Costa Rica: The History of a Village in Calypso Songs

Dr. Bombodee, Walter Ferguson's last CD

Walter “Gavitt” Ferguson, said to be the last remaining Calypsonian,  has become the memory keeper of Cahuita in Costa Rica's Caribbean south. He sings about his life and the history of his town; from Cacao plantation, to banana republic and finally, to national park and touristic destination.

The story of Walter Ferguson was told in this 1999 documentary by the Long Distance University of Costa Rica (UNED) which they have now uploaded and shared online. In it he tells of how he learned to play music on borrowed instruments and how he got involved in calypso the old fashioned way: by listening to the older calypsonians challenge each other by rhyming back and forth. He also goes on to explain about the inspiration for most of his songs, mainly based on events that happened in his village, giving a nice perspective to what life used to be like in Cahuita in a time when moonlit nights hosted impromptu concerts, the streets were of grass and medical emergencies had to be evacuated by paddling up the coast to the port city of Limon:

In these past 10 years, much has happened: Walter Ferguson recorded 2 CDs with the label Papaya Music, who wanted to have him record a CD so bad that when Mr. Ferguson declared he didn't want to go to San Jose to record, the label improvised a recording studio in his Cahuita home, as told by Roberto in The Silver People Chronicles in his article The Reign of Walter Ferguson:

They literally jumped through hoops in order to record this portable musical genius. They improvised a recording studio in one of Ferguson’s family cabins covering the walls of the room with mattresses to elevate the room temperature until they were able to isolate his voice and the sound of his guitar alone. In the meantime they managed to silence the dogs and the parrots that live in the patio of the Calypsonian’s house. They silenced the dogs by feeding them long ropes of sausage while the recording was in progress. It was in this manner, with the noise, the humidity, and only with his voice and guitar, that they were able to produce the record for Papaya Records.

It is a common occurrence for people to stop by the hotel and seek out Mr. Gavitt in Cahuita, as can be seen in this next video shot last October, where the simple fact of meeting Walter Ferguson is worth documenting and sharing online:

He was even visited by former Presidential Candidate Ottón Solis:

Walter Ferguson's songs reflect the history of Cahuita: from the monilia fungus that decimated the region's cacao production, to the arrival of the United Fruit Company, the train and the banana plantations for an all too brief period after which they departed leaving farmers once again facing a crisis. He also writes about the creation of the National Park and how it affected the community who was removed from their lands to make way for conservation and how that finally changed the community's livelihood from agriculture to tourism.

Ferguson's song Cabin in the Wata, tells of a friend in Cahuita who when government officials told him he couldn't build anything on his lands because they had become part of the National Park, then decided to build in the sea instead. This song was featured as the soundtrack in a Visa credit card commercial featuring all sorts of logos and ending with the slogan: You live in this world. You need Visa. This struck Jazmin Ross as a bit odd, as she wrote back in 2006:

“Vivís en este mundo. Necesitás Visa”. Curiosamente la voz y la música que acompaña las imágenes que muestran un Buenos Aires glamoroso, hipermoderno, por el que se puede transitar sin restricciones con una tarjeta de crédito, pertenecen a un viejito caribeño de 86 años que nunca puso un pie en un estudio de grabación, jamás entró a una cadena de hamburguesas y su única relación con las computadoras es un calypso que les dedicó a esas “loras de vidrio” que lo volvieron loco dándole y quitándole una pensión.

“You live in this world. You need Visa.” Curiously the voice and music that joins these images that show a Buenos Aires that's glamorous, hypermodern and through which you can travel with no restrictions on a Credit Card, belong to an 86 year old man from the Caribbean who never put a foot on a recording studio, has never walked into a hamburger chain store and whose only relationship with computers was a calypso dedicated to these “talking parrots” who made him crazy by giving him and then taking away a pension.

You can hear a bit of his music in this fan video from Argentina, where his song Rumba en Cahuita seems to be the perfect companion to a somewhat surreal road trip:

This year, in honor of Walter Ferguson, a festival of arts and culture in Cahuita now has his name, as Kimberly Barron from Eye on Costa Rica wrote:

Cahuita, a small tourist town located on the Southern Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica is planning to make cultural event a yearly party of dance, music, typical food and a celebration of the Afro-Costarricense culture. Named in honor of Walter Ferguson, known as the “King of Calypso”, he is best known for songs such as Cabin in the Wata and Callaloo. The highlight of the festival is expected to be a Calypso concert at Cahuita’s Central Park, which will feature local Cahuita performers, as well as musicians from Limon and Puerto Viejo.

In the same article, Kimberly goes on to translate an interview the national newspaper La Nacion had with Gavitt where he candidly discusses many details from his life. Walter Ferguson is now into his 90s, mostly blind and no longer playing music, since he says that when he sings, the sound doesn't come out like he would like it to.

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