Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Slinger Francisco, better known as the Mighty Sparrow, is this hemisphere's most underutilized musical resource. The king of calypso for almost 40 years, he's recorded more albums than anyone can count yet earned virtually no U.S. notice outside of Brooklyn's Trinidadian community. I doubt I know a 10th of his output even after adding the three albums in my shelves to the negligible new Dancing Shoes and four long overdue compilation CDs (all on Ice), and don't claim that every track I have heard is a work of timeless genius. But the 13 archival songs on Volume One come close enough.

Sparrow prides himself on varying his melodies in a genre where stock tunes prevail. He's kept up rhythmically with more grace than most. His voice remains strong, clear, and commanding as he approaches 60. But calypso is about lyrics above all, and you don't have to be from Trinidad to appreciate Sparrow's wild wit, sane politics, eye for the foible, and sophisticated taste in smut. He enunciates his English so royally that you'll rarely need the lyric sheet. But that doesn't mean you won't want to reread the grade-school memory Dan Is the Man (In the Van) or Congo Man's sterotype gone mad. And rereading them won't stop you from wanting to listen with your body in motion.

Fast Cuts: Sparrow's somewhat more lightweight Volume Two and Volume Three are for after you're hooked on Volume One. 16 Carnival Hits, which he shares with his longtime carnival rival Lord Kitchener, is stronger. But if you're hooked, you might want to try three even more historical calypso compilations (on Rounder): Calypso Pioneers, which goes all the way back to 1912; Calypso Breakaway, probably the most classic; and Calypso Carnival, the longest, weirdest, and most highly recommended.

Playboy, Sept. 1993

Aug. 1993 Oct. 1993