My Pop Life #4 : Music & Rhythm – The Mighty Sparrow

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Music & Rhythm   –   The Mighty Sparrow

…music in me ankle, music in me tonsil, music in me shinbone – to produce a quaver and semitone…

From the very first WOMAD LP in 1982, compiled by Peter Gabriel, this extraordinary piece of music from Trinidad sat alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Beat, Peter Hammill, Prince Nico M’Barga and others in a wonderful skewed collection of music from anywhere and everywhere.

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The double LP was called Music & Rhythm and the title track stood out for it’s punchy staccato brass lines, it’s fantastic guitar, and intentionally hilarious lyrics, all relating to the power of music: a lullabye, a symphony, an old-time gramaphone, a rhapsody, Bach & Tchaikovsky all get name-checked.   This was my first serious exposure to calypso and the music of Trinidad & Tobago and I was hooked.  Some ten years later in 1993 we visited the islands for carnival.  Wonderful memories.  Different artists, like Sparrow, Superblue, Machel Montano or Lord Kitchener, compete musically for the road-march tune which will then get adopted by a crew.   Then on the night before Mardi Gras – J’Ouvert Night – this chosen tune is played from giant speakers over & over again from the back of a caravan of trucks slowly making their winding way towards the heart of Port Of Spain, (followed by the crew and any followers they can seduce into joining them) until dawn.   The mayhem in the centre of town as each crew arrives is spectacular.  Felix Cross and I had been shuffling along merrily drinking punch behind one such truck for about 4 hours but when we hit the main square at dawn we joined the mud mas – a group wheeling a giant tub of wet mud through the streets. They approached me with open arms and a slimy muddy embrace followed, perhaps a mud sandwich until I was covered from head to foot dear reader with dark delicious Trini mud. It was dawn rising and we were drunk as skunks on rum by then, no longer giving a shit.  From the outside the mud-mas looks kind of strange – faintly pornographic and slightly alarming.  One moment of submission and the spine is loosening further – or so you imagine – and after five minutes of limber and swoon and slime and smile I started to wonder why everyone  wasn’t doing it.

So anyway two muddy fellas danced behind the mud-mas truck and tempted total strangers into our muddy embrace as various other mud-covered women and men wined and danced alongside and within and around.

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It was rather tremendous, of course.   Jenny and Felix’s parents saw us on TV in the town square at 7am.  You can’t compete with that, but I have to say that believe it or not, the pan competition is the true highlight.  You can go to the pan-yards and watch the rehearsals, sit in the bleacher seats with chicken roti and carrot juice while a giant sound unfolds before you.  Rehearsals are a formidable procedure involving hundreds of steel-pan players thundering out an impossible arrangement with impeccable precision – the very definition of joy. Somewhere there will be a steel-band version of this Sparrow tune.  But so far I have found that steel-pan music doesn’t translate hugely well to CD or vinyl – much of the power is lost in transference, although I would love to be proved wrong, if anyone has evidence to the contrary…