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Calypso king Mighty Sparrow to attend Toronto world premiere of The Glamour Boyz Again

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It’s been almost a year since members of the Caribbean community in Toronto were saddened by the erroneous news that the Mighty Sparrow, widely regarded as the greatest Calypsonian of all time, had died.

Next month, a documentary celebrating what has been lauded as the finest acoustic performance ever recorded by the Calypso King of the World will have its world premiere in Toronto.

And the guest of honour will be a very-much-alive Slinger Francisco, better known to calypso fans around the globe as the Mighty Sparrow.

The film is The Glamour Boyz Again: The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Superior on the Hilton Rooftop, and it was made by the same people who produced Calypso Dreams a few years ago: a documentary widely acclaimed as the best film ever made about the art form.

Their followup film will be screened publicly for the first time on Wednesday, Sept. 3, at the launch of this year’s CaribbeanTales International Film Festival. The gala event will be held at the Royal Cinema (608 College St.).

Sparrow is still on the mend after being in a diabetic coma for two weeks last September — the health crisis that triggered the widespread and premature reports of his death. And any lingering doubts about the 79-year-old Calypsonian being healthy enough to attend the Toronto premiere were laid to rest on Aug. 3, when he looked and sounded downright sprightly during a performance at the Jambana One World Festival in Markham.

Sparrow’s close association with Toronto goes back decades. He has performed here scores of times, at venues ranging from tiny Caribbean night spots to Massey Hall and the Air Canada Centre, and has written a calypso song about Caribana titled “Toronto Mas” (containing a typically Sparrowesque tongue-in-cheek reference to Toronto women “shaking up their bootie out of time, chipping with an awkward swing . . . a little bit of sunshine get them red so they staggering in de band, and when the liquor fly up in their head they tacklin’ any man”).

The choice of Toronto for the gala premiere of Glamour Boyz Again was a perfect fit on many levels, according to Geoffrey Dunn, writer, director and co-producer of the documentary. Says Dunn: “CaribbeanTales has handled distribution of Calypso Dreams for the past several years, so when the opportunity came to stage our world premiere at the festival this fall I jumped at the chance. Founded and led by visionary Frances-Anne Solomon, CaribbeanTales, which is centred both in the Caribbean and Toronto, has become a leading force internationally in Caribbean cinema, as a distributor of Caribbean film, as an incubator for projects, as a support system for those in production. We’re honoured to have had the film selected for the opening night benefit.”

The California filmmaker also spoke of the health struggles faced by Sparrow and his 76-year-old co-star in the documentary, Lord Superior. “Both Sparrow and Superior have been through significant health challenges this past year. Sparrow was in a coma; Superior had a heart attack. Both of them are forces of nature, physically strong and strong-willed. Not only did they survive, but they both have returned to the stage. It wasn’t their time. Neither of them were ready to bid their adieus. When they both performed in Trinidad this past Carnival season, I knew I had to make the film.

“The film focuses entirely on Sparrow and Superior. Calypso Dreams was a broad, wide-ranging film, nearly encyclopedic in its breadth. I think there were more than two dozen artists in the film. Glamour Boyz Again is much narrower in scope, more contained if you will, in that it presents a single acoustic performance by these two giants on the Port of Spain Hilton rooftop in 2002. Just the two of them. It’s an absolutely brilliant performance. The energy between them — their friendship now goes back nearly 60 years — is lively and dynamic.

“We used snippets of this performance in the final cut of Calypso Dreams, but it has always struck me that it should be presented on its own, in its entirety. People I have shown the rough footage to have said that it’s the greatest acoustic performance by Sparrow they have ever seen recorded. Supie (Lord Superior) is absolutely brilliant, not only on guitar and singing backup, but also singing some of his own hits. It was magical.

“Plus, by chance, I conducted two separate sit-down interviews with Sparrow and Superior that we didn’t use in the first film. There’s some great revelatory material in there, too. So the interviews provide depth and context for the performance.”

There is one other crucial element to Glamour Boyz Again: vintage footage of Trinidad’s Carnival, almost all of which has never been screened publicly.

“I’m down to a few bad habits in life,” said Dunn, “and one of them is collecting old photographs and old film footage of the Caribbean. Several years ago, a friend of Lord Superior, Ronnie Joseph of the Carnival Commission in Port of Spain, told me some British tourists had left some rolls of old film footage for him. I had it digitized. It’s from Trinidad Carnival in the early 1950s, precisely the same time that Sparrow and Superior burst onto the stage. It provides a rich flavouring to the film, a significant visual backdrop. It takes you back to the time of their emergence. The archival footage and photographs add a depth and visual texture to the film that there wouldn’t be otherwise.”

Dunn also spoke of Toronto’s importance to the survival of classic calypso, which has lost significant ground in Trinidad over the past couple of decades to its harder-driving soca and ragga offshoots.

“Music in various cultures is always evolving, always changing,” says Dunn. “What was popular with one generation is tossed out with the next. That’s happened with my parents. It’s happening now with my kids. But calypso is the ‘mother music’ of the Caribbean and one of the interesting things about culture, including music and language, is that it’s often stronger and purer in the diaspora. Toronto presently has a very strong calypso culture. Indeed, calypso is very vital in Toronto. I can only imagine the welcome that Sparrow will receive in the aftermath of his health challenges. Toronto is the perfect place to launch the film.”

Dunn also promised a treat in Glamour Boyz Again for calypso fans: a version of the 1956 hit “Jean and Dinah,” the most famous of the hundreds of songs Sparrow has recorded in a career spanning seven decades. Says the California filmmaker: “I consider ‘Jean and Dinah’ a transformative song in Caribbean history. Sparrow provided the soundtrack to Trinidad’s independence. There’s a brilliant performance of ‘Jean and Dinah’ in the film. Supie is brilliant with guitar and backup vocals. It’s actually in the film twice, but the second one is a secret. You have to go see the film to find out what it is.”

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