Despite his songs never being played on the radio or properly released, word got out—and a series of outsiders insisted his music be heard
Who is singing the daddy’s songs?” Like a reggae Louis Armstrong, Salomón Peña cuts through the sticky midday heat with his lilting croak. Fresh off the bus from Limón, the singer is in Cahuita, a small fishing village on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, to pay his respects to the country’s King of Calypso, Walter Ferguson. Don Walter, as he’s affectionately called, was born 103 years ago today.
Shaking his dreads, Peña smiles. Beaming back are Doreen and José (aka Peck), two of Ferguson’s adult children. “I want to sing the calypso in time, right now, let’s rhyme!” he sings. “Where is the father?”
“Inside, inside!—we have him hiding!” Doreen and Peck point to the porch where their father is sitting in an armchair, behind a gate but close enough to the street to greet well-wishers. Even at his advanced age, the calypsonian—wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and black pants—has an innate elegance about him. He can no longer see, and only his doting family can interpret his sporadic speech, but his ears—those exquisitely tuned instruments—take in Peña’s voice, and he nods and smiles in recognition.
Peña taps his walking stick against the ground and sings one of Don Walter’s most beloved calypsos:
This modern generation
The people gettin’ smarter
I say, this modern generation every day
The people getting’ smarter
They made me to understand…
With the sweetness of Sally and Charlie Brown, Doreen and Peck sway to his rhythm and join in. For as long as they can remember, people have been coming from all over the world to see their father sing and play guitar. In 2010, a highway was built connecting the capital, San José, to the coast, making the trek to Cahuita easier, but it’s still quite a journey. While only about 120 miles, the trip by bus or car can take all day—measure your time as the crow walks, not flies. All this is to say, his drop-in fans must really want to see him. “He’s happy about the attention,” Doreen says with a shrug, “but it never mattered who was coming to see him. The president, a tourist. He treats everyone the same.”
A van pulls up, and a troupe of kids holding musical instruments pours out. They’re students from the Colectivo Cultural de Tortuguero, a program sponsored by Böëna Wilderness Lodges that promotes local art and music. “We want young people to fall in love with their Afro-Caribbean roots, and with calypso music, so it can live on,” says director Rodrigo Muriel.
With gentle hands and whispers, Doreen and her sisters, Evelyn and Janet, guide their father to a chair closer to the assembling orchestra. Beads of sweat fall from the conductor’s brown curls as he nervously raises his hands to direct the children. At his signal, they shake their maracas and beat their tumba drums and sing like the Chipmunks, “Segundo, eh! Segundo, ah! You are the father of Calypso! Segundo, eh! Segundo, ah! We want follow your example!” After three songs, they end screaming, “Happy birthday! ¡Feliz cumpleaños!”
His whole life a humble banana and cacao farmer, Ferguson—aka Segundo—has nevertheless received many of Costa Rica’s most prestigious awards. In 2018 he was officially declared a “distinguished citizen” for innovating Costa Rican calypso, which has been recognized as intangible cultural heritage. The National University gave him an honorary doctorate, and his birthday, May 7, is known as the National Day of Costa Rican Calypso. He achieved all this without ever stepping into a recording studio, preferring to stay in his beloved Cahuita—a place his compact, rhyming character studies bring to Technicolor life, a place he put on the musical map. Instead, over the years he self-recorded more than 100 songs on a simple cassette recorder from the quiet of his bedroom and shared his music freely, selling tapes to visitors from all over the world who were eager to take a piece of Cahuita home with them. Many of them have since returned these keepsakes to Ferguson, as part of an ongoing project to cement his legacy.
Not that Ferguson has been overly concerned with that legacy. On his 100th birthday, he told the Tico Times, in one of his final interviews before age took hold of his voice, that the day was “nothing special.” To Costa Rica’s largest newspaper, La Nación, he explained why the attention he received didn’t come as a surprise: “My mom always told me that I was going to be a good composer.”
Walter Gavitt Ferguson was born in 1919, about 30 miles down the coast in Guabito, Panama. His father was a Jamaican cook, his mother a Costa Rican seamstress and baker of Jamaican descent. When Ferguson was 2, they moved to Cahuita, a village accessible only by boat that had been settled by Afro-Caribbeans at the turn of the century. His father, like most everyone in town, worked for the United Fruit Company, which became the de facto government. The area was cut off from the rest of the country, and the isolation allowed a unique culture to percolate. Weekends, everyone came out for cricket matches, baseball games, evening dances, and concerts where Shakespeare was recited over pedal organ.
At dusk, especially when the moon was full, neighbors gathered in circles and sang songs they called calypsos, a genre that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Improvised, topical, and satirical, calypsos are rooted in the oral traditions from which enslaved West Africans drew spiritual sustenance. Forbidden to speak to one another, they instead sang kaisos, songs with cleverly disguised messages, often incorporating tales of Anansi the Spider, a lowly arachnid who triumphs over far more powerful foes through sheer cunning and ingenuity.
Without access to newspapers and radios, calypsonians were raconteurs, chronicling current events, employing wit and wordplay. Ferguson was drawn to the form early, and soon people would come to him with stories, knowing he’d write them with funny, catchy rhymes. He was also a natural musician, teaching himself the harmonica, dulzaina, ukulele, clarinet, and guitar.
Soon enough, Ferguson cemented his reputation as the undisputed King of Calypso, triumphing over his rivals in freestyle calypso duels—rap battles of their era, which peaked in the 1940s and 1950s—that would see calypsonians traveling by donkey or boat to a rival’s town to throw down. To win, one needed ingenuity, mental dexterity, a sense of humor, and endurance. (If the audience was properly amused, duels could last for several hours.)
Ferguson eventually gave up the late-night battles to raise his family. He earned a living harvesting cacao, but he could never stop making music. In 1970, Cahuita National Park was established, and hippies and backpackers started trickling in; Ferguson saw a business opportunity. Every day, after working the farm, he’d come home, pick up his guitar, and compose. He started recording his songs and began selling the cassettes for a few colones at his family’s restaurant as a way, he once told a documentary film crew, to “make life a little bit easier.”
“He would lock himself in his bedroom and record,” recalls Luis, one of Ferguson’s sons. “We was little kids, jumping and playing around, and he’d send us outside!” After he filled both sides of a tape, Doreen remembers, “He would just go up to a table, and people did buy them! We don’t know if they felt sorry because he was old, or if they like the music.”
Each cassette was a unique concert, an intimate audio postcard passed directly from Cahuita’s master troubadour to the person who purchased it. Ferguson never made copies. Eventually, though, despite his songs never being played on the radio or properly released, word got out—and a series of outsiders insisted his music be heard.
The first was Michael Williams, a park ranger from Boulder, Colorado. Sometime around 1980, he read about Paula Palmer, a sociologist from his hometown who was writing a book about Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean people. Hankering to do something “interesting and folkloric,” he reached out to her, and she told him about Ferguson. Young and impetuous, he spent seven days traveling by bus, arriving at the Fergusons’ doorstep bearing a huge box of brand-new recording equipment. “No one understood why I was there,” he remembers, “but they were all very polite.”
First, he tried to record Ferguson in the living room, but diesel trucks from a prospecting oil company barreled past the house, so they moved to a nearby schoolhouse. “It was an improvement, but the insects were very loud,” Williams says. “And during the song ‘Carnaval Day,’ you can hear children shouting and laughing, and then a rooster started to crow as if on cue. Hollywood could not have done a better job.” Lacking industry contacts, Williams wrote letters to labels in an attempt to drum up interest in the recordings. “Only one person responded: Moses Asch, the great folk archivist. I was dumbstruck when he called.” Asch would release a 12-song vinyl LP, Mr. Gavitt: Calypso of Costa Rica, on his Folkways Records (which was later absorbed by the Smithsonian) in 1982.
“And Yazmin Ross was the one who build up everything, that give my father that push,” says Luis. Ross was a Mexican journalist who wrote about Ferguson for La Nación. “She was here, and she says to him, ‘You gotta go to San José and record a CD!’ And my father say, ‘No, no, no, when I was younger, it will be possible, but it’s too late now.’” Instead, they brought the studio to him. Setting up in the family’s house, they stacked mattresses against the windows to keep Cahuita out of the mix. “One day, there was a man cutting the grass with a machine,” Peck remembers, “and they begged him: We’ll pay you not to cut! Every minute there was a car or someone yelling. It was a hard thing to do, but they finally made two CDs.”
Babylon (2002) and Dr. Bombodee (2003), released by local label Papaya Music, were “the big boom,” Luis says. “After that, he played on the television, they started to make documentaries.” Or so the Fergusons heard. “Sometimes people would say, ‘Oh your father is on the television!’” Peck recalls, “but we can’t see anything! We would turn the antenna this way and that way, but we missed it all.”
Roughly 10 years later, in Switzerland, river engineer and Caribbean music aficionado Niels Werdenberg came across the Papaya CDs while looking for music for his side-hustle DJ sets. “I hadn’t heard anything like it before,” Werdenberg says. “The songs were bluesy, very folk calypso—they made me want to know more about Limonense Calypso.” He traveled to Cahuita, along with his wife and kids, and went asking around for Ferguson. “I was guided to his house, and he was very open, very friendly.”
Werdenberg got to know Ferguson on that initial trip, but the watershed moment happened three years later, when he returned and got to know Peck better. “Niels said, ‘Oh, I love [your father’s] music,’ and he mentioned the CDs,” Peck recalls. “And I said, ‘I prefer the songs my father recorded on cassettes, but now they’re all gone. He gave them away to tourists, and we don’t have any copies.’”
Over a 25-year span, Ferguson probably made hundreds of cassettes, filled with original songs not recorded elsewhere. “So we decided to find these lost treasures, using the internet and social media and hoping word would spread,” Werdenberg says. He built a website for the family announcing “The Walter Gavitt Ferguson Tape Hunt,” and quickly people from different parts of the country, Canada, and the U.S. sent in their dusty cassettes, with the composer’s handwritten notes on the sleeves. Hearing the calypsos for the first time in some 35 years was an emotional experience for the calypsonian. “It’s so nice, man—me never expect them song still alive!” he told Werdenberg. The engineer describes those listening sessions as “a meeting of old friends after decades of separation.”
Ferguson’s layered guitar work is a marvel, sounding like more than two hands playing, and a few ultra-rare calypsos reveal his ingenuity in recording. “He has this unique lo-fi overdub technique,” Werdenberg says, “using a second recorder to create several tracks, making quite astounding harmonies, such as a stunningly beautiful two-voiced version of ‘Monilia.’ And as much as he tried— as he is a true craftsman—to have clean, uninterrupted recordings, Cahuita intrudes: Seeping in are the noises from the lively town, making you feel as though you’re in his home, sitting alongside him as you listen.”
The family has so far received an impressive 82 cassettes, from which have risen King of Calypso Limonense (The Legendary Tape Recordings, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2); a COVID benefit album, Keep the Cabin Above the Wata; and the just-released The Master of Calypso – Golden Edition 1. “It’s a beautiful project that just came from a conversation,” Peck says. “Niels just liked the music, and he was willing. I’m very thankful to hear those songs again, and will be for the rest of my life.”
Back at the house, the school kids are long gone, and the sisters have closed up their makeshift souvenir and T-shirt shop out front. Doreen and family advisor Teodoro Symes Campbell sit discussing which songs to include on the next release. “When we play him a song, he starts to tell the stories,” she says. “There’s this one about an undertaker in Limón—we call him Bong. One day, he had two dead bodies, but he made a mistake, and when one family went for the coffin, they found a different person! So Bong was driving through here like crazy, beeping his horn, looking for the body, and my father wondered what was stirring up—and he made a song about it.”
The venerable calypsonian is sitting in his chair, singing gently to himself. He never made a living from music, but here he is, living for it. Whether the songs are his or the ones he hears on his beloved Radio Casino station, music is his life, his passion, his love. “He’s singing every day, when he’s taking the shower, when he’s eating—we don’t get a break!” Doreen says with a laugh. “He is going to close his eyes singing.”