I went to Piarco in Trinidad two Fridays ago expecting to fly home to Antigua via Barbados. What I never anticipated was an almost two-hour detour to the unlikeliest and yet most welcome of places – Memory Lane.
I was sitting near the entrance of the First Class lounge, drinking my money’s worth of coffee and going through the compendium of crimes and political gossip that the front pages of the newspapers have become, when one of the attendants pushed in an older gentleman, cane in hand like the baton of Supt Prospect, the founder and leader of the Police Band in its glory days, immortalised in the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso, “Governor’s Ball”.
It was not Prospect and no mad woman was in the offing, perhaps deterred by the tight airport security outside the door, but it was Sparrow and sharing his company was a prospect that not only pleased but was sufficient to make my day, my month and even some aspects of my existence. Internally I shook with delight like Mr Prospect’s baton. Externally I was my usual suave, silky, smooth self. “I know some of your calypsoes that I am sure you don’t remember,” I said. Remember, “Sparrow move your hand/ Boy look move your hand/ Sparrow boy ah feeling shame,/ Move your hand.”
That was not enough. I jumped hurriedly out of my seat, went and shook his hand, introduced myself in the context of the television programmes I hosted in the days of yore and more, and then sang, “Ah fraid you make a calypso on me, / Not me, / I don’t want you to make, a calypso on me, /Ah know nobody go see, / That is only the two ah we, / But ah fraid yuh go make a calypso on me.” That chorus, the negative and perfectly logical response from the delectable Lulu who was “the prettiest woman in Trinidad/ And you have me going staring mad”, opened the door for me and when asked by the attendant, “Where you want to sit?” Sparrow replied, “Next to that gentleman.”
And the floodgates opened.
In our village, Siparia, in the deep south of the country there is an annual “Fete” and during the fete a “chair plane” and “merry-go-round” were set up in the large playing field we called the Savannah or “Sand-vannah” because of the soil composition of the area. It played two songs through huge loudspeakers that could be heard by almost the entire village. One was “Dr Kitch” by Lord Kitchener about some poor female subject to his medicinal ministrations who could not stand the size of his hypodermic needle and another by Sparrow about his misfortune to be marooned on an island with a thousand sex-starved and demanding women. “Last night it was Mary Jane, the night before it was Pretty Lane…” The punch line was, “Don’t fret! Everybody go get.”
We sang about Carlton, the Peeping Tom and remembered Melody, Sparrow’s ongoing sparring partner in song. I told Sparrow that I had known him on radio long before I ever saw him. Even before Jean and Dinah, his first big “Benwood Dick” for its “smuttiness”, he sang it for an encore, a piece of typical mischievousness and daring. Radio Trinidad, the one radio station at the time, ended the show abruptly. When we spoke about that night, his eyes gleamed and when I told him that one of my colleagues believes that the second verse of Benwood Dick is the best calypso verse of all time and is sheer poetry, we sang it together, “Sorry old man, that won’t do for me / I don’t carry message for anybody / If you want to see she, don’t worry to send me/ Climb up the step you won’t fall / It have a bell on the gate / Ring it and wait / She must come after you call.”
I reminded Sparrow about his first protest calypso, one that was daring in its attack on the establishment. The “Jaycees” or Junior Chamber of Commerce, distinguished more by their complexion and commission-agent mentality than by commercial acumen, held the annual “Carnival Queen” show in which the Carnival King contest was a minor attraction. The King got a pittance while the Queen got what, for us at the time, were luxury items. Sparrow decided to strike for more money. He sang, “I will put my calypsoes on the shelf/ Let them keep the prize in Savannah for dey own self/ Let the queen run the show/ With she fridge and she radio/ Who want to go could go over dey/ But me eh going no way.”
There are many faces to Sparrow — his humour, his women, his travels, his concern for social justice, his politics and his raw sexuality. But they are our faces, our concerns and our interests. He is us. Even larger than life he is our life. When the flight departure was finally announced, I left with a smile on my face and regret that we had not got to Theresa, Maud, Elaine, Mama and Monica Doo Doo and that somewhere, high on a Ferris Wheel in the distant past, there was Gemma stranded with her empty can of orange juice and the condemnation of all who had sat below her.