Slinger Francisco, universally known as the “Mighty Sparrow”, is 87!! Imagine that!! That sly, impudent skewer of pretentions, and commentator on all things West Indian since WWII, is still with us…albeit in New York. But then, for us West Indians, that’s home away from home, no?? What mightn’t be so well known is that Sparrow – he was that looooong before the leering “Captain Jack Sparrow” – spent quite some time here pre-independence, when we were just B.G. – for “British Guiana”.
In fact, he wrote one of his top hits – “BG War”-immediately following our Black Friday on Feb 16, 1962, when the PNC burnt down half of Georgetown in their opening salvo to remove the PPP Government. With war drums sounding in the background again, his take is very relevant: “Well they drop a hydrogen bomb in B.G./ Lord have mercy, They drop a hydrogen bomb in B.G./ Lord have mercy, Riot in town mama/ Ah hear the whole place on fire, From Kitty to the waterfront all that/ Burn down flat, flat, flat.”
Then the Master gave his take: “I ain’t care if the whole of B.G. burn down; I ain’t care if all of Bookers burn down/ But they will be putting me out meh way, If they tackle Tiger Bay/ And burn down the hotel,
Where all meh wahbeens does stay!!” Tiger Bay was then a hive of urban slum life, with dozens of “hotels” – pronounced “hut-tel” – with rentals by the hour!!
“They lock up over a thousand people; Well that was trouble/ They send for Policemen in the country
To bring unity; But Police and all afraid/ Stand up and they watching stores get raid; Walk in the store take everything/ And when you done set fire to the building….A woman walk in a store on main street
Slippers on she feet/ Dirty petticoat, long time straw hat; And she smelling worse than that!/ But she walk out like a lady; High heels, glasses, jewelry/ The straw hat she had on wearing before/ She take matches and she burn it inside the store!” Reminds you of Mon Repos??
“They send for soldiers quite up in England; With big confusion/ They bring down warships with cannon like peas, To shoot Guyanese/ But Burnham said all right now, I’m the only man to stop this row/ He give we the signal and that’s the case, Now we have peace and quiet in the place.” This, of course, was Sparrow’s sly dig at Burnham, who’d replied, “He who calls off the dog owns the dog” to the request of the Governor to quell the riots.
Everybody and their uncle – including Sparrow – knew Burnham was behind the mayhem. They couldn’t say the PPP had infiltrators!!
…in cultural resistance
Talking about the “wabeens” of Tiger Bay, reminds your Eyewitness of one of the unique features of our early urban landscape in what was dubbed the slums. According to one historian, “in the decades after emancipation, one of the ways in which the Afro creole resisted complete cultural domination was that in defiance of the Victorian social norms of modesty, dignity, orderliness, productivity and decorum, they exhibited counter values of gregariousness, bravado, loudness, ribaldry, rowdiness, aggression and even coarse vulgarity.
“This manifested itself was in the practice of ‘cussing’ and ‘buseing’ which he contended was a manifestation of their poverty and deprivation. …It was the women of the ghettos like Tiger Bay for whom this yard culture provided the means to resist white cultural dominance and to fight back against social injustice and racial discrimination.”
…for the “Tigress”
A contemporaneous magistrate, Henry Kirke, in his book “25 years in British Guiana”, wrote: “The black women are as strong as the men, taking the average, I should say they were stronger and quite ready for a fight at anytime.
“I remember one woman who was called the Tigress of Tiger Bay was a match for any three Policemen and was a terror in the neighbourhood”!!