Wednesday, July 14, 2010

“The King of Costa Rican Calypso Music…Walter Ferguson”

The “Festival de la Cultura y el Ambiente Walter Ferguson” will take place from July 5-18, 2010 at various locations around Cahuita and will honor one of the Afro-Costaricans’s favorite sons with music, theater, dance and poetry. 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.

Background on a Muscial Icon:
Locally known as the “King of Calypso” and for which this festival was named, Walter Ferguson was born in Guabito, Panama. His family quickly settled in Costa Rica where he spent most of his childhood around the community of Jamaica Town, a neighborhood by the Port of Limon. His parents moved to Cahuita, a small village in the South of the Limon Province, where he lives to this day. From an early age, Walter showed considerable interest in music and learned to play the harmonica, guitar and clarinet mostly on his own. As a clarinet player, he started the group “Miserable” in the 1950’s with other Calypsonians from Limon. In the 60s, he began to write calypsos with over a hundred songs of great popularity and cultural relevance for the Limonese people. Mr. Ferguson, also known as Mr. “Gavitt”, attended all the Calypso challenges held around the Caribbean coast for decades. From the town of Bluefields, Nicaragua to Bocas del Toro in Panama, Calypsonians were a dedicated bunch and would move by boat, horse, train or truck to compete at these improvised contests. Ferguson soon found fame while traveling along with other big names such as Panama´s Lord Cobra, and Limonese singers Papa Tun and Shanti.

His Place in Cahuita & History:
For many years, Walter Ferguson would record his own music on to audiocassettes and sell them directly to the tourists in Cahuita. Each tape was an original, unique unto itself, like a personal concert for each person who requested one of his “souvenirs”. Mr. Ferguson has received numerous recognitions, such as the Popular Culture Award, the ACAM Award, and the Ancora Prize, awarded by Costa Rica’s national newspaper, La Nación. His songs clearly reflect the unique culture of the Afro-Costa Rican community, a culture that has mostly been ignored by the Republic of Costa Rica. Mr. Ferguson often jokes about the Calypsonian´s naïve spirit, often misunderstood, sometimes even persecuted, and has even been taken advantage of by glamour girls who call him “sugar candy”. His work has been interpreted by other Costa Rican artists like Manuel Monestel and the band Cantoamérica since the early 1980s, which has brought more prominence to his work both around the country and abroad.

A Caribbean Icon Lives on:
Seated in his customary spot at the entrance to the Sol & Mar Restaurant located in his beloved town of Cahuita, the King of Calypso thrives on the attention he receives from the locals, tourists, expats and whoever else arrives to visit him. Since the beginning of July 2010, Mr. Ferguson has served as a one man marketing machine promoting the first Cahuita Cultural Festival, also dedicated in his name. When asked if he will be attending the Festival, “No!”, answers Don Walter in a strong and certain voice. “Everyone knows me and they already know that I will not go, since I cannot even see, I would not feel very comfortable there.”, explains the 2009 winner of the prestigious Reca Mora Award. It will come as no surprise to those that know him that even for this prestigious award, Don Walter did not make the trip to San Jose to receive his prize. “I don’t like San Jose.”, says Don Walter. “I prefer the country life.”, as he describes it, “I have lived in the same place since I was only 2-3 years old.”, added the outspoken elder.

Interview with An Outspoken Icon:
Please enjoy this translated extract of a July 7th, 2010 interview with the Calypso King…… Walter Ferguson with Viva Magazine (part of La Nacion Newspaper) while visiting the beach town of Cahuita. Mr. Ferguson does not shy away from telling you exactly how he feels:

How was your childhood?
I mostly just remember my music. Ever since I was a very young boy I liked to sing, perhaps just silly diddies, but my Mother always told me that I would be a famous composer one day. When I was around 10 years old, I learned to play the harmonica, then the ukulele, followed by the guitar and the clarinet. Nobody ever showed me, I taught myself.

What role did your Mother play in the development of your musical abilities?
My mother died some 40 years ago now. When she was young, she used to sing in the local Methodist Church. Many women sang at the church and she enjoyed it immensely. Everyday she would sing and I loved to hear her singing, which encouraged me to sing along.

How did you learn to play the different musical instruments?
I first started playing the harmonica that belonged to one of my older brothers. I began to play it, and my Mother scolded me and told me to return it to my brother, but I did not. I hid it so I could continue to practice. When my brother found out, he got mad and threw the harmonica in the backyard in the dark. I looked and looked for that harmonica, it took me so long to find it that in the end my brother showed me how to play it. Nobody could play that harmonica better than me. I also learned to play the guitar and the organ, as my Mother sent me to take lessons with a local man.

And your favorite, the Clarinet. Why do you enjoy this instrument so much?
I don’t have a bad word to say about the Clarinet. I like everything about it. They call these people “clarinetas”. One day there was a man in Hone Creek that asked me why I didn’t buy a Clarinet, and he agreed to sell it to me and allow me to make payments. I received the instrument in October and by December I already knew how to play it. I learned to play it backwards though, playing with the right hand where the left should be, and vice versa.

When did Calypso Music enter your life?
When I was a very young boy, I only sang. When I began to play the ukulele and I’d see Mighty Sparrow (the World Renowned Calypso Musician) playing his own Calypso, I thought…”Why can’t I do that too?” From then on, instead of singing other peoples Calypso I began to only sing my own. I sang Cabin on the Wata, which is one of my own compositions.

How do you define what Calypso is?
Since Calypso is my life, I naturally think that Calypso is the best music, but for other people it is not their favorite. One time I attended a small concert and an older woman there told me she did not care for Calypso music at all, but for me, it is everything.

What does it mean to be a “Calypsonian” like yourself?
It is the same as saying you are a carpenter, construction man, etc, there is no difference. Since I do Calypso, that makes me a “Calypsonian”. In Calypso, there is a certain rhythm, if you don’t have that, you don’t have Calypso. It would not sound right. I was born with that rhythm, even when I was not playing the music, I could make this rhythm with words and whenever I was doing Calypso, I was always doing it with rhythm.

What are the most common themes in the Calypso songs you write?
It depends. One thing I never did was involve myself in things that would get me in trouble. Many times I was teased and encouraged to go outside my comfort limit, but I never involved myself in this style of life. Apart from that, I sing about almost anything. If you are a famous man, I can invent a Calypso song about you right away. If something bad happened, an accident, although I could make a song about that, I never sing Calypso about things that are sad.

Also, there are many times Calypso is from humor….
Yes, like the history of Bato, he called himself Albert. He built a house on the water and was always joking around. The girls would come and tell me they came to see him. The officials told him that he could not build a house inside the National Park (Cahuita National Park), so he took it as he could not have a house on land, so he built it on the water and that is how the song Cabin on the Water was born. That is just one of the many examples of jokes in Calypso. The majority actually are jokes.

You have had competitions to see who is the best. How were these competitions?
There was a man in Limon that was saying he was from Panamá, but he was from here and he sang and had a beautiful voice. When I sang, people would say there was no one better than me, but I did not really believe them, as I am not like that. One time they asked me if I knew this man. I had heard of him, but they were saying that he was better than me. That got me very angry, so when I competed against him in Cahuita and beat him 2 times, I was very happy. He had tried telling me that he was the best Calypsonian in the country, so I told him that I must be the best in the World then, since I had beat him two times.

You were taping your music on cassettes to sell them. Do you still do that?
No, because I have two CD’s, but the people still ask me for cassettes because many don’t have the right equipment sometimes. Now that I have mostly lost my eyesight, I am not able to play as much and it makes it difficult to make cassettes.

What do you think about your music being known Worldwide?
I don’t find it very strange. My Mother always told me I would be a great composer.

How do you see the Calypso of today?
I have noticed that the Calypso is slipping and it isn’t like it used to be. The people these days prefer reggae and other styles of music. It seems to me that there are still musicians around Limon that sing, but I don’t know if its going to continue like this or not.

What do you think will happen to Calypso when you are no longer with us?
There is a young man here and I am always offering him help, as that is the way I am, I like to help the younger crowd. His name is Danny Williams and I think that if he can receive support, he will be an excellent Calypsonian. I have always felt that Calypso can survive; we just have to help the younger musicians to carry on the tradition.

How is your relationship with Cahuita, where you have lived your entire life?
I have so much love for Cahuita. I don’t have any enemies and if someone treats me badly, I stay quiet because there are other younger men that are more capable and will take care of it for me. Mostly, the whole World loves me and I love them.

How have you seen Cahuita change over the years?
There is a huge change in everything. Before we grew a little corn, but now you can’t grown anything, as they will just steal it in the night. Also, the people are so unmotivated. Tourism has been the savior of Cahuita. They aren’t bad people, granted they aren’t exactly saints, but they are always ready to help in Cahuita when really needed.

What is it that you like most about living in Cahuita?
It’s hard to pin it down to one thing or another, I grew up in the same place since I was two years old. I was born in Panama and sometimes I went to work there, but as soon as I left I always wanted to return immediately to Cahuita.

Do you like to go to San José?
No. I go if I have to, but only if I have to. I don’t like San Jose, I prefer Cartago.

Why don’t you like it?
Perhaps because I grew up in the country and I like that lifestyle. I go occasionally with friends, everyone needs time like that, but I would never live there.

Does it surprise you that tourists come here looking just for you?
Thousands of them have come. From Guatemala, England, all over! One time a woman came from Canada to meet me and she said she had one of my cassettes and she wanted to know if I had more. Some time later a group of 27 persons came to see me and I was very happy because I thought I was going to sell lots of cassettes and I could earn some ¢10.000. They asked me a lot of questions, but nobody asked about the cassettes. At the end, one woman asked me if I had any and if I would GIVE her. I felt bad, as I did not have any money, but I told her yes. They continued asking lots of questions and I answered, but I was not very happy about it. The woman said goodbye and she told me she could not wait to return with another group. In my heart, I did not want her to return, but of course I did not tell her that. Before she left she gave me a white envelope and told me that it was a little something for me. Then I felt bad and I was thankful that I had not said anything because there was ¢25.000 in the envelope which made me feel very good for being willing to give her the cassette without expecting anything in return.

You are an Afro-Costarricense icon. What do you think of this distinction?
That means nothing to me. When people tell me that, I thank them, but I don’t feel it is a big deal.

How long ago did you basically stop singing and playing music?
Since 2004 when I made my last CD (Dr. Bombodee) with Jazmín (Ross, of Papaya Music). I don’t know if you have heard of ACAM (Asociación Costarricense de Autores Musicales), these people have treated me well, they are the best, they even give me a pension from my music.

Why don’t you sing or play anymore?
Because I have lost too much of my eyesight, but I can sing because you don’t need to see to do that, but when I sing the notes do not come out as well as before. Since that problem started, I decided to not sing or play anymore.

You seem to be in excellent condition, what is your secret?
Since I have lost my vision and perhaps because I told you I am 91 years old, I’m sure you thought that it was a lie, but before I spent the entire day working on the farm and it was hard.

Beyond your eyesight, how is your general health?
Not very good. I have no appetite and I don’t sleep at night, although last night I slept very well.

But you look to be in really good shape?
Many people say that, but I do not feel well these days.

What do you think of the recognitions you have received such as the festival that now carries your name?

I feel very thankful that they thought of me.

What does it mean to you that you won the Reca Mora award from ACAM in 2009?
I have always spoke well of ACAM as these people have always taken good care of me.

What do you think of Manuel Monestel, who received the award in your name and gave the national radio DJs a bad time for not playing your music more in their programs?
Manuel Monestel is a nugget of gold to me. Whatever I need, he is always there to help me, and besides, he sings a lot of my Calypso songs.

What has been the biggest satisfaction in your life?
The biggest satisfaction? When my father gave me the farm and I no longer had to wander in search of odd jobs. There were times when I had no money, like when the crops did not come out well, but I was always able to come up with a few “centavos” with the farm. If I still had my sight, I could probably still earn something on that farm. I have never been as happy as when I had my sight.

At 91 years, what place does music hold in your life?
The music you never loose. I never consider myself too old to invent a song, I could do it right now if I wanted to.

What message would you like to give the city of Limón?
Whenever I go to Limon I am received with much regard and respect. I hope that the younger musicians will continue to play music, we need to help them keep Calypso alive.

And the rest of Costa Rica?
I was born on the Panamanian border and when they ask me where I was born, I say the truth, but my gratitude is for Costa Rica, because I have been here since I was a young child. I am proud to be from Panama, but when they ask where I come from, I always say I am Costa Rican.

Still the King of Calypso, at 91 years old and now mostly blind, the famous Walter Ferguson lives a simple life on a pension. Nonetheless, the King of Costa Rican Calypso still manages to make his way around Cahuita town alone, and stubbornly refuses help from others. Never at a loss for words, long live the King of Calypso, he will be sorely missed when he is gone!

Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.

Gerardo Gonzalez:
Ana Maria Parra:


  1. Cahuita has a national park with wild animals that is surrounded by the caribbean sea. Indeed a gorgous spot to visit. More pics and info at:

  2. I love that the Caribbean coast has festivals like this! It's just great. And the fact that it's an afro festival just makes it even better. I live over on the Pacific Coast which is beautiful and I love it, but the caribbean side has some more soul to it;)

  3. Hello.. Firstly I would like to send greetings to all readers. After this, I recognize the content so interesting about this article. For me personally I liked all the information. I would like to know of cases like this more often. In my personal experience I might mention a book called Green Parks Costa Rica in this book that I mentioned have very interesting topics, and also you have much to do with the main theme of this article.

  4. Hello.. Firstly I would like to send greetings to all readers. After this, I recognize the content so interesting about this article. For me personally I liked all the information. I would like to know of cases like this more often. In my personal experience I might mention a book called Green Parks Costa Rica in this book that I mentioned have very interesting topics, and also you have much to do with the main theme of this article.

  5. For me, the reason to go to Costa Rica is an adventure. Every little place is so different, beaches to explore and great food. The little village of Cahuita on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is brimming with the charm of its beautiful country, very clean, completely harmonious, with endless attention to beauty, to the sound of nature, to traditions, far away from noisy tourists and close to the local habits, excellent Food, music, friendly welcome peoples.

  6. Nowadays people have got in to the habit of making post but the most important thing is to make an interesting and informative post. This post is a excellent example of such kind of thread.

  7. We had a wonderful time there, didn't we Mel? You, me, Gypsy and the King of Calypso.