By Richard Godwin
In the 1960s, Jackie Opel created a syncopated, cowbell-heavy sound that defined Barbados and created a sensation from St Lucia to New York. A few years later it virtually disappeared – but the time is finally here for a revival
Few artists have ever had the audacity to create a national music genre from scratch. This is what the 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 a poverty-stricken background in Bridgetown to become celebrated as the greatest singer Barbados had ever produced to that point: a multi-talented entertainer with a multi-octave voice, who sang soul, calypso, gospel, R&B and ska, performed handstands on stage, doubled on sax and wrote hit songs on demand.
His talent was spotted by the Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee; Opel spent most of the 1960s in Jamaica.
On returning to Barbados in 1968, Opel felt that his homeland had some catching up to do. Jamaica had ska and rocksteady; Trinidad had calypso and soca; Barbados needed a sound to call its own. He joined forces with the Troubadours, and came up with a rhythm he called “spouge”: a joyfully relentless, funky, syncopated beat that sits in a zone somewhere between vintage soca, inside-out ska and classic blue-collar soul.
The single that resulted from those sessions, You Got to Pay, became one of the biggest hits that Barbados had ever produced. Within a few years, the cowbell-heavy spouge rhythm was all over the eastern Caribbean.
Opel’s protege, Richard Stoute, scored British airplay with his frenetic, horn-laden spouge cover of Vehicle by US rockers the Ides of March and toured the US as part of an annual Caribbean music showcase.
Which makes it all the stranger that some time around 1975, spouge disappeared, almost without trace. In an age where everything has a digital footprint, spouge is very much word of mouth. You Got to Pay, the seminal recording, is not on Spotify, Apple or Amazon, while only a handful of Opel’s reputed 700 song-catalogue is available. Few people outside Barbados have heard of him and even on the island, his legacy is far from secure. At the celebrations to mark Barbados’s new status as a republic last November, spouge barely featured. The island’s annual Crop Over festival has Trinidadian soca and Jamaican dancehall, but no spouge. For the few surviving spouge artists, this is all rather sad.
The obscurity might be understandable if spouge wasn’t any good. But spouge is amazing. I defy anyone with a weakness for Studio One reggae, New Orleans funk or vintage calypso to listen to Bajan Spouge Music Mix Vol 1 on YouTube and remain stationary.
Why is this music not better known? One explanation is that Opel died in a car crash in 1970, before he could secure its legacy: aged 32, he had only actually made two spouge recordings.
The spouge scene that blossomed in the early 70s was instead largely due to the efforts of vocal duo Draytons Two, who built on the rhythms created in that room next to the funeral home. The Sandpebbles sang softer, more calypso-inflected spouge; Opel’s old neighbour, Young Cassius Clay, developed a raucous style he called Dragon Spouge. And there were many more: the Escorts, Wendy Alleyne, and (my personal favourite) Lord Radio and the Bimshire Boys.
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 is reissuing all of his spouge recordings, feels that nothing less than erecting a statue of Jackie Opel where Horatio Nelson once stood in the centre of Bridgetown would do.
In the meantime, a properly remastered Jackie Opel best of collection, and a decent compilation of vintage spouge classics, would be a start.