He may be the crowned Calypso King of the world, with over 70 albums and countless sold-out shows under his belt. His smooth vocals and politically satirical lyrics have been credited for bringing the island sounds of calypso and soca to a world audience. But the Mighty Sparrow — just like many of his Queens neighbors — enjoys unwinding at the local Irish pub with a drink while watching a Mets game.
Slinger Francisco, better known as the Mighty Sparrow, has lived in Jamaica for over 30 years now. His career was launched in 1956 with the release of the hit “Jean & Dinah,” which celebrated the departure of American troops from Trinidad, his adopted homeland. More than 50 years later, there are no signs of his career slowing down.
Sparrow is the grandfather of seven and his pompadour has been relegated to the past. But he maintains the charisma, easy charm and energy that gave him his nickname and put him on the calypso map.
The point of the music, Sparrow said during a recording session in Brooklyn, is to “bring a message to the people,” and the mission remains as salient today as when it first emerged among African slaves on the island.
Forbidden to speak to one another, slaves made up songs to communicate. The songs evolved into a method of news circulation and often carried a tone of political protest or social commentary. Before the age of instant information, in a poor Caribbean island nation, calypsonians served as town criers to “bring a message to the people,” heralding breaking news and offering instant commentary. The messages are embedded in music, which is somewhat paradoxically danceable and upbeat.
One track on Sparrow’s new album, “The King of Calypso,” addresses the inflammatory remarks made earlier this year from the pulpit by Evangelist Pat Robertson directed toward Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Sparrow, who called Robertson’s remarks “atrocious,” leans to the left and is an unapologetic opponent of the war in Iraq.
Reading from lyrics scrawled on a notepad pulled from his bag, Sparrow illuminates the latest verse.
“Pat Robertson with no good reason encourage hate for Chavez to be obliterate … Lord don’t let them lose their power to moderate, it’s ungodly to assassinate.”
Sparrow holds his job as “self-appointed mouthpiece” in high regard. He may have an e-mail account now, and he was constantly monitoring a cell phone throughout the session, but he feels his chosen method of social commentary is not only essential, but harder than that of your run-of-the-mill journalist.
“He don’t have to have no melody, he don’t have to find no rhyme,” sing-songs Sparrow, proving his own knack of spontaneously finding both.
Sparrow was born in Grenada, but moved to Trinidad when he was only a year old. His singing career began in the church choir and in school-held competitions to win the leftover cartons of milk. He admits he was a skeptic when his instructors first told him he had an excellent singing voice.
“Yeah, teacher, yeah, and I’m laughing, sort of mocking him, like Sarah in the Bible, when God told her she was going to give birth to a child,” he said, letting his Roman Catholic roots show.
His influences include the calypso greats who came before him, as well as Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine. He can recall and recite in perfect accent-less imitation verses from the High Latin Mass as easily as the Satchmo and Cole classics.
He has also casually adapted to the twist his musical genre has taken in the last few decades, as calypso met American R&B, disco and Jamaican reggae in the 1970s. The fusion leans more toward the dance hall and less toward political satire, though Sparrow has flowed with it, using the new tunes and maintaining his message. He says he was ahead of the curve anyway — ”Jean & Dinah,” was more uptempo than any others of its day.
His goal, he says, is to “keep them moving, keep them groovin’, keep them dancing.” Sparrow himself can hardly sit still. Padding barefoot around the studio, he taps his feet and shakes his hips to whichever bit of his songs is emanating from the bank of blinking recording equipment.
Sparrow has played sold-out shows in Madison Square Garden and performed at Lincoln Center. He particularly likes the club SOB, Sounds of Brazil, on Varick Street in Manhattan.
Occasionally he will play one of the calypso or soca clubs in the Jamaica area, but in his downtime, he is more likely to be found at the neighborhood haunt, the Irish pub at 168th Street and Hillside Avenue. “We have a ball in there when we go inside of there. They know me so well, you hear ‘the Great Kahuna is here!’”
Stage names for calypsonians are common, though Sparrow’s is somewhat tame compared to his predecessors such as Lord Invader, Atilla the Hun and the Roaring Lion.
The name emerged in his early days of performing when he broke the traditional mold by dancing from place to place about the stage, like a bird. “They wanted me to stand and sing like everybody else, but I wasn’t feeling that,” he said.
Sparrow’s big break came in 1956, 12 years after the Andrew Sisters’ recording of “Rum & Coca-Cola” brought calypso to a bigger American audience and the very same year Harry Belafonte released the “Banana Boat Song,” the widely known classic that begins “Day-O.”
“Jean & Dinah” dealt with the mixed blessing of the departure of American troops from Trinidad. While they brought American dollars, they also controlled the nightlife, populating the clubs and monopolizing the native women.
The last verse of the song explains: “It’s the glamour boys again/We are going to rule Port of Spain/No more Yankees to spoil the fete/Dorothy have to take what she get/All of them who used to make style/While they taking two shilling with a smile/No more hotel to rest your head/By the sweat of thy brow thou shall eat bread.”
Intermingled with the commentary on the economic fallout of the military’s departure, is the celebration of the native Sparrow’s return to king of nightlife, and king of the girls, alluding perhaps to a less official explanation of the origins of his nickname.
Now, an entire career later, Sparrow retells with a low chuckle the day his fan base ballooned and the women swooned. “Now I’m getting calls,” he said, with a shake of his hips.