This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
I don’t remember exactly when I decided to get into Calypso. It can be intimidating to dive into a new genre, but you pay attention when you stumble across some gem that’s too good not to share. The signature sound of Trinidad & Tobago has a long history and a wide range of styles. From 1940’s swing jazz to disco-fied funk, from pointed political commentary to cheeky double entendres, there’s a lot to explore.
A good way to start is by focusing on one of the most famous calypsonians, Mighty Sparrow. Born Slinger Francisco, the “Calypso King of the World” is an eight-time winner of Trinidad’s Carnival Road March competition and an 11-time winner of the Calypso Monarchy — all this despite once leading a boycott of the festival over a pay dispute.
Mighty Sparrow first hit it big with the 1956 song “Jean and Dinah” and has continued recording and performing ever since. Sparrow has churned out a lot of albums over the years, but one of his most intriguing and unusual releases is 1973’s Hot and Sweet. It’s not like anything else I’ve heard: the combination of sounds, styles, and words is so singular and yet I know very few who are familiar with it — which only makes me want to sing its praises louder.
Similar to jazz standards, Calypsonians often cover each other’s songs and re-record their own, playing with the instrumentation and arrangements. Hot and Sweet consists entirely of songs that had previously been recorded on other albums, but they’re given an eccentric twist courtesy of producer Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys, Joanna Newsom, Randy Newman).
With a solid bedrock of great songwriting from Mighty Sparrow, Parks helps give the record a more lush, hi-fi sound than most calypso, and he supplements just about every song with a quirky instrumental breakdown. Compare the version of “More Cock” found on Hot and Sweet to the first recorded version. The song is fundamentally the same, but it’s been fleshed out and given a gorgeous horn break in the middle. The overall effect is something like Fela Kuti crossed with Little Feat doing old jazz big band standards with lyrics written by The Pharcyde. I have yet to find any other calypso with so much wah-wah guitar.
Some of my favorite tracks include the spirited opener “Sparrow Dead.” Bah-bah-bah-bah, the song opens with a forceful punch and it never lets up, a flood of rhythm with hilarious lyrics to match. The record twists and turns. “Hello People,” in contrast to some of the more dirty-minded tracks that come before it, is a redemption-seeking song with a sermonizing angle: “Hello People, maybe you don’t know, you are going to reap whatever you sow.” But that doesn’t stop it from having some killer wah-wah guitar licks and a goofy chorus at the end.
The album evolves yet again, closing with the melancholic “Memories.” The nostalgic lyrics are matched with a slow tune that stretches it out to be by far the longest song. Like a sweet breeze as the sun sets over the ocean.