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Crucian Festival Closes with Three Calypso Kings

Jan. 6, 2008 — The Mighty Swallow, King Short Shirt and the Mighty Sparrow, three of the biggest calypso stars of all time, took to the stage in Frederiksted's festival park Saturday, closing out the 2007-8 Crucian Christmas Festival with an unprecedented bang.
St. Croix musician and promoter James P.G. "Monarch" Wakefield emceed the show, which began after the adult Three Kings Day parade wound to its conclusion.
Quiet Fire and the Renaissance Horns backed up the star-studded acts, and St. Croix calypsonians opened the show. This year's Party Monarch competition winner Toby "Toby Dee" Derima and Calypso Monarch champion Morris "King Generic" Benjamin warmed up the crowd from about 8:30 to 10 p.m. Then Rupert "The Mighty Swallow" Philo took to the stage.
"Swallow made soca what it is," Wakefield said to the Source while driving to pick up the artists for Saturday's show. "He is really and truly the soca king of the world. He has won the Triple Crown in Antigua in the '70s, winning the Calypso Crown of Antigua, the Caribbean Calypso Crown and the Road March Crown."
The Mighty Swallow hit the stage in a white suit, black tropical shirt and white fedora, dancing up a storm and pumping out a set of high-energy party numbers like "Don't Stop this Party."
He spoke to the Source about his musical influences before the show.
"I like country, jazz, all types of music," he said. "But I was born into calypso. I was listening to [calypso pioneer] Lord Kitchener and road march music in school. Also Lord Cristo — I love him because of his tone, his voice. And he was very humorous."
Philo said his upbeat tempo has made him a crowd pleaser. "The cadence I've introduced, the public craves that beat," he said.
That faster tempo helped to define soca, pushing it to the more staccato, driving rhythm it has today, Wakefield said. The word "soca" is a blend, a portmanteau word made up from "soul" and "calypso," he said.
Sir McLean "King Short Shirt" Emanuel took the stage next, clad in a snow white suit, with turquoise bowler, shirt and kerchief. Short Shirt alternated his songs with stories and jokes, some aimed at Swallow, a longtime friend and fellow Antiguan. The two often tour together.
Short Shirt is known for his conscious, political lyrics and several of Saturday's selections had a social meaning. When he struck up his classic "When," the crowd cheered.
"When, when will we learn to live together/ when, when will we learn to love each other/ when, when will we learn to trust our brother…" he sang.
Short Shirt won the Caribbean Calypso Monarch competition in July on Antigua and is the reigning Caribbean Calypso King, a title he has held at least once in every decade since the '60s.
Wakefield told the Source that Short Shirt has been an inspiration to him.
"When I was a kid at Alexander Henderson Elementary, our teacher had us dress up and sing 'Tourist Leggo' from Short Shirt's 'Ghetto Vibes' album," he said. "I was inspired by him, then and I got to meet him when I was in the military."
Short Shirt told the Source he regards conscious lyrics as the most important aspect of his work. Asked about his influences, he listed Lord Kitchener, Lord Cristo and Lord Melody.
"But The Mighty Sparrow was my favorite of all time," he said. "Sparrow, among them all, shines and surpasses the rest. I dreamed that I would be as great as he and praise God I believe we are truly the two greatest calypsonians."
Slinger Francisco, "The Mighty Sparrow," was one of the few to rival the late Lord Kitchener in respect and popularity since he came on the scene in mid-'50s. Still a consummate performer and 11-time Calypso King in Trinidad, Sparrow hit the stage last, opening his set with his 1956 hit "Jean and Dinah."
'Well the girls in town feeling bad/ No more Yankees in Trinidad/ They going to close down the base for good/ Them girls have to make out how they could."
Then he moved into "Saltfish" — a song with a double entendre best left unexplained.
"The old calypso was the way to get the news to the masses," Sparrow, now a spry 72, told the Source before going on stage. "Whether it was funny, whether it was political, whether it was strange, or whether it was intellectual, this is what calypso did. It is self-expression and it also brought the news. In those days especially there were no magazines, newspapers, radio or television news so it was also a town crier, bringing the news to the poor and expressing their point of view."
Sparrow said he grew up around music.
"My mother used to sing," he said. "My father was a singer too. He always sang to us and cussed us in Spanish, until one day I told the same thing he told me to a neighbor and they complained."
He said he always had a natural inclination to public performance and always pressed himself to learn.
"I always had a yearning for learning and none of my teachers ever had to push me," he said. "I pushed myself. Recitation was my favorite. I might miss a test, but I would never miss recitation."
Sparrow then recited from memory one of those lessons from his long-ago elementary school days on Trinidad.
"The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father's word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard."

The lines are from a famous 19th century work by the English poet Felicia Hemans entitled "Casabianca," about the Battle of the Nile in Egypt. He then rattled off another set of lines, too quickly for this scribe to decode.
A few minutes later he strode up the stairs and sang for the throng, with couples dancing in front of the stage and hundreds of Crucians young and old singing along, waving flags and banners and cheering, while the rides and carnival lights glittered behind them.

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