One day of our stay in Costa Rica was set aside for a guided tour of the country’s lower Caribbean shoreline, a 50-mile stretch from Puerto Limon down to the Panamanian border. It’s called “the Calypso Coast.”
Early that morning we’d set off from Costa Rica’s inland capital at San Jose, bumped along what passes for a highway for a couple of hours to Limon, then zipped down the coast for some Caribbean sightseeing. We wound up in the little town of Cahuita, not far from Panama.
The town is best known for three things, the first being its entrance to a national park packed with gorgeous flowers, exotic birds and all kinds of tropical critters. The second is the town itself and the 4,000 or so local folks – many of them the descendants of imported Jamaican workers who settled there after building a railroad through the jungle between San Jose and Limon in the late 1800s.
Look around, and you’ll see them selling the likes of mangoes, casabas, and pineapples at thatched-roof roadside stands subbing for supermarkets. You’ll hear them speaking in the Afro-Caribbean-English patois of the old-time West Indies (here, with a bit of Spanish tossed in). And just about everywhere along the coast, from bars to barbershops, you’ll hear vintage Jamaican calypso tunes wafting through the air.
Cahuita is a spot where you half expect to find Harry Belafonte sitting on a dock in clamdigger pants telling tales of how a lady named Matilda took his money and ran off to Venezuela.
Song of the ‘One Pant Man’
Wander around Cahuita, and chances are you’ll hear catchy calypso songs blasting out of the storefronts. Many of the tunes are either sung or written (or both) by the third jewel in the crown of Cahuita: calypsonian Walter Ferguson, who’s lived around these parts for more decades than he can remember.
In interviews in the Costa Rican papers, Ferguson tells stories about his early days in the business when, as a kid, he wrote and recorded ditties on a rinky-dink audiocassette deck. He sold the tapes – each with two or three songs on them (with different versions on each tape) – to tourists who’d come to Cahuita to scamper around the park’s primeval jungle, accented by screaming monkeys and three-toed sloths inching along the treetops. And afterwards to nosh on “jerk” and other spicy Jamaican tidbits in the town.
Ferguson says he’s written and sung about everything from local politics to troubles with his girlfriends. Among the hundreds of songs he’s penned over the years for CDs were these calypso chart-toppers: Cabin in the Wata (about a friend who built a cabin on stilts over the water in the national park to get around a law prohibiting lodging there), One Pant Man (about a woman who wanted to deport him because he was so poor he only had one pair of trousers), Callaloo (a popular Afro-Caribbean dish of leafy vegetables) and Going to Bocas (about moving to a Cahuita-like town on the other side of the Panamanian border after a girlfriend threw him out of her house, again for being poor).
On the way back to San Jose, our tour bus driver told us Ferguson is known around Costa Rica as “the Calypso King,” on par down there with Harry Belafonte. What’s more, besides winning the country’s most prestigious music awards, Ferguson’s songs have been covered by some of Costa Rica’s top singers and bands. For instance, Manuel Monastel – a sort of Latin Frank Sinatra – scored a big hit with his version of One Pant Man.
Ferguson’ lyrics to the song start like this: There’s a woman who call me a one pant man...And shouldn’t be in society...Calling (me) a calypsonian, she’s going to throw me out of the land.
You’ll find the pants song and many more of Ferguson’s tunes on the Internet at www.youtube.com. Just enter Walter Ferguson in the search box. For more info on the country visit the Costa Rica Tourism Board, www.visitcostarica.com
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