Eyes on the sparrow

By Keith Smith

It was a sight to make big men cry and some did—seeing a sick Sparrow singing sitting, Saturday, on the NAPA stage capable, it seemed, of less, well, flight than a caged bird. It was not that Sparrow, at 75, was expected to cavort like when he was 25 (even James Brown had to slow down) but that he was not even able to stand was something, disturbingly, else again.

This, after all, was an entertainer who, in the tradition of the then time, an artform elder had sobriqued Slinger Francisco "Sparrow'' because of his skittish movements on debut, Sparrow himself attaching the "Mighty'' because, well, what was the stature of a mere sparrow—and here he was, on the night, unable to shake a leg as it were,

Those legs and that waist had, over the years, made calypso even more of a performing art than it had been, Sparrow's style ushering in a new era copied, as best as they could by countless others who were to come after, by no means least among them Calypso Rose who, five years his junior, was still able to show, on the night, some of her old spark, her "More Water'' rendition still having some of its former "Fire! Fire!'' whatever the restrictions caused by arthritis as she laughingly let on.

Announcing Sparrow when his turn came, the unseen but very much heard Master of Ceremonies Alvin Daniell had revealed that the once and always king was seriously ill but with the stubbornness that had helped him prevail down the decades and, I suppose, the old showbiz saw of the show having to go on, he had declared that he wasn't "going to miss it for the world''.

And he hadn't, the voice—that voice soaring out as he began with "Education'' which, of course, calypso buffs (well, those of the old school anyway) know line by line so he could very well have hummed it, one would think, as they do so many others from the "Bird's'' qualitatively and quantitatively remarkable repertoire so that when Sparrow, singing under duress asked the band for the cue of his follow-up song, the audience leaped into the breach, as if anybody had asked them, Sparrow, risque as always, followed up with the "Mae-Mae'' request, the song which he once told me was his favourite if only because it never failed to get a response from the crowd wherever he sang and whatever the conditions.

And , yes, there were those in the audience sensitive enough to sound to sense, whatever the Sparrow sound and the finely-honed instinct of experience that he was in trouble and groaned when the fans present called for tunes that demanded dramatisation, to say nothing of tone variation ("The Queen's Canary'' and "Harry, Elaine and Mama'', for God's sake) but then two things dawned on at least this listener, the first being that they just wanted the lyrics to come out and the second that they were empathising with their hero in his distress, this one and that one that they called for touch-stones of a hit-studded career, the call and response an act of love really.

The show (Celebrating Calypso Monarchs 1939-1980) had begun with renditions of songs from that lineage by youngsters whom my and Sparrow's generation could have fathered and even grand-fathered, and here now as Sparrow persevered some inspired producer had spontaneously, they tell me, stuck microphones into their hands and there they were singing alongside the master, never mind that there was already an official chorus on stage, two choruses for the ailing singer instead of one.

It all made for a most moving moment ending only when a sympathetic Daniell did the right thing and relieved Sparrow from his rigours after the first ("Jean and Dinah'') of what was supposed to have been a six-part medley, the stage lights going down except for a lone spotlight that held a care-worn Sparrow's face in a blue frame, the whole place standing to applaud the courage and the memories to the end.

Only, it wasn't the end because, they tell me, Sparrow returned for a second show, Sunday night, and while, in their concern, the organisers had re-arranged for it to have been a tribute to the man and his music and had "Chucky'' Gordon down to do a couple of the calypsonian's classics , even as "Chucky'' was doing as fine a job as possible with "Slave'' (he had been singing it in Best Village competitions), there soaring out from somewhere again was that voice, the audience (lucky sods!) roaring out their pleasure and, I suppose, gratefulness, both then and as Sparrow joined the kid on stage—standing up! Must have been something special, that moment. the "Bird'', if not yet in full flight, still ruling the roost. As always.

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