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Work / Art

Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris dissect the album covers of calypso singer Mighty Sparrow

Sparrow Come Back Home is a show opening tonight (Tuesday 6 December) at the ICA by artists Carmel Buckley and Mark Harris. The exhibition takes its title from a 1962 album by calypso singer Mighty Sparrow, who West Indians cite as one of the most “important calypsonians of the late 20th Century”. His entire body of work has been collected together with almost 200 LPs and 12-inch singles from different Caribbean islands and big cities like New York, Toronto and London being gathered together.

The exhibition shows representations of Sparrow’s records alongside an archive of printed material relating to his music, providing insight into the depth of calypso culture. Carmel and Mark have created 180 ceramic tiles, each one the size of an LP and each one depicts the front and back to record covers spanning Sparrow’s career. We asked the British artists to select six of their favourites and explain a bit about their history and importance.

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Calypso Kings and Pink Gin, Cook Records, 1958

Calypso Kings and Pink Gin, Cook Records, 1958

This is one of Sparrow’s earliest releases. This 1958 album was pressed by the highly innovative record producer Emory Cook. Both music and cover are remarkable. The front image shows Sparrow and rival calypsonian Lord Melody in a calypso tent, the traditional Carnival performance venue, standing behind an advertisement for pink gin.

The standout cut here is Sparrow vs. Melody, a picong, or calypso duel between the two rivals as they relentlessly insult each other in turn. In the photo on the reverse, the camera has pulled back to show the audience seated beneath hanging bunting and a Cook Records advertisement right at the back.

Historian Errol Hill writes about the calypso stage at this time filling up with advertising, giving the performers the appearance of stage puppets. Other memorable tracks include Sailor Man and Dear Sparrow that humorously relate stories of women’s infidelity in the period of loosened sexual mores encouraged by the presence of the American base in Trinidad during World War II. The political calypso situation in Trinidad has Sparrow pleading with Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams to keep commodity prices low after his election.

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The Mighty Sparrow Sings True Life Stories of Passion, People & Politics, Mace Records, 1964

The Mighty Sparrow Sings True Life Stories of Passion, People & Politics, Mace Records, 1964

Issued in the US and Canada, this is a compilation of tracks from earlier LPs The Slave and The Outcast, both from 1963 and released only in Trinidad and Jamaica. The cover shows the iconic image of a glaring, and somewhat demonic-looking Sparrow, a guitar held assertively between his legs. This record has some of Sparrow’s most moving songs such as The Slave, which narrates the history of slavery in Trinidad and the emergence of calypso from field chants. In the extraordinary Martin Luther King, Sparrow sings: “So we want Martin Luther King for president/Tell the north, I go tell the south, mama” at a time when Civil Rights riots raged in Birmingham, Alabama, and an African American president in the US was unimaginable.

Kennedy and Khrushchev is another political track that tells the denouement of the Cuban Missile Crisis – “But they turn their ships in another direction/Is a lucky thing Russia use she discretion”, while The Village Ram introduces one of Sparrow’s most inventive characters and uses a beautiful melody for a merciless parody of male sexuality.

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Congo Man, National Records, 1965

Congo Man, National Records, 1965

Here is one of Sparrow’s most powerful images drawing you irresistibly to the album’s contents. The cover depicts Sparrow as the Congo Man, bones around his neck, in his hair and nostrils, as the song tells of a cannibal cheerfully eating “two white women”, double entendre fully intended – “He cook up one, he eat one raw”. Musicologist Gordon Rohlehr writes of Sparrow marrying a white American woman in 1958 and being socially ostracised as a result.

The song empowers the “Congo man” and exposes racism in society at large for its fear of blackness. Other tracks such as Man Like to Feel unmask masculinity and advise women to handle men’s egos by humouring their self-delusion. On the other hand, Steering Wheel plays up the stereotype of the virile, conquering male, or irresistible “saga boy”, who is making out with his girlfriend in her car until she accidentally kicks the horn, provoking her father’s angry interruption. We hear of a woman willingly conquered and an archetypal father who, a little too late in the game, emerges to protect the virtue of his daughter.

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Sparrow Power, Recording Artists, 1970

Sparrow Power, Recording Artists, 1970

Indeed, here Sparrow is at the height of his power, with backing band Troubadours and veteran arranger Earl Rodney ensuring these up-tempo songs are tight and relentlessly energetic. The album cover photo suits the title – Sparrow is in full throttle action, bent at the waist and pushing forward, a mischievous look on his face as he most likely sings the wildly inappropriate double entendre Sell The Pussy –yes that pussy. There’s more than a trace of psychedelia to Sparrow’s brightly patterned shiny shirt, the receding title font, the radial glow of the lurid pink spotlight, although the songs are unadulterated calypso.

Wilhemena and Saturday Night are full-pace rockers with terrific melodic hooks, with Panman and Shake Your Waist close behind. Plenty of sexist machismo here, where Learn To Cook values culinary skills over a glamorous figure and Shake Your Waist consists of an injunction to his partner to lose weight. Or is it more likely that these are masks of masculinity that Sparrow is assuming to mimic boorish stereotypes?

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25th Anniversary, Charlie’s Records, 1980

25th Anniversary, Charlie’s Records, 1980

A sharply designed cover with a shirtless Sparrow grinning cockily and looking sexy in a red beret. All perfectly justifiable as this is an excellent double album with many strong dance tracks that show Sparrow getting a confident grip on Soca, the Caribbean music genre that was fast displacing the older style of calypso. Here is the impressive anthem London Bridge, later adapted by Kirsty MacColl, that gloats at England’s decline and sends a nice barb in Thatcher’s direction – “In a land that used to be strong is a woman bossing the town”. Here is the ridiculously lubricious Love African Style – “I love to see when black people make love” – and the lady-killer witch doctor of Gu Nu Gu. Closing out the record is the infectious beat of Rum Is Macho, with Sparrow imagining the alcohol talking – “A little bottle of rum, made in Trinidad/Sang to me a song, how the people treating him bad” and the inspired melody of Tobago Girl. A great album brimming with charm and confidence.

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Doh Stop De Carnival, 1994

Doh Stop De Carnival, 1994

Touching 60 years old and Sparrow is still pulling off hi-energy carnival classics like the title track, a dance number with a magnetic rallying cry. The record cover is a montage of good-looking individuals dressed for carnival masquerade, in effect wearing practically nothing. Tanty Secret celebrates an ageing carnival queen whose seductive dancing, or “wining”, is teaching younger women a move or two – “When she start to wail, and shake up she tail/Watch the Richter Scale, other winers can’t prevail”.

In a more reflective tone with Ram Goat Advice, Sparrow admonishes his rival Lord Kitchener for taking bad counsel and refusing a top civic award when he felt he deserved better. Sparrow got some serious push back from Kitchener for being so frank in his criticism. Our favourite though is Cowboy Justice where an infectious refrain builds on corny riffs and language borrowed from old TV Western soundtracks. It may come as a surprise here that Sparrow is protesting current criminality – “I want someone smart explain and tell me flat/Why so much robbery, murder and rape?/Yippee-Yi-Yay…/They have to stop all their ruthlessness/And their bloody wickedness/Give them cowboy justice”.