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Benwood and the birdie
published: Monday | July 21, 2003


Tony Deyal

"Inform your sister to descend immediately, I have some communication for her. Let her know it's Twisted Timber Richard, the gentleman from Sangre Grande. She's well acquainted with me. I donated to her already oi. She certainly will remember me oi. Continue, continue, tell her Twisted Timber's here."

THESE ARE the immortal words of the Mighty Sparrow's 'Benwood Dick' translated into schoolboy English. His text is actually, "Tell youh sister to come down quick, I have a message for she. Tell she is Mr. Benwood Dick, the man from Sandy Grandy. She know mih well. I gi' she already oy. She must remembah me oy. Go on, go on, tell she Mr. Benwood come."

This song was very daring for its time because of the Trinidadian use of the word 'wood' to mean the male member. 'Dick' had not yet taken on a similar meaning in Trinidad. One Indian politician who owned a sawmill, became a laughing stock in the rural Siparia when following his provision of free lumber to all and sundry as a bribe to be elected in the local County Council, he was rejected by the voters. He said bitterly to a crowd he had attracted with free rum and roti to celebrate his victory, "Ah give youh mudder wood. Ah give youh fadder wood. And if you and all did come you woulda get."

Then there was the stickfighter in the calypso by Zandolie. Contesting the championship to become 'Woodman of the Year', this gentleman uttered the immortal lines to his adversary as she lay on the ground, "Is wood make you bawl, is wood make you crawl and wood will make you get up."

EXPANDING THE FRONTIERS OF CALYPSO

These themes are common to our culture, but it is Sparrow who led the charge to expand the frontiers of calypso. He used the language in a way that captured the commonplace and made it extraordinary. "Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina, round the corner posing" is still something that you will observe in Port-of-Spain without noticing. You can "bet your life is something they selling" and have no fear of losing. "But if you ketch them broken, you can get it all for nutten, doh make no row, the Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now," captures the war-ending blues that fell on Port-of-Spain when the Yankees had to go back home and the rum and Coca-Cola stopped flowing for a while down at Point Cumana.

The imposition of income tax deducted from your salary by the government of Dr. Eric Williams, was greeted with, "De doctah say, to pay as you earn, but the Sparrow say, you paying to learn, and mih fadder say, he sharpening the axe, because when the collector come he'll cut off he income tax." It is the revolt of the serfs, harkening back to the dim recesses of tribal memory when Africans and Indians dreaded the taxes imposed on them by their rulers and the colonial overlords. But it is social commentary with a twist that is exclusively Sparrow but characteristically Caribbean.

CALYPSO AS AN ART FORM

I was a student in Dr. Gordon Roehlehr's English Literature class at University of the West Indies in 1970, a troubled year for Trinidad. We were doing a course on utopias and dystopias, essentially the good news and bad news of humanity's search for happiness and meaning. Roehlehr was even then an avid fan and student of calypso. He was among the first to view and review it as an art-form. He believed that Sparrow and the other social commentators in song were able to capture in five minutes or in five verses what it took the playwrights and novelists many pages to portray and present. While each form was unique and distinct, calypso had an edge in immediacy, emotional content and brevity. More, it speaks to us in language that we use and understand about things that are part of our everyday reality. The best calypsoes are the ones that make us take a second look, that make my Bajan brothers say, "But wait" or "Hold on", and Denise Plummer to ask shrilly, "What is this?"

"This" was "If they know they din want Federation, and they know they don't want to unite as one and only one, tell the doctor you not in favour, don't behave like a last-minute traitor, this is no time to say you eh federating no more." The debate, the agony, the countless tons of newsprint, the hurt, humiliation, referendum, emotion and disappointment, a chapter of West Indies history that pervades through the whole book, all captured in a single chorus.

GOOD MEMORIES

I am still part of the older generation who don't believe there has been any earth-shaking, ground-breaking calypso since 1990, the year and the song. When I sit in the car in a good mood driving, with my family around me, or when I hang out with my friends from the old days and let it all hang out, the pathways of memory lead inevitably to Sparrow with a little help from Kitchener, Composer, Brigo, Zandolie and Blakie. "Making love one day, with a girl they calling May May" brings back memories of happier times. "Money, Monica doo-doo, no woman in the world sweeter than you," we sing together. Then we switch to Brigo, "You know a man, tell me, dat mih name in the cemetery, jest so" but it is always back to Sparrow, "I envy the Congo man" and my wife's invariable look of speculation (prompted by my friends "Youh lie") when I sing in all sincerity, "I never eat a white meat yet."

Kenwyn Arthur of Barbados, man-of-letters and classical music, rates the second verse of Benwood Dick as sheer poetry, "Listen old man, that won't do for me. I don't carry message, for anybody. If you want mih sister, don't stand up and call her; climb up the steps, you won't fall. There is a bell on the gate, ring it and wait, she must come after youh call."

That, as we say in Trinidad, is Calypso father! So, too, is Sparrow who celebrated 68 r.p.m. last week Wednesday.

Tony Deyal was last seen commenting favourably on the veracity of the dictum propounded by Sparrow that regardless of variety or variation, cuisine or country, when the moment is upon you to indulge your appetite, every species of codfish is equally pleasant and gratifying to the tongue and palate. In other words, "When is time to eat, all saltfish sweet."

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