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.
Talent-spotted by the Jamaican bandleader Byron Lee, Opel spent most of the 1960s in Jamaica, where he sang with the Skatalites and became a Studio One regular. Bunny Wailer called Opel “the greatest of them all”; Bob Marley cited him as the reason he wanted to sing; others remembered him as the closest thing the Caribbean had to James Brown.
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 – which had only achieved independence from Britain in 1966 – needed a sound to call its own. He joined forces with the Troubadours, the house band of the Clyde B Jones funeral parlour, and together with the drummer Ken Jones 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. “It was the thing to party to at weekends,” says the Barbadian musician and historian Stefan Walcott. “It was what people wanted to hear, not just in Barbados but in St Lucia, St Vincent, Dominica …”
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. Apparently, Madison Square Garden in New York went wild for spouge in the early 70s. “Every time I performed spouge, I was a big hit,” Stoute recalls. “People loved the rhythm! I’ve never seen spouge played without people getting up and moving.”
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 music is dead,” sighs Stoute, now 76. “It all got swept under the carpet. I don’t know what it would take to bring it back.” Most Barbadians I speak to express a mixture of wounded pride and bewilderment at the way spouge evaporated. “It was a genuinely indigenous form – but it’s seen as a failure,” says Walcott. “People say we didn’t have the confidence to push it, like Jamaica pushed ska. Every November, around the anniversary of independence, we have these same conversations about how great Jackie was, how hard he tried – and how we let him down.”
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. It’s a riot of horns and cowbells, exuberance and attitude, and yet there is no Vol 2, and most of the songs in the mix are near-impossible to identify unless you happen to know a Bajan retiree with a long memory. Shazam draws a blank on two-thirds of them.
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, You Got to Pay and You’re No Good (which he also, confusingly, recorded in a ska style).
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. To their singer Desmond Weekes, You Got to Pay was the sound of his island’s history. “When I heard that cowbell, it made me think of the slaves crossing from Africa,” he has said. “To prevent the slaves running away, they used to place the cowbell around their necks. I thought: this is connected to us, to Barbados.”
The Draytons Two 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 to cement what would become the spouge groove. The cowbell and bass drum emphasise every first and fourth semi-quaver; the guitar and/or keyboard play an overlapping “a-chikkin” rhythm over the top; the bassline is free to do as it pleases, which means that spouge can be taken in different directions. The Blue Rhythm Combo sped things up, under the influence of New Orleans funk; the multi-racial harmony group 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.
So many great records, presumably warping somewhere under the Caribbean sun. Stoute maintains that the Barbadian establishment has never given the music the push it deserves, owing 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 that you have no value.”
As a boy, Opel earned a living as a “wharf boy”, diving for pennies that tourists threw off the harbour. Without connections, he found it hard to break into the lucrative hotel performing 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 remembers Opel being mobbed when they toured Antigua. “The kind of appreciation he got from the Antiguan people 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 didn’t receive much support from local radio (the then-dominant DJ, Vic Fernandes, scorned the style) while influential performers such as the calypsonian Mighty Sparrow dismissed it as a subgenre of calypso. Then there was the sheer expense of recording. 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 the 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. “If we want to show what kind of a republic we are, we should be giving the Barbadian people the kind of appreciation that they deserve,” he says. “Let me tell this to you: the only thing we have to call our own is spouge. Everything else is carbon copy. There’s no one else who has created something that’s original for us.”
In the meantime, a properly remastered Jackie Opel best of collection, and a decent compilation of vintage spouge classics, would be a start. Walcott says we shouldn’t hold our breath. “The ska guys can identify a global community. With spouge, people say: ‘Why are we bothering? Can it really earn money?’ So that’s where we are now.” But it needn’t stay that way. The wildly funky sound of spouge is long overdue a revival.