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First Flight: Early Calypsos from the Emory Cook Collection

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Album Review

True calypso masks hard, unflinching social commentary in bright melodies and rhythms, and although it is very much a dance music, its infatuation with sexuality, cultural inequities, street gossip, violent situations, and eye for an eye revenge scenarios coupled with its full use of bravado, humor, inflated rhetoric, and private metaphors means it has much in common with contemporary rap, right down to the "calypso wars" that pitted performer against performer in sharp, improvised insult battles. Calypso at its purest is a truly devilish style, since the galloping rhythms say "don't worry, be happy" while the lyrics bite deep and list all the things to be worried about. To borrow a phrase from Phil Ochs (who might have made a passable calypso singer), calypso is "all the news that's fit to sing."

Slinger Francisco, the Mighty Sparrow, is perhaps the best known of Trinidad's modern calypso masters, and this fascinating set collects some of his earliest commercial recordings from albums he made between 1956 and 1959 for Emory Cook, who in turn licensed them to RCA Records. A cursory listen and these tracks seem bright and harmless, they bubble along on shining, horn-driven rhythmic arrangements that just make you want to move your feet. Underneath that sheen, however, Sparrow sang and rhymed away about taxes ("No, Doctor, No"), ghetto gun dealers (the oddly ambivalent "Gun Slinger"), personal revenge ("Eve"), international foolishness ("Russian Satellite" derides Russia for using a dog as a guinea pig in space exploration), and even, on occasion, the openly sentimental ("Post Card to Sparrow" is about being away from the one you love at Christmas while "Dorothy" is a straight up love song like Brook Benton used to sing). This is early Sparrow, and he would get better and bolder after all of this, but the origin of the Trinidadian phrase "if Sparrow say so, is so" starts with these recordings.


Born: 09 July 1935 in Grandroy Bay, Grenada

Genre: World

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

With his ultra-sweet vocals and lyrics that speak of romance and topical politics, Mighty Sparrow (born Slinger Francisco) rose to the upper echelon of Trinidadian calypso. Best known for his hits "Jean and Dinah" in 1956 and "Carnival Boycott" in 1957, Sparrow is an 11-time winner of the calypso monarchy and an eight-time winner of Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival Road March competition. Born to a poor working-class family in Gran Roi, a small fishing village in Grenada, Sparrow moved to Trinidad...
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First Flight: Early Calypsos from the Emory Cook Collection, The Mighty Sparrow
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