Let’s get married! Discover the funky joy of the greatest forgotten musical genre | The music
Few artists have already had the audacity to create a national musical genre from scratch. That’s what Barbadian singer Jackie “Manface” Opel set out to do in 1968 – and more or less what he did. Born Dalton Bishop in 1938, Opel escaped impoverishment in Bridgetown to become famous as the greatest singer Barbados had ever produced: a multi-talented performer with a multi-octave voice, who sang soul, calypso , gospel, R&B and ska, stood on stage, doubled on sax and wrote hit songs on demand.
Spotted by Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee, Opel spent most of the 1960s in Jamaica, where he sang with the Skatalites and became a regular at Studio One. Bunny Wailer called Opel “greatest of all”; Bob Marley cited it as the reason he wanted to sing; others remembered him as the closest the Caribbean had to James Brown.
Returning to Barbados in 1968, Opel felt his homeland had some catching up to do. Jamaica had ska and rocksteady; Trinidad had calypso and soca; Barbados – which had only gained independence from Britain in 1966 – needed a sound of its own. He teamed up with the Troubadours, the house band from the Clyde B Jones funeral home, and with drummer Ken Jones created a beat he called “spouge”: a syncopated, funky, gleefully relentless beat that sits somewhere in an area. between vintage soca, inside-out ska and classic blue-collar soul.
The single resulting from these sessions, You have to pay, became one of the biggest hits ever produced by Barbados. Within a few years, the rhythm of cowbell-heavy spouge was all over the Eastern Caribbean. “It was the thing to party on the weekend,” says the Barbadian musician and historian Stefan Walcott. “That was what people wanted to hear, not just in Barbados but in St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica…”
Opel protege Richard Stoute marked UK broadcasting with his frenetic, horn-laden cover of Vehicle by American rockers The Ides of March and toured the US as part of an annual music showcase of the Caribbean. Apparently New York’s Madison Square Garden went wild for spouge in the early ’70s. “Every time I played spouge, I was a big hit,” Stoute recalled. “People loved the rhythm! I’ve never seen a spouge play without people getting up and moving.
Which makes it all the more strange that around 1975, spouge disappeared, almost without a trace. In an age where everything has a digital footprint, spouge is all about word of mouth. You Got to Pay, the seminal recording, is not on Spotify, Apple or Amazon, while only a handful of Opel’s reputable 700-song catalog are available. Few people outside Barbados have heard of him and even on the island his legacy is far from secure. At celebrations marking Barbados’ new status as a republic last November, spouge barely featured. The island’s annual Crop Over festival features Trinidadian soca and Jamaican dancehall, but no spouge. For the few surviving spouse artists, this is all rather sad.
“Music is dead,” sighs Stoute, now 76. “Everything has been swept under the rug. I don’t know what it would take to bring him back. Most Barbadians I speak to express a mixture of hurt pride and bewilderment at how the spouge has evaporated. “It was a truly indigenous form – but it’s considered a failure,” Walcott says. “People say we didn’t have the confidence to push, like Jamaica pushed ska. Every November, around the Independence Day, we have these same conversations about how great Jackie was, how hard he tried, and how we let him down.
The darkness might be understandable if spouge wasn’t good. But spouge is amazing. I challenge anyone with a soft spot for Studio One reggae, New Orleans funk, or vintage calypso to listen Bajan Spouge Music Mix Vol 1 on YouTube and stay still. It’s a riot of horns and bells, exuberance and attitude, and yet there’s no Vol 2, and most of the songs in the mix are nearly impossible to identify unless you know a Bajan retiree with a long memory. Shazam blanks out two-thirds of them.
Why is this music not better known? One explanation is that Opel died in a car accident in 1970, before he could secure his inheritance: aged 32, he had in fact only made two spouge recordings, You Got to Pay and You ‘re No Good (which he also confusingly recorded in ska style).
Rather, the bridegroom scene that blossomed in the early 70s was due in large part to the efforts of vocal duo Draytons Two, who relied on the beats created in this room next to the funeral home. For their lead singer Desmond Weekes, You Got to Pay was the sound of his island’s story. “When I heard that cowbell, it made me think of slaves crossing Africa,” he said. “To prevent the slaves from running away, they used to place the bell around their necks. I thought: it’s related to us, in Barbados.
Draytons Two’s album Raw Spouge (1973), which featured originals alongside spouge covers of songs such as Toots and the Maytals’ 6 and 7 Books of Moses, helped cement what would become the spouge groove. The bell and bass drum accent each first and fourth sixteenth note; guitar and/or keyboard plays an “a-chikkin” rhythm layered on top; the bassline is free to do whatever it wants, which means the spouge can be taken in different directions. The Blue Rhythm Combo sped things up, under the influence of New Orleans funk; multiracial harmony group The Sandpebbles sang a softer, more calypso spouge; Opel’s former neighbor, young Cassius Clay, developed a gruff style he called Dragon Spouge. And there were many others: The Escorts, Wendy Alleyne, and (my favorite) Lord Radio and the Bimshire Boys.
So many large discs, presumably warped somewhere under the Caribbean sun. Stoute argues that the Barbadian establishment has never given music the boost it deserves, due to entrenched class divisions. “I think it’s because Jackie Opel was a very poor man from a very poor background,” he says. “In Barbados, if you don’t have political involvement or the right parents, people seem to think you’re worthless.”
As a boy, Opel made a living as a “dock boy”, diving for the pennies that tourists threw from the port. Without connections, he struggled to break into the lucrative hospitality circuit. Even when he returned to Barbados after his success in Jamaica (with a new set of dreadlocks), he was viewed with suspicion and condescension. By contrast, Stoute recalls Opel being mobbed while touring Antigua. “The kind of appreciation he received from Antiguans was so overwhelming I couldn’t believe it. He never got that kind of attention in Barbados.
Walcott cites a number of other factors for the sound’s disappearance. Spouge did not receive much support from local radio (then mainstream DJ Vic Fernandes despised the style) while influential artists such as calypsonian Mighty Sparrow dismissed it as a subgenre of calypso. Then there were the registration fees. As disco and funk grew in popularity in the late 70s, it was uneconomical to hire a horn section to play music that might be on the way out.
But cultural historian Curwen Best has argued that spouge declined largely for non-musical reasons. It was the sound of a brief moment of postcolonial optimism and pride – but once that moment passed, and Barbadian society remained largely unchanged, so did the music. Spouge lacked the “ideological base” that Jamaican artists such as Burning Spear and Marley had created for reggae. And Barbados is, after all, a small country of 280,000 people.
What would it take to revive Spouge? Stoute, who reissues all of his spouge recordings, believes that nothing less than erecting a statue of Jackie Opel where Horatio Nelson once stood in the center of Bridgetown would do the trick. “If we want to show what kind of republic we are, we should give the people of Barbados the kind of appreciation they deserve,” he says. “Let me tell you this: the only thing we have to make our own is spouge. Everything else is carbon copy. There is no one else who has created something original for us.
In the meantime, a better collection of properly remastered Jackie Opel and a decent compilation of vintage spouge classics would be a start. Walcott says we shouldn’t hold our breath. “Ska guys can identify a global community. With spouge, people say, ‘Why do we bother? Can he really make money? This is where we are now. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The wildly funky sound of spouge is long overdue for a revival.