his first win back in 1956, and old Kitch, who must be 60 now and still shows no signs of resting on his reputation, has won it seven times in the last ten years. Nobody reckoned the Mighty Shadow's "Bassman" much at all. Just some brash so-and-so off a peapatch in Tobago who showed up in the calypso tents now and then and did a few tunes with all the lights off — a shadow, literally, you couldn't even see his face under that dreaded haute — Harlem borsalino, nobody even knew what he looked like…. . .

But by Sunday night "Miss Mary" hadn't a hope, because the Sparrow's calypsos tend to be too wickedly clever by half and the steelbands can't always get hold of all the fits and starts and throwaway nuance and whack it out in their sleep. "Jericho" was laboring, starting to sound just too maddeningly monotonous. And overnight, wherever you went, the bands were playing "Bassman."

Every time you turned a corner, you'd hit another slow riot, which would be the Birdsong Steel Orchestra or the Y. de Lima Blue Diamonds, or perhaps one of the sleeker sponsored outfits like Carib Tokyo or the Chase Manhattan Savoys, inching through the throng on these ungainly rolling scaffolds panning hell for leather — and they were all playing "Bassman." Which was an evil little number about how Shadow had come to town in 1971 with a Road March tune and got no play, so he came back in '72, and '73, and he still got no play, till he'd just about given up hope of ever cutting in on Kitch and the Sparrow short of going after the bastards with a razor and he'd packed it in and gone back to his peapatch — but he couldn't get any peace because, he says, a spirit came upon him in his rest, an antic bassman in his head, driving him wild, and it was getting worse and worse every day, this infernal poom poom poom poom…. . . 

Overnight, by whatever mysterious telegraph it is that a mass change of heart spreads like a flu, before anybody noticed, the Shadow stole the show.

Inside, at the Dimanche Gras show, the Sparrow's class told. He's been at the top of the heap down in Trinidad for a long time now, in a ruling class of his own very much the way James Brown is in America — a little bit past it, but still the man anybody else has to beat. He could teach them all a lesson on innuendo and calypso politesse. But he's not so caustic, less brittle than he used to be. When he first came to the Carnival he was a cheeky little punk with a slick mouth; he was called Slinger Francisco and his early calypsos like "Jean And Dinah" made everybody duck because they were quite a bit more risque than decent people were used to. Not lewd — calypso is sophisticated, articulate stuff, and the best calypsos, like Sparrow's, hit a sensitive spot somewhere between insolence and insouciance. But back then, in the Fifties and Sixties, he was fast and smart and arrogant and he went round taking the piss out of the world at large and the British in particular with a sniper's eye for a likely mark and he did it all with such dash and panache he outwitted and upstaged and outclassed every other calypsonian in town.

Over the years it's usually been the Sparrow who took calypso abroad, to Europe and America. Where it only ever caught on as a novelty, because all that got through was the upbeat. When he'd start punning and conniving in the patois about some local squabble with the obeah man or some football game in Tobago, nobody knew what on earth he was talking about. And calypso is all talk. It's the singing journalism of a devious polyglot culture, and it takes a nodding acquaintance with what's going on in Trinidad and Tobago before you get the hang of it.

These days the Sparrow lives like a Caesar in a vast garrisoned compound out near Petit Valley in Port-of-Spain in his calypso tent, protected from the mob and from whatever deadly enemies he may have — and the talk is he has a few too many — by a high wire fence and a palace guard of surly brutes from the back hills. He hasn't exactly got fat and lazy, but he's changed his tune a bit — and nowadays, when he's not being strictly facetious, when he speaks his mind, he tends to sound like some old rich uncle telling the kids to behave. He came out Dimanche Gras night, dressed as a schoolmaster, and made a powerful plea for moderation and respect and the dignity of labor — winding up with a few words of sober admonition to the no-good tearaway young punks who just hang around all day outside the Bruce Lee movies trying to kick each other in the ear. It was all a bit — bombastic. But it was strong patriotic stuff, and it went down well with well-heeled Port-of-Spain middle classes who are still a bit uneasy about the guerrillas up in the hills and who were the only people who could afford to be there anyway at the prices — them and the tourists. Then he skipped through "Miss Mary" and he never looked like losing the Crown.

But outside, in the thick of it, the mob wanted "Bassman." It was that infernal poom poom poom. It was perfect for jumping-up. Which is the whole manic mob exercise of the Carnival, when everybody gets wired up on rum and Carib beer and ganja and most of all the sheer ecstatic tribal delirium of being there, and they all jam the streets, tracking their favorite bands and jumping-up — just generally leaping and jumping and dancing till you drop. Round and round, for hour after hour, all night long. Until Monday dawn, Jour Ouvert morning, which is the spookiest, most dream like phase of the Carnival, when the sun comes up over the mountains behind Port-of-Spain and picks out all the filigree and gingerbread known to the decaying Victorian imagination on the balconies downtown, and you turn a corner and here on the eerie empty street is King Natakamant of Nubia in a headdress of feathers and florescence nine-feet high chatting to an enchanted pumpkin, and up ahead, just a sudden glimpse of filmy wings as a family of butterflies and white bats dash by. And never far away, the sound of a steelband approaching — just the rhythm at first, and then the melody as high and strident as a thousand singing telephones, getting louder, playing "Bassman."

Before the war, they used to just cut different lengths of bamboo and bang them together, and they'd get quite a good range in percussion. Tamboo-bamboo bands, they were called. The trouble was, the big bass bamboos kept splitting, and eventually some kid got hold of a biscuit tin and started banging on that. A character called Fisheye found you could play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a strip of tempered steel bent into a triangle. And finally Ellie Manette took an oil drum and cut it off about eight inches down and seamed the bottom of it with a hammer and chisel till he could produce a scale. He put together the first steelband. Since then, the mechanics have been perfected, so that now you have 40-gallon bass pans right up through the cellos and guitar pans to the high-melody pans, where you can get as many as 54 notes, and you can have as many pans as you like. Bit outfits like Carib Tokyo and the Catelli All-Stars have got more than 100 panmen hammering away on a couple of hundred steel drums — and ever since the Casablanca Steel reduced the 1950 Carnival to stunned silence with the first dulcet rumble of Chopin's "Nocturne in E Flat," the steelbands have been busily pursuing the infinite possibilities of all that rhythm. Happily, there's oil offshore, so there's never been any shortage of drums; and in a witty and mutally flattering conspiracy of commerce and folklore, the costs of keeping a band in T-shirts and drumsticks, which can come to a few grand a year, are contributed by the big companies like Texaco and Esso and Carib Beer.

By Jour Ouvert, the shell-shocked all-nighters following the bands have been out jumping-up all night long for a couple of weeks in the calypso tents around town. Which aren't tents at all — they're stifling concrete blockhouses with volcanic atmospherics. Sparrow runs one, Kitch runs another, and there are a dozen more, each with its own stable of a dozen or so calypsonians, and around Carnival they're so jampacked and frantic you drown. By now, they're staggering on their feet, some of them, suddenly convulsed by a sharp spasm, their eyes rolled back, their limbs twitching. They haven't slept for days, they're running on rum and Coca-Cola and the beat of the drums, and they can't stop now because if they did they'd seize up and splinter. And they've still got two days to go.

Carnival in Trinidad, the huge spontaneous combustion in the streets, goes back to the 1830s, when the British freed the slaves. There was trouble right away. They wouldn't wait till Jour Ouvert morning. They kept breaking loose and playing havoc and desecrating the Sabbath. On the stroke of Sunday midnight, the revelers would take to the streets waving flambeaux, called cannes brulees or Canne Boulay in the patois, the flaming cane torches the slaves were used to carrying in their all-night processions up at the old inter-estate games on the plantations. It was all too pagan and high spirited and it scared decent people half to death, so the whole thing would turn into running scrimmages with the police. It all peaked in the late 19th century with the Canne Boulay Riots, when the revelers fought pitched battles with the police in the streets of Port-of-Spain. But since the turn of the century, when Carnival was taken over by the government and organized, it's all calmed down. Not the least extraordinary thing about Carnival in Trinidad is that nobody gets hurt.

A few manic ecstatics get so carried away they can't speak for weeks, one or two burn out altogether — they forget their names, some last thread snaps, and they can be found weeks later, lurking in doorways, still dressed as a Roman gladiator and waving a wooden sword. But there's no violence. Down in R io this year close to a hundred people got stabbed or garroted or worse, in Haiti the devil got to the militia and they went to work with their clubs. But in Trinidad, amidst all the anarchy and debauch and rampant excess, nobody so much as lifted a finger in anger, not a rape, not a brick through a window. The only crime committed was when a couple of cool operators from Detroit took off half a dozen jewelry stores on a funny credit card, and they got busted right away.

Trinidad, unlike, say, Jamaica, is not a dangerous place. It's fairly stable, fairly prosperous. Partly because the immigrant mix is so congenial — about a third Indian, a third Chinese, a third African, and all the accidents in between, with a residual Creole leisure class and a few wily Syrians running the haberdasheries. And mostly because of the oil.

During the war, Churchill made a blunder and gave the island to the Americans in exchange for a couple of reconditioned frigates. Just who owns the oil now isn't clear, but most of the mighty companies have got operations there, and when there was shooting in the hills a few years ago the British were quick to send a frigate to show the flag and make sure the situation didn't get out of hand and imperil the existing understandings. The oil guarantees Trinidad's economic prosperity. So, unlike Jamaica and the Virgin Islands and the rest of the insurgent Caribbean, Trinidad is not at the mercy of the vulgar patronage of fat white tourists. Tobago has a lot because it's all beach, and Port-of-Spain fills up for the Carnival, but the rest of the year it's a slow town and people go about their business. They've got past the endemic psychology of dependence that still afflicts most of the post-colonial Caribbean and inhibits and frustrates the street Jamaican to the point where he gets so frustrated with himself he's got to take it out on somebody else.

Like all middle-class capitalist societies, Trinidad has all the symptoms of capitalism on the brink — escalating inflation and all kinds of shock shortages and nihilism and boredom among the young. There are still plenty of live guerrillas in the hills rehearsing the revolution, and returning Marxists would have you believe that there's trouble ahead. Kitch's tune, "Jericho," is about a guerrilla running rings around the police — and most of the young calypsonians like Shadow and Chalkdust and the Mighty Duke and even intellectuals like the Mighty Composer adopt an upstart mock-violent stance and spend a lot of time haranguing the intransigence and hypochondria of Eric Williams's government. Down in the South, the sugar-cane workers are out on strike and threatening to march on Port-of-Spain. But they called it off for the Carnival. Everybody wanted to go play mas.

On Frederick Street in Port-of-Spain, the mob was jumping-up right outside the city jail. Nobody was thinking about Michael Abdul Malik in there. He was the original leader of the pack when the black power movement started up in London, he went by the name of Michael X then, and any day now he ìs due to hang for murder.

Playing mas, they call it. George Bailey, the first great architect of masquerade, used to spend about $100,000 on his big parade bands. He'd have 1000 subscribers or more in great tidal waves of color, a whole landscape of opulent Byzantines or the ancient tribes of Egypt — meticulously researched down to the last ruby in Enobarbus's navel, every detail lavishly re-created in satin and lame and anything that glittered. Irvin MacWilliams this year had 2500 subscribers in his band, "somewhere in the Caribbean." They stretched for miles. Miles of Guyanese gold nuggets and flying fish from Barbados, and a couple of hundred people dressed as akee — which is a weird Jamaican fruit that looks like a frangipani swallowing an olive and tastes like scrambled eggs.

It started out with a few folk dressed up as bats or nigger minstrels or drunken sailors — what they call Ole Mas. Solo parodies of news headlines and local superstitions. It was all homemade individual effort. But since the war, the bandleaders have taken over, and if you want to dance in the big parade on the last day you pay about $50 and they fit you into the grand design — $1000 and you can dance one of the monster costumes, the great Bronze Locust perhaps, or Freya, the Goddess of Music, Flowers, Elves and Fairies. Each year they get more flamboyant, more maniacally Faustian, and go further afield into exotic mythologies and cosmologies and down into the deeper reaches of Atlantean oceanography for their Grand Themes.

"There are the goodtime guys who just bounce into the camp and simply say 'Register me.' And then there are those who come to the camp night after night, struggling to decide what to play — whether orange will go well with their eyes. And then there are those who want to play the best — and by that they mean the most expensive and the biggest. So here you have the dynamics of the situation — a design theme that must be coherent, costumes that are faithful to that theme and of different kinds of attractiveness to take in the different kinds of people…. . ." This is Wayne Berkeley. He had a clean sweep at the big parade last year with a band called Secrets of the Sky, and he won the band prize again this year with a blinding extravaganza called "Kaleidoscope." The theme here was — God knows, sheer almighty brilliance possibly, there were snowfalls and Gothic cathedrals and the jewels of Tutankhamen, one colossal masterpiece of locomotive engineering after another. When it's over, they throw them away. You can see them falling apart in yards all over town — there are broken wings and torn standards in the gutters, the shattered head of the great Bronze Locust peeping over a pile of secondhand tires. Berkeley goes back to his history books, and his people start saving for next year.

Henry de Frietas is sick to death of the whole thing. He lives right on Victoria Avenue off the Savannah. There are spent profligates passed out under his hedge and debris everywhere and he hasn't been able to sleep for days and besides he's fed up with calypso anyway. It has been his dubious good fortune to produce most of the Mighty Sparrow's records for the last years or so, and that is an encounter with preening ego that would test the patience of even the great man's most devoted admirers. You only have to ask Andy Wickham who has lately produced the Sparrow's first album for Warner Bros. with Van Dyke Parks, and barely escaped with his person intact, let alone his dignity.

But Henry is a patient man, he's made a lot of good albums and he's had a lot of hits, and he suffers all this anarchy and debauch with all the good grace in the world, but still he's fed up. "Miss Mary," after all, is his record. So the conversation round the table is all about how come the Sparrow lost the Road March, and it was generally agreed it was because his tune was too sophisticated for the panmen to play. Not exactly sour grapes, but…. . .

Outside, the mob is in full flight, turning off Victoria Avenue and down behind the Queens Park Hotel onto Frederick Street, where there is a bunch of kids standing round outside a shop window watching a replay of the Dimanche Gras finals. They're all shifting on their feet, keeping the joints loose, keeping the whole carnal buzz going, and there's a little kid in his pajamas scooting round collecting all the empty bottles which certainly saves a lot of people falling down and breaking their necks. On TV, the Sparrow is singing his "Marseillaise."

Back at Henry's, another band goes by. And the conversation turns to the indignity of it: After the Carnival judges have seen fit to crown the great man for the third year running, after all that inspiring hyperbole, the mob turns its back on him and chooses this unsavory nobody, this Shadow — as though they weren't even listening. Henry permits himself a poignant world weary sigh and says, yes, the Sparrow will be livid, he'll be fit to kill….

And outside the TV shop, the little kid in pajamas turns his back on the replay of the Sparrow's coronation and sets off bopping down the street with his empties, yelling, "The Shadow was robbed!"