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Sparrow: Poet Laureate of the PNM Revolution

By Selwyn Ryan

 This column joins the many who have saluted Slinger Francisco, also known as the Mighty Sparrow, for the contribution which he has made over the years to  the shaping of our national identity. From time to time in the life of a people, individuals emerge of whom it might collectively be said that they had done a great deal to shape the community’s contours, whether for good or for evil.  

I am sure I speak for majorities in all classes and ethnicities when I say that Sparrow is such an individual. He has enriched our cultural life and truly deserves the award of the Order of Trinidad and Tobago. One is grateful that unlike the Lord Kitchener, he is still with us to enjoy the acclaim. It really matters little where the announcement was made. Some might have done it differently, but then we are not all in competitive politics.

Sparrow’s artistic shadow did not only fall over Trinidad and Tobago. He was a Caribbean icon whose music and performance style was known  across the Caribbean diaspora. I well remember those cold wintry  evenings in Canada as a forlorn young student joining other West Indians partying and singing the songs on the latest Sparrow multi-track album. The songs helped to keep us spiritually warm and culturally in touch with our roots.

 Since I am a political scientist by profession, I choose to emphasise and underline the important role that Sparrow played in shaping our political attitudes in the post-independence era.

In preparing to write this column, I consulted my biography, Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man and was surprised to find that Sparrow appeared in the index no fewer than 15 times. 

Sparrow helped to create the Williams myth. 

He lionised him and helped to enhance his legitimacy in the eyes of the black Creole community. He also helped to silence the dissent and “recalcitrance” of those who were not under the PNM’s big tent. He was in a real sense the poet laureate of the PNM revolution. Popular comment was that if Sparrow say so, is so. Sparrow also helped to shape the myth that Williams was the Messiah, and that to touch the anointed one politically was tantamount to committing political murder or suicide, or at best apostasy.

In one of his classical calypsoes, “William the Conqueror”, Sparrow records the outcome of the epic political battle between Williams and Albert Gomes  in the 1956 general election. 

Williams was the man with the “big brains” and Gomes the man with the “big belly”.  

“I am sure you heard the story about big brain and big belly/Well Sparrow is free to talk, if you don’t like it, you can take a walk/Fight finish, no rules, no cuts, but a man fall down on he guts. Praise little Eric, rejoice and be glad, we have a better future here in Trinidad. PNM, it eh have nobody liked them, for we have a champion leader, William the Conqueror. I am no politician, but I could understand if it wasn’t for brother Willie and his ability, Trinidad would neither come nor go, We use to vote for food and rum but nowadays we eating all the feeders and dem, and in the end we voting for PNM.” Not surprisingly, Carnival 1957 was deemed a  “balisier Carnival”. There was however a lot of grumbling about the new taxes which Williams imposed in his first budget. Sparrow felt that Williams may have taken the people for a proverbial ride and told him to listen carefully to what he was saying. 

“I am a man does never be sorry, but I went and vote for some council men, who have me now in a pen. After promising to give so much tender care/They forgot me as they walk out of Woodford Square.”

Sparrow sang many other songs that helped to define the political mood of the country. One such calypso, “Leave the damn doctor, he eh trouble all yuh” helped the Prime Minister to get over the controversy surrounding his secret offshore marriage to Mayleen Mooksang, a dentist of Chinese ancestry. 

Another dealt with the resignation of Patrick Solomon who stormed a police station and released his stepson. This incident led Sparrow to sing one of his master calypsoes, “Get to hell outta here”. The calypso captures the essence and contradictions of Williams’ political manners. Williams is made to take on the character of the “democratic badjohn”, the man who is the “baddest don in town”.

Williams tells us he is reappointing Solomon to the Cabinet after having fired him summarily. Sparrow echoes his rant. As he sings, “I  am going to bring back Solomon, and who don’t like it can complain to the commission. None of them going to tell me how to run my country, I defy anyone to dictate to me. I am no dictator, but when I pass an order Mr Speaker, this matter must go no further. I have nothing more to say, and it must be done my way, Come on, come  on, meeting done for the day.”

Sparrow was not always happy with Williams and he complained a lot, especially about how Federation was treated by the politicians, including Williams. He complained that in their behaviour, Williams and the West Indian politicians defeated the whole aim of the Federation. They all wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. “Federation boil down to simply this/Is dog eat dog and survival of the fittest. I find we should all be together, not separated as we are because of Jamaica/This ain’t no time to say we ain’t federating no more.”

Williams himself considered “Pay as you Earn” to be one of Sparrow’s greatest songs. 

As he said in Inward Hunger—“The  public reaction to PAYE gave rise to one of the best calypsos in Trinidad history, the work, as always of Sparrow.”

 Sparrow would however come to have second thoughts about the PNM.  In the late 70s, he in fact emerged as one of Williams’ sharpest critics. 

In the calypso, “Prophets of Doom”, he complained that Williams had now become an enemy of the calypsonian. “If you happen to see and know/When politicians going wrong/It’s better to bite your tongue/Dem political boss consider you a cross to be removed at any cost.”

 He also came out in support of Karl Hudson-Phillips and the ONR leading him to be accused by the PNM of ingratitude and being someone who was not to be trusted. Sparrow however remained in awe of Williams whom he said was a “god and a half”.  He was the “Boss”, the “Conqueror”.

As Chalkie would say in his “boss” calypso, Sparrow was one of the best, arguably, “the best”.

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