Walter Ferguson, Costa Rica’s Calypso King
At 87 years old,Walter Gavitt Ferguson, the famous calypsonian from Cahuita on the southern Caribbean coast, still has his spark. He may talk about being old, but his storytelling, healthy looking body and joyful attitude make it clear he is a child at heart. Ferguson has been singing and playing calypso music in Costa Rica’s Caribbean region for more than 70 years.
In 1921, when Ferguson was 2, his family moved from the Panamanian border area to Cahuita. His father was a farmer, so Ferguson was raised picking coconuts and harvesting bananas.
When Ferguson was 6, an aunt in the Caribbean port city of Limón got word that he was a singer, and encouraged his mother to send him to Limón, where he could learn to read, write and play music. Sitting in the grass observing older calypso singers in Cahuita and listening to calypso greats such as Papa Houdini on a Rock-Ola jukebox in Limón, Ferguson got an ear for the traditional Caribbean style of music.
Ferguson was determined not to settle for simply singing songs written by others; he wanted to write his own. Sure enough, by his teens he was playing guitar and singing his own whimsical songs to his community. By the late 1970s, he was making tape recordings of his music for those who wanted it, and he even went to the United States and recorded a song he calls “U.S.A.”
It was not until 2002, however, when Papaya Music went to Cahuita and recorded Ferguson, that the rest of the world became aware of the Costa Rican calypsonian. He has now recorded two CDs, entitled “Babylon” and “Dr. Bombodee,” in addition to his many independent tape recordings. His music is also captured in cover recordings by fellow Costa Rican musician Manuel Monestel and the group Cantoamérica. Although Ferguson’s discography is small, many critics and music lovers agree he is the most important calypso musician in Costa Rica.
Nowadays, Ferguson is most often found at his family-run business, Sol y Mar restaurant, cabins and gift shop, near the entrance to Cahuita National Park. He and his wife Julia head a large family, including 10 children and eight grandchildren. On a recent rainy day, The Tico Times met with Ferguson at Sol y Mar to learn about Cahuita’s calypsonian in his own words, spoken in the Caribbean English of Limón. Excerpts follow:
TT: When did you start playing music and where did you learn to play?
WF: Well, my mother told me that I’ve been singing since about 4 years. I was singing and I was playing a mouth organ. Do you know what that is, a mouth organ? It’s a harmonica. I believe nobody can teach you to play a mouth organ… It’s a little instrument like that, and you put it like this (motions bringing instrument to mouth) –so nobody can tell you. I played it, yes.
Did you teach yourself guitar, too?
Yes. And my aunt tell my mother to send me to she, then she would send me to school, teach me to read and write, then I could have a course in music. She was a pianist. They claim she had the best piano in Limón, my aunt. She left me alone with the piano – “Oh yeah sure, you go ahead” – but when she find out I was playing the piano, she said, “I don’t teach him. I don’t do him the piano.” You could know what I was playing, but I couldn’t play with the left hand, only one, because I couldn’t manage the bass. I didn’t understand.
Where do you get your inspiration to make music?
I just make it.
In your song “Confusion,” on the “Babylon” album, you say you “hardly know the woman from the man.”What do you mean?
Well all those things is natural, you know. Once I was coming from Limón back to Cahuita and the bus was full. I saw a lady sitting in a seat; there was extra space but she had a bag there. I asked her, “Lady, can you give me a seat?” And she said, “Yes,” in a very deep voice. I thought it was a lady, but it was a man! I was very frightened I didn’t know the difference between a woman from a man. He had long hair you know. Yes, I just make the modern generation; you don’t know the woman from the man.
Your song “The Computer” on the “Dr. Bombodee” album describes the computer as a “wicked talking parrot.” Do you hate the computer?
Yes, but I tell you, the people ask me to sing “The Computer,” but I don’t sing it because I don’t like it. The music I make some mistakes.
The government gave me a small pension, just about ¢5,000 (about $10), but finally they stopped.When I went to get that money in Bribrí (a town in the Caribbean region), they said, “Yes but don Walter, you are not here.” I said, “Wha’ happen?” “I don’t know, but it is some mistake. Come back such and such a time.”
When I went back she said, “They said that you getting ¢115,000 monthly, and you don’t need that.” I wasn’t even getting ¢15,000 a month because I don’t have nothing.
So I asked them, “How’s that, because I am not getting that?” and they tell me they got it on the computer. So I said, “Well I don’t like computer because that a lie.”
(At present, Ferguson is getting a monthly pension of ¢75,000 [$146] from the Association of Music Composers [ACAM], and sells CDs in his family shop.)
What do you think of Cahuita?
We have some different set of people now, because the young ones are different ways as my old-time people. Many of the old ones die out. So we have mixed ones, foreigners and strangers and things, so what we had when I was young is not what we have today.
Today, you feeling sick, oh, you just call the ambulance and you can. But my days when you sick someone they have to come and boil a certain bush, because if not you’re going to die. A woman, for instance, is going to give birth and having trouble, she going to die because we don’t have no way to get out. Except by launch, and launch only come here Mondays and Fridays. You have to take a boat, and it take a lot of time, and sometimes people die along the way.
Today, you get sick, they say, “Call the ambulance,” and we have a clinic here, which we didn’t have before. If they cannot help you, they send you to Bribrí, and if they cannot do anything they send you to Limón. So it is different now, big changes and it is a big help to the community.
Last night I met a man in his 20s who told me that when he was young his knee got knocked out of place while he was playing soccer, and he went to you to fix it. So when you call yourself Dr. Bombodee, is it not just imagination? Are you really a doctor?
Well really I should be Dr. Bombodee for true. When I was young, 16 or 17, I used to play baseball. Sometime on the ground one get damaged, you know, and I always see my mother, how she would help somebody. I would look at them and see the hand and I would bring that way and then sometimes bring this way, and the next day they tell me, “The hand good, man, the hand good!”
What makes you happy?
Well, what make me sad now is because I lose my sight. Every day I would go to the farm and I be very happy. And I would come home about 12 o’clock, go and get a shower, get something to eat and take my guitar and play. That make me happy. But now I can’t feel that happy because I get up in the day and only sit down because I can’t go anywhere. I can’t see. I might walk on a snake. So I’m not so happy again.
Ferguson is just as pleasantly sad as the calypsonian he has been singing about his whole life. His songs teach us about the changing generations and struggles with poverty, and remind us of common human idiosyncrasies. A devout Jehovah’s Witness, he has lived a humble, angelic life, and admits his greatest vice is simply loving music.
Calypso King’s Biography Published
A book on Costa Rica’s calypso king was recently published by Editorial UNED of the State University at a Distance (UNED). “Walter Ferguson: El Rey del Calipso,” includes an autobiography and testimonials from friends and family in Spanish, 66 song lyrics in Spanish and English and a limonense Creole glossary. Author Françoise Kühn de Anta, born in France but now living in the Caribbean port city of Limón, spent three years collecting information for the book, which recently gained recognition at the International Book Fair held in San Antonio de Belén, northwest of San José. It’s available for ¢4,500 ($8.80) at the Editorial UNED bookstore next to the Melico Salazar Theater on Avenida 2.
‘One Pant Man’
by Walter Ferguson
From the album “Dr. Bombodee”
A certain woman called me a one pant man
I shouldn’t be in society
Calling myself a calypsonian
But she claim she going to run me out of the
Yes, she call me a one pant man
Me no know Breda, me no know
What I done this wicked woman
I only sing me sweet calypso
But she said she running me out of the land
I only sing me sweet calypso
But she claim she running me out of the land
She went and told the authority
Telling them I’m a foreigner
They came with gun and artillery
Compelling me to show them me cédula
Me no know Breda, me no know
What I done this wicked woman
She went and told the government
Telling them I running contraband
When the government comes down on me
They were obliged to leave the calypsonian
Me no know Breda, me no know…
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