The storied career of the artist who has been the most renowned name ever in the field of calypso, Mighty Sparrow, will be examined in a symposium presented by the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute, in collaboration with the Medgar Evers College School of Professional & Community Development, on Friday evening, April 8. Titled “Just Like That, Sparrow Turned 80,” the symposium will be held in the Mary Pinkett Lecture Hall on the Medgar Evers College campus in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The symposium’s title hints at the unlikely reality for veteran watchers of the inimitable “Birdie,” regarded by many as calypso’s enduring evergreen, that he has indeed joined the octogenarian class as of last July. It’s not difficult to imagine that some who recall Sparrow when he was fresh out of the blocks in the 1950s — and followed his remarkable career, through those frequent portrayals in song of himself as the embodiment of male prowess — would probably not be adjusting readily to his becoming an 80-year-old.
Featuring presentations from a specially selected roster of participants, the symposium will explore various aspects of Sparrow’s career, one that is without parallel in the history of the calypso art form. He has been the most prodigious producer of calypso material, with a staggering number of recordings released over the years, and he has been, as well, the foremost global ambassador for calypso.
Sparrow burst on the national scene in Trinidad in 1956 when, not yet 21 years old, he won the Calypso King and Carnival road march titles with what would become one of his legendary hits, “Jean and Dinah.” Slinger Francisco was born in Grenada, and migrated with his mother to Trinidad when he was a child. Blessed with a good voice, he sang in the school choir but soon developed a love for calypso, which intensified when he was in his teens. With his natural flair for performing, the youngster felt convinced he was destined for a career as an entertainer. The “Sparrow” sobriquet was bestowed when he became a regular at one of Port of Spain’s calypso tents.
Sparrow proceeded to prove himself a master of calypso like no other and dominated the genre from the time he won his first title. He clearly was without peer as a performer, displaying a singular ability to wow audiences, whether in live performances or recordings, with his flawless command of material in any topic category. And his choice of topics ran the gamut: political discourse, social commentary, male-female relationships, humor, tributes…would typically have measurable impact, once given the deft handling of a Sparrow delivery.
Fan favorites from the enormous library of material introduced by Sparrow also covers the spectrum. Lovers of commentary on the social condition or world affairs might favor “Capitalism Gone Mad,” “Slave,” “Education,” “Crown Heights Justice,” “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” For those partial to Sparrow in party or good-times mode, preferred choices might include “Drunk and Disorderly,” “Going Home Tonight,” “Sa Sa Yea,” “Margarita.” His paeans to heroes like “Kennedy,” ”William the Conqueror,“ “I Will Not Apologize,”(tribute to Nelson Mandela) and “Memories”(tribute to departed fellow artists) would be sentimental favorites as well. And no listing of what has most delighted fans is complete without ribald hits like “Congo Man,” “Mae Mae,” “BG Plantain,” “Wood In the Fire,” “Sixty Million Frenchmen.”
Altogether, Sparrow won the calypso crown in Trinidad and Tobago on eight occasions and also won the road march title eight times. He has received innumerable honors over the years. Among the most prestigious have been the Order of Trinidad and Tobago, the Chaconia Gold Medal and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the government of Trinidad and Tobago, an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from the University of the West Indies and an MBE from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
Although not having totally withdrawn from the performing arena, Sparrow’s public appearances have now been markedly cut back, mainly due to health issues he has had in recent years.
Participating presenters for the April 8 symposium focused on Sparrow’s body of work will be announced. The symposium, scheduled for 7 pm to 10 pm, is free and open to the public. The Mary Pinkett Lecture Hall is located at 1637 Bedford Ave. (bet. Crown & Carroll Streets) Brooklyn. For further information: 718-252-6161; 718-804-8815.