Calypso, with its peppery lyrics and percolating rhythms synonymous with the Caribbean, long has been dominated by
artists whose ferocious stage names reflect the competitive nature of the realm: Lord Invader, Tiger, Roaring Lion, Mighty Destroyer, Attila the Hun. Yet it was a Birdie who became Calypso King of the World.
The Mighty Sparrow, affectionately known as the Birdie, is an icon everywhere calypso's infectious tendrils reach, from its origins in Trinidad to the communities of Caribbean expats scattered around the globe.
Although he's now 75 and no longer jousts in the competitions he's won innumerable times, Sparrow still takes his band around the world, including a rare Minneapolis stop Thursday at the Dakota Jazz Club. He'll be joined by more royalty in Calypso Rose, arguably the queen of modern calypso.
So how did the King, whose dozens of titles and sobriquets include honorary doctorates and at least one African chieftainship, adopt the name of a diminutive fowl?
"I used to be dancin' around the stage," Sparrow explained in his lilting, Trinidadian accent. "And these guys [other calypsonians], they were more standing like a lawyer in a court, making their case. Whereas I used to be making my case pretty much on wheels, from one end of the stage to the next. Some of them were angry because they were not as agile on the stage as I was. They was makin' the joke, and tryin' to turn it back on me: 'Why don't you stand and sing like everybody else? You keep jumpin' around as a damn sparrow.' ... After a while I said, well, I'll keep it."
Sparrow spoke by phone from his home in Jamaica; not the island, but the area of Queens, N.Y., where he has long resided, splitting his time between there and Trinidad.
Actually, he was born Slinger Francisco in a fishing village on the island of Grenada. When he was an infant, his parents moved to Port of Spain, where he learned his mellifluous singing style as a choir boy.
He became fascinated with calypso as a teenager, and was 20 when he earned the "Mighty" appendage by scoring a major hit in 1956 with "Jean and Dinah," which in calypso tradition reflected current events, included pointed commentary and employed a dose of humor then bordering on risqué.
"There's so many things you can make a song about," Sparrow said. "They started these things long before me. I kept in the same vein, singin' about the girls that come out at night trying to make a living. There was a U.S. military base on Trinidad. And you know when you have the military around, you can make money. Heh, heh. So I made a couple of songs. All the girls wait until the soldiers come there and be nice to them and get some money: 'Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina, round the corner posing...'"
Sparrow sang these last few lines, among many sing-along choruses that are highlights of his performances. His clever wordplay, sharp lyrical hooks, enthralling vocals and dynamic, dance-inducing arrangements all combined to help Sparrow rule the calypso roost. But he also had a serious side that produced politically influential songs, particularly around the time Trinidad and Tobago became a nation in 1960.
"I don't want to sing just anything of no consequence," he said. "I used to write a whole bunch of nation-building songs. I've had a lot of nice songs that can help keep the youngsters on the go: "Education" is one, "Try Again" is another one." One of the latest ones is 'Barack the Magnificent.' What we saw in him was: 'Stop the war/ Stop genocide in Darfur.' That was my song to remember him. 'No matter what, have health care for who have not/ The foreign relations committee/ can attest to his tenacity.'"
Reciting lyrics over the phone is a far cry from the charismatic Sparrow singing the same lines over an infectious beat. Besides, in performances he likes to evoke the spirit of Carnival.
"You got to keep the audience laughing," he said. And the Dakota's likely will at the exchanges between Sparrow and Calypso Rose, a Tobago native born McArtha Lewis, who in 1978 became the first woman crowned Calypso King (thereafter Calypso Monarch).
"We can even go one-on-one improvisation," Sparrow promised. "Sometimes you get a lot of insults and that, but that's the name of the game: I try to knock you out with lyrics, and somebody else doing the same thing."
It's a good-natured custom that always delights fans.
"We always try to make life happy," he said. "It's a good thing so far."