Calypso music arose in Trinidad and Tobago around the time of the abolition of slavery in the region in the early to mid 1800’s. When recording equipment arrived to Trinidad in 1912 the genre exploded around the Caribbean and spread to laces like the Barbados, the Providence Islands, and Panama’s Caribbean coast. The calypsonian man was one who would practice his craft through verbal improvisations, a sort of trade off of free flowing rifts. The calypsonian has “more woes than glory as he travels through artistic environments, the foreigner, the guy without a dime, the loser who has given up on romance because women get bored of him or take him for everything he’s worth.” Apart from cheesy renditions for tourists, that tradition has all but disappeared.
One of the last great calypsonians, who was only rediscovered in his 80’s, is Walter Ferguson who resides in the village of Cahuita on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast near the border with Panama. Born in Guabito, Panama, and raised in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica Ferguson began playing in local calypso bands in the 1950’s. On my first visit to Cahuita I hadn’t heard of Ferguson yet, though I can remember (or maybe I dreamed it) seeing him sitting with his guitar near his family’s home near the entrance to Cahuita National Park. I later bought his disc, Dr. Bombodee at the advice of some hippie record store owner at Playa Tamarindo.
With the first sound of the guitar fell in love with it. This was real calypso I thought right away and knew I never heard it before. It was raw and funny. His voice is unique and a bit scratchy. You sense his age, but also his wisdom. His songs tell stories about town, his bird named computer, about the national park. Going to Bocas, his tale of traveling across the border to the Panamanian island chain, is the slow, magical melody that stands out on the album, Ferguson’s second with Calabash music after being rediscovered.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.