Masters of Caribbean Music
Presented by Strathmore
Sunday, November 6, 2005 at 2:00 PM
Music Center at Strathmore
No need to call a travel agent—book your Caribbean musical tour
with this fascinating, irresistible exploration of the musical
ideas, influences, and relationships in the cultures of the
Caribbean basin, featuring the legendary Trinidadian calypso artist
The Mighty Sparrow, Puerto Rican jíbaro ensemble Ecos de Borinquén,
and from Port-au- Prince, the engaging and rarely heard Ti-Coca et
Wanga-Négés on their first U.S. tour.
Presented by Strathmore with support from Peter Vance Treibley.
THE MIGHTY SPARROW
Developed in Trinidad in the nineteenth century with lyrics in
English, calypso is a popular music with a delightful sense of
humor. Highly danceable as well as lyrically sophisticated, it
achieved international popularity in the 1930s with a stream of
humorous commentary about prime ministers, dictators, presidents,
and others troubling the public eye. Calypso is still going strong
in its home base, both in its traditional form and in its modern,
high-tech variant, soca.
While always musically rich, with an irresistibly lifting rhythm,
words and ideas enrich calypso. This social and political commentary
is peppered with patois and slang and, of course, there’s calypso’s
trademark sexual innuendo, often masked through use of double
entendre. It is a music that comes to the fore at the Trinidad and
Today’s Carnival began to take its present form when the separate
celebrations of colonial planters and their former slaves merged
after emancipation in 1834. Carnival singing competitions grew in
popularity. The first calypso recording was made in 1914. By the
1930s, calypso was entering a golden age of popularity and
creativity. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters recorded a cover version of
Lord Invader’s hit “Rum and Coca Cola,” about a local girl whisked
away by the Yankee dollar, which became an enormous hit.
The post-war American recording industry took due note of this
calypso success. RCA Victor signed up Mighty Sparrow as well as
Jamaican-born American singer Harry Belafonte. In 1956, Belafonte
recorded his calypso album containing the famous Banana Boat Song
(“Day-O”), the first album to sell more than a million copies. This
was also the year that the Mighty Sparrow burst onto the scene and
took the calypso world by storm.
Slinger Francisco, better known as The Mighty Sparrow, is a
living legend with a career that spans more than 40 years. The
acknowledged “King of the Calypso World,” rivaled only by the late
Lord Kichener, he has entertained audiences around the world. A
giant of personality, known and loved throughout the Caribbean,
Mighty Sparrow was born in Gran Roi, Grenada, in 1935. His family
moved to Trinidad when he was one year old, and the island claims
him as its own. A brilliant singer and arranger, he is the dominant
figure of Post World War II calypso, both in Trinidad and Tobago and
in the U.S., where in the 1960s and 70s, he would often fill New
York’s Madison Square Garden.
It is said that he used the sobriquet “Little Sparrow” on his
Carnival debut, but his rapid success led competitors to deride this
upstart diminutive bird. So Sparrow added the prefix “Mighty” as a
form of damage control and this rhetorical table-turning delighted
ECOS DE BORINQUÉN
PUERTO RICAN JÍBARO
The Spanish colonized the island of Puerto Rico in the early decades
of the sixteenth century. Settlers, mostly from the region of
Andalusia in southern Spain, who moved to the highlands were known
as jíbaros (“mountain farmers”). Their small-scale farming
activities were largely family affairs not requiring the use of
slaves. Thus, the culture of the highland jíbaro retains the
strongest elements of Spanish culture found on the island.
In both form and repertoire, jíbaro music reveals its connections
to Andalusia and sixteenth-century Spanish musical practices. The
music is played by small ensembles consisting of cuatros (small
10-stringed guitars), güiro (a gourd rasp), maracas, and voice. More
recent additions include bongos and sometimes a clarinet or trumpet.
But even in the purer setting of cuatros, guitars, and güiro, the
influence of Afro-Caribbean rhythm is unmistakable.
In the 1950s, few people would have thought that the rural
traditional music of Puerto Rico had any future. Jíbaros living on
small farms and in towns along the mountainous spine of the island
(known as Boriquén to its original Taíno Indian population) flocked
to San Juan and the U.S. in search of opportunity. In their rush to
a new future, they abandoned more than their bohíos (traditional
country houses); música jíbara, at the heart of their centuries-old
Spanish heritage, was also left to languish.
Counter-currents to this trend gathered momentum to form a
riptide that, by the 1960s, would begin to pull Puerto Ricans back
to their musical roots. Today, the mere sound of música jíbara can
provoke a cheer of cultural and national pride. For many Puerto
Ricans, it has become a national musical “flag.” Miguel Santiago
Diaz, founder of Ecos de Borinquén, was born in 1946 in Comerio, a
town in the mountainous center of the island. He has played a part
in driving the renaissance of Puerto Rican roots music. Miguel
founded Ecos de Borinquén in 1978. While the membership of the group
has changed over the years, its mission of bringing the “echoes” of
the jíbaro musical past in the present and the future has remained
constant. The group has performed throughout Puerto Rico and has
toured to the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Costa Rica.
The group’s first recording titled Jíbaro Hasta el Hueso on
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has garnered critical acclaim, a
2004 Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album, and a Latin
Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album.
TI-COCA ET WANGA-NÈGÈS
Twoubadou (from troubadour) music has a long and important place in
Haitian culture, one that transcends rural-urban and class
divisions. The term is used to describe singer-composers who
accompany themselves or are backed by small stringbased ensembles.
These traditionally consist of one or two guitars, a tanbou (barrel
drum) played with the hands, a graj (scraper), and a manumba, a
large, box-like “thumb piano” on which the player sits and plucks
metal tongues suspended over a sound hole. Twoubadou is derived from
blending of the Cuban song brought back to Haiti in the early
twentieth century by itinerant Haitian sugarcane cutters and Haitian
méringue. The form has become deeply Haitian over the intervening
decades, and most Haitians consider it an indigenous music.
Twoubadou songs are expected to truthfully convey the bitterness and
humor of life and love, often employing ribald and off-color lyrics.
Some twoubadou singers have been the conscience of a generation.
During the 1930s, while conducting fieldwork in Haiti, noted
folklorist Alan Lomax fell in love with this rustic acoustic music
that he first encountered late one night at the end of a
Port-au-Prince alleyway. “We had not walked twenty yards when we
came round the corner of a shanty and saw four or five couples
dancing a slow one-step in the alley-way between a high candelabra
cactus fence and the house. Hanging to the fence was an old bicycle
tire, burning slow and orange. I wish I could tell how beautiful
this scene was, how melancholy, how restrained and graceful…”
Twoubadou groups can still be heard in Haiti at fèt patwonal
(patron’s day feasts), during Carnival, at private parties, and in
hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists. Eclipsed by konpa and
other popular styles that it helped to spawn, twoubadou has been
taken for granted by Haitians until a resurgence of interest that
began in the late 1990s. Even so, this delightful music remains
virtually unknown outside the country.
Ti-Coca (David Mettelus) is considered one of the best singers in
Haiti today. Forming his first group with neighborhood friends in
1971, he soon acquired the nickname “Ti-Coca” (little bottle of Coca
Cola) because of his diminutive stature. For the last 28 years,
Ti-Coca and his accordion-led acoustic quintet Wanga-Nègès have
created twoubadou in the traditional style. In addition to David
(vocals and maracas), the ensemble consists of Allen Juste
(accordion), Mathieu Chertoute (tanbou), Wilfrid Bolane (bass),
Kesner Bolane (drums), and Richard Hector (banjo and guitar). In
their first-ever U.S. performance at the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife
Festival, the group created a sensation. Their performance at
Strathmore is part of their first U.S. tour.