Image thanks toTragaluz Panama
“A certain woman told me that I was a foreigner with only one pair of pants, that should not be amongst our society, that I was an alien…The authorities came with pistols and artillery to demand I show them my cédula (personal ID).” Walter Ferguson. Fragment from “One Pant Man”
Although Walter Ferguson Gavitt was born in Panama, in his childhood his parents decided to try their luck and moved to Costa Rica. From then on his life and his talents as a musician are intrinsically tied to Costa Rica’s rich culture.
Walter Ferguson was born in 1919 in Guabito, Panama, but his family soon moved to Costa Rica and he grew up in Jamaica Town, a district of Puerto Limon. His parents lived in Cahuita, and with time he managed to reunite with them and to claim his own space. His father, Melsha, who was a cook in the luxury hotels of Panama City, traded in his cooking pots for a machete and banana seedlings that he planted in Cahuita, attracted by the concessions to supply to the United Fruit Company.
He spent his childhood between cacao plants, almonds tree and fantastic stories of pirates and ghost ships that the area’s folklore is saturated with. Ferguson developed special skill in the use of the slingshot with his left hand, a fact which, on more than one occasion, saved him from being bitten by serpents. “People think that I’m protected by witchcraft because I never miss,” he said reminiscing about his early years.
He had an enviable childhood where each game was an invitation to explore his surroundings exploring the skies of Cahuita with small home made barrels that he made himself and wooden rafts he fashioned himself to ride the waves. His childhood was surrounded by music, studying organ at his aunt’s house in the city of Limón or playing on a borrowed guitar from Tabash the Turk’s pulpería in Cahuita.
His musical trajectory begins with a lute that his brother gave him. He then learned to play and master the clarinet. He later played in his first musical group called “Miserable,” known for its varied Caribbean repertoire like guaracha, rumba and bolero and in which he shared many experiences with Calypsonians like Ollé and Rají.
An interesting wikipedia article describes Ferguson as a symbol of Cahuita, considered the cradle of the Costa Rican Calypso and Walter Ferguson Gavitt its symbolic monarch. In fact, Ferguson has always been quite stubborn about leaving his beloved Cahuita to do any kind of recording, and so, if the Calypsonian will not go to the city the city will go to Calypsonian. This is how a professional production group transferred production equipment to that Caribbean area to record one of his formal, professional recordings, “Babylon.”
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. Before then Gavitt was known to make homemade recordings on cassette and sell them to the tourists who never failed to show up at the singer’s home for a live performance. Babylon was recorded in Cahuita on the 11 and the 12 of June of 2002.
As in Dr. Bombodee, another one of Papaya Music’s recordings, Walter is also the Dr. Bombodee, the village doctor, curing all with his lyrics and documenting the civil disturbances of the district and the restlessness of the streets. Guitar in hand, he exposes those small disasters and acoompanies us through the “rumba of Cahuita.” Ferguson considers himself to be the man of a thousand stories. Through his ironic and powerful Calypsonian expressivity we’ve gotten to know Anancy, Tacuma, Kiaky Brown and by all means to Doctor Bombodee.
Walter Ferguson’s lyrics reflect his characteristic humor, irony and, without a doubt, his great sincerity and oftentimes had a great deal to do with the challenges of being the King of the Calypso. His voice is gentle and his lyrical style is up-front-honest to the core and this is what enthralls his listeners.
Walter, in Panama, has become something of cult for those who enjoy his honest proposal. It is Calypso pure and simple, with a quality of production that we deserve ourselves and that really honors a personage who would almost be forgotten in his native Cahuita, Costa Rica. Ferguson has always emphasized in his interviews that Lord Cobra, Lord Panama and Lord Kontiki were always targets of admiration for him. But, it was with Wilfred Berry, Lord Cobra, that he always wanted to sing. His desire, however, never crystallized.
He explained in an interview that one night he borrowed a guitar to try it out “to see if it was any good.” He was singing “despacito,” when a fellow worker challenged him to face Lord Cobra, very famous in Panama. “He had a very brilliant voice, very beautiful. I do not know where he got that name,” he said about Lord Cobra. In spite of all the hype, however, the duel never took place, as, usually, when Ferguson was in Panama, Lord Cobra was performing in Costa Rica and vice versa.
Much of the information for this article was taken from an article by Rainer Tuñon Cantillo in TragaluzPanama.
“Going to Bocas” by Walter Ferguson