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Calypsonian Walter Ferguson – A Living Legend

The World Discovers Walter Ferguson

The essence of Calypso is in its rhythm and its humor, not necessarily in that order. The seed of this musical style sprouted around Barbados, Trinidad and Ciudad Colon, Panama. It spread, literally by word of mouth, to other Caribbean ports, including Kingston, Jamaica, where it spawned the nucleus of reggae music.

Walter Ferguson is probably the last Calypsonian to learn his craft in this traditional, organic manner. Born in Guabito, Panama in 1919, he moved to Cahuita, Costa Rica at an early age with his father, Melsh, who was a cook for the Banana Company there. For years, Ferguson, or “Gavitt” as he is affectionately referred to by his wife and family, plied his trade with an old Martin guitar, creating songs and exchanging them with other wandering Calypso minstrels up and down the Caribbean coast of Central America. Walter even recorded a vinyl album of original songs in the early 1970s, which quickly slipped into obscurity along with its composer.

With time, the legend of Walter Ferguson had garnered legs of mythical proportion. Finally, in 2003, he broke a thirty year recording silence, agreeing to record a CD for Papaya Music, who had “discovered” him. Papaya has an austere reputation for its integrity in capturing and preserving authentic Central American music. At the time of their initial contact, Ferguson agreed to the recordings, but explained to Manuel Obregon, the president of Papaya, that he was eighty-four years old and had no desire or intention to go to a recording studio in San Jose. So Papaya brought the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak. They packed up and transported their recording equipment to Ferguson’s beloved Cahuita, where they set up a makeshift studio in the Ferguson family hotel there.

Mattresses, rugs and blankets were employed as soundproofing in one of the hotel rooms, to muffle the sounds of the local pet parrots and dogs, the passing buses and trucks on the streets. The result was titled “Babylon”, the first CD by one of Calypso’s forgotten kings. The disc is comprised of thirteen original tunes with only Ferguson accompanying himself on his old Martin, in a style he dubbed as “Porch Reggae”. Babylon portrays everyday life in the little towns along Costa Rica’s southeastern shoreline, with characters passing along from one calypso number and into the next, like images in a comic strip. The first two pressings of the disc sold out in just a few months.

One year later, Walter Ferguson was revitalized. Once again, Papaya had to disconnect all the refrigerators in a four block radius of the Ferguson Hotel in Cahuita (ostensibly to get the hum out of the wiring), quiet the pets and set up their hotel room/recording studio. For his second CD, titled “Dr. Bombadee”, Ferguson dusted off some of the songs he had nearly forgotten about from his purported two hundred fifty song repertoire. One of those gems, that needed very little polishing, is “One Pant Man”, that Ferguson wrote after the young woman he was living with accused him of being so poor that he owned only a single pair of pants. Along with nine other original songs on the second disc, Walter also renders his version of “Old Lady” by Papa Houdini, whom Ferguson considers to be his mentor. He also pays homage to traditional Jamaican music with his rendition of “72 Weeds”, a song with a ridiculously funny list of local plants which, if recited correctly, will cure any illness.

Walter Ferguson’s songs have an air of innocent pranks and jokes, a very healthy humor that some doctors might prescribe to their patients to forget all their own ills for a while. After the recording of Dr. Bombadee, Ferguson informed Papaya that it would be his final recording. In my opinion, Walter Ferguson should be proclaimed a national treasure. Both his CDs are available at the Jaime Peligro book stores in Tamarindo, Nuevo Arenal and Quepos, where they will gladly sample the music for their customers. Any and all comments concerning this article are welcome. Please check our Facebook site at Tamarindo Jaime Peligro.

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