The decision by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to award and reward The Mighty Sparrow and masman Peter Minshall, respectively, must be commended.
Sparrow, aka Slinger Francisco, will receive the nation’s highest award, the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, at the next Independence Day ceremony. Minshall, in his turn, will get the deed to the Federation Park flat which he has lived in, at the State’s uncertain forbearance, for many years now.
The majority of citizens would agree that these two icons of local culture well deserve these gifts from the State. Sparrow, rightly known as the calypso king of the world, has given the calypso artform an enduring legacy which remains relevant decades after he performed his now-classic songs. Moreover, that legacy runs almost the full range of calypso – from humour to satire to social history to political commentary.
Minshall, similarly, is the most successful masman in T&T’s history. He has created Carnival kings and queens whose designs have become representative of the festival itself; advanced the technology of mas-making; and carried the artform to international arenas.
The official recognition conferred on the two men is also a measure of T&T’s social progress. It is now standard practice to hail Sparrow as an icon, but this new status can obscure the struggle it took for him to achieve that success. When Sparrow first began singing, after all, calypsonians were viewed as unrespectable—indeed, the classic three-piece suit costume of the old-time calypsonians was chosen partly to offset this image. And Sparrow himself was considered particularly disreputable, with his ditties about lizards, prostitutes, and congo men.
Similarly, Minshall waged a decades-long struggle to demonstrate that the mas could be an artform equal to other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and that the mas was even more challenging than these high arts in the requirement that mas be performed. Because of this, Minshall was long treated as pretentious even by so-called arts experts, and it is telling that his bands often won the People’s Choice award while being dismissed by Carnival judges.
So, despite their undeniable achievements, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar took some political risk in officially lauding Sparrow and Minshall. There remains a vocal minority who will criticise both her and the two men, for reasons which are irrelevant to calypso or mas. Yet few persons who deserve accolades, particularly in the arts, can escape criticism. Indeed, if artists do not offend some quarters, then their art is probably superficial.
Time, however, is the ultimate judge. It has taken many decades for these men to be acknowledged by the State in this way. By so doing, the nation has advanced itself.