Walter Gavitt Ferguson (1919-2023)
At the age of 103 Costa Ricas most prominent Calypsonian Walter Gavitt Ferguson Byfield has died this saturday 25/02/2023 in his home in Cahuita, surrounded by his family. His death came just three days after he was declared honorary citizen by the Asamblea Legislativa of Costa Rica.
The funeral was held on monday 27th. With hundreds of people attending and with many heartfelt homages from neighbours, friends, fans and musicians, Don Walter's cheerful and humble personality was once more revived and his inspirational musical work and his cultural legacy were once more celebrated. An impromptu all-star band played some of his Calypsos at the service.
As long time friend and fellow musician Manuel Monestel said:
«A griot has died, a king of song, a calypsonian like few, a special human being, a friend, father and mentor that has changed my life and my vision of music.»
Also Jorge Drexler, latin grammy winner from Uruguay expressed his respect:
A unique musical treasure, from Costa Rica to the entire world, left us yesterday at its wonderful 103 years. The Great Walter Ferguson of Lemon. The Calypsonian. Look for his album “Dr. Bombodee” and you will understand why it seems to me one of the musical pillars of these times.
Ready for take off? Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines has covered Don Walter's story in their November issue,
The article, researched and written by Victoria De Silverio, has been released on November 3rd 2022 (print and online version). It is accompanied by vivid illustrations stemming from the hands of brazilian artist Fabrizio Lenci, who has treated us with a detailed picture of Don Walter recording himself on his battered cassette recorder.
Illustration by Fabrizio Lenci.
Though the depicted recording session stems from the artists imagination, it is rare that we get a quite realistic glimpse at one of the many recording sessions that were held by Mr. Gavitt, the master Calypsonian and King of home recording, during his productive years. A scene that - sadly - has actually never been captured on film or photo in reality. In this short film about the life of Mr. Gavitt, an actor playing Don Walter is seen recording on a similar cassette recorder.
The article itself makes a good read, musicologist Michael Williams was interviewed as well as Don Walter's children Peck, Doreen and Luis. It is quite accurate, with the exception of a detail in Don Walter's discography: Apart from one track, the mentioned "Golden edition Vol.1" album does not feature tape hunt recordings, but is a compilation of songs from the Papaya label, and it was issued by Theo Symes Campbell together with the Ferguson family.
Check out the online version of the article here.
As always we are thankful for the publicity and hope to spread the word of the Tape Hunt even further with this article. And with a bit of luck, we might find more tapes this way - fingers crossed and stay tuned.
Today 31st of August – Dia de la Persona Negra in Costa Rica – we share a selection of raw tunes, taken straight from Don Walter's self-recorded tapes.
Years ago, when we started the project, we could only dream of finding such legendary songs as Ungreatful Susan, Retribution, Bong And The Dead Man or Happy Time in Cahuita. Now you are only a click away...
All songs performed and recorded by Walter Gavitt Ferguson ca. 1980 - 1995 in Cahuita.
On June 24th 2022, roughly 50 hours of original cassette recordings digitalized by the Walter Gavitt Ferguson Tape Hunt from the personal archive of Manuel Monestel were handed over to the National Library of Costa Rica. The material encompasses most of the musical work of Walter Ferguson known today and is now accessible to researchers and the people of Costa Rica.
The material handed over to the Library of Costa Rica today is an invaluable part of the nation's cultural heritage, yet it fits on a simple USB-stick. The stick contains roughly 50 hours of recordings stemming from 45 audio cassettes that Don Walter had recorded between 1980 and 1995. The original tapes belong to the collection of Manuel Monestel, researcher, musician and long time friend of Don Walter. They were digitalized in 2020 by the Tape Hunt project, following a successful crowdfunding campaign to enable professional sound engineering. Due to their age and the inevitable deterioration of the magnetic tape, the preservation of these cassettes was an urgent task that was also covered by the national newspaper La Nacion. And - in addition to rescueing this sonic treasure - the 103-year old artist could finally be re-united with many of his lost & found musical creations (read & see more about this here).
The 45 digitalized cassette recordings donated to the Biblioteca Nacional comprise a substantial part of the Tape Hunt project's archive and feature a wealth of Don Walter's unreleased compositions. They are excellent examples of the possibly hundreds of one-off self-recorded cassettes that Don Walter has sold to travellers and music lovers visiting his home town Cahuita between 1975 and 2000 - without ever keeping a copy for himself. Starting in early 2017, the ongoing international search for surviving cassette recordings was supported - amongst others - by the BBC Radio and The Guardian, and has since found 82 tapes worldwide, from which a total of 62 previously unreleased compositions by Walter Ferguson could be saved from getting lost forever.
Held by the Benemérita Biblioteca Nacional and the Cátedra de Estudios de África y el Caribe de la Universidad de Costa Rica, the symbolic act was celebrated today in a live presentation by leading experts on afrocaribbean cultural research, Mr. Donald Allen Duncan, Mr. Guillermo Navarro Alvarado, Mr. Manuel Monestel Ramirez, as well as Mr. Ronald Soto and Director Mrs. Laura Ramirez from the National Library. All speakers agreed that making Don Walter's musical legacy available to researchers and the people of Costa Rica was a big achievement for the democratization of national heritage, for the valorization of afrocaribbean culture in Costa Rica and for the trajectory of one of the country's greates musical artists and composers of all time.
Mr. Theodoro Symes Campbell attended on behalf of the Ferguson family and was given a personal copy for the family's archive.
Don Walter Ferguson and the Tape Hunt are featured on an Argentinian radio show devoted to old vinyl, audio cassettes and VHS.
The radio show "Segunda Mano", devoted to old vinyl, audio cassettes and VHS, recently aired an episode about travelling and especially about all the kinds of musical trouvailles you can find while strolling through markets and back alley shops in foreign countries. The episode also makes a stop over in Costa Rica, where the radio hosts tell us the story of Don Walter's travelling cassettes and celebrate the calypsonian's music.
Check out the whole episode on Spotify:
HAPPY 103rd BIRTHDAY to Don Walter Gavitt Ferguson and happy Costa Rican CALYPSO DAY! 🌴🌴🌴❤️💛💚🌴🌴🌴
To celebrate the occasion, we share a previously unknown version of "Callaloo" featuring a second voice and percussion. The overdubbed cassette recording dates back to the early 1980s and was unearthed in 2020 with the help of Manuel Monestel and the Tape Hunt community. Wimba!
The technical limitations of his simple cassette recorder encouraged Don Walter to come up with ingenious solutions, such as his very charming but noisy LO-FI OVERDUBS, employing a second recorder for playback and a second cassette for recording. He once described the meticulous procedure in an interview: "I have two cassettes, I sing on one and when I'm done I copy it back and put another one in the recorder, so when I sing behind that, you hear two voices." He sometimes added other instruments, too, like percussion mouth organ or a second guitar line. According to the 103 year old Calypsonian, he has tried to lay down more harmonies and instruments, continuing the procedure with second and third overdubs, but was not pleased with the increasingly noisy results.
Today, the song CALLALOO is one of the most famous compositions of Don Walter, along with "Cabin in the Wata". He had composed it long before it was recorded in the well known version for his album "Babylon" in 2003. It is about a stew-like dish called named Callaloo (or "Calalú), typical for the Caribbean kitchen in the Limón region of Costa Rica, where its main ingredient is the leaves of the tropical pokeweed. Although the dish and its name can be traced back to Western Africa, it is cooked with different plants and ingredients in other parts of the Caribbean. Enjoy! #dianacionaldelcalipso #WalterFerguson #afrocaribbean #costarica
The BBC Radio Show about the Walter Ferguson Tape Hunt was aired again this monday and helped to unearth another original cassette recording from Don Walter's long career of home recording.
A few weeks ago journalist Clayton Conn gave us a hint that the BBC World Service with an estimated 60 million listeners worldwide weekly was going to rerun their Tape Hunt episode ("The hunt for a calypso king's lost music") that he had co-produced back in 2019.
The airing was scheduled for this monday, and in the US, Cihan Bilginsoy, a professor of Economics at the University of Utah an his wife were tuning in by chance. A few minutes into the show they recognized the artist's name and the music - it was the artist from an obscure cassette they had bought 20 years ago in Costa Rica. Cihan and his wife learned about our project to track down and "repatriate" Don Walter's musical legacy, hopped on the internet and got in touch with us.
University of Utah professor and tape owner Cihan Bilginsoy is specailzed in dynamics of economic crashes.
(Pictures: Mario Chacon (left), Salt Lake City Weekly (right))
"in February 2002 we purchased the tape in a restaurant in Puerto Viejo. I remember it was a small restaurant run by a woman, serving fish, beans and rice. We asked about the music that was playing in the background while we had our meal and she came back with that cassette and sold it to us. I do not know if she had a stack but she brought out only one cassette., The tracklist was handwritten on the J-card and I recall it was the same handwriting I saw on your website today. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the cassette after some 20 years. But I had recorded the music on a CD. I still have the CD. I am happy to share it and it gives me great pleasure to know that Don Walter and his family will be listening to this lost & found tape soon!"
The recordings from Cihan's tape sound real fresh. Don Walter's voice is in excellent shape. If it was recorded around 2002, it might be one of the last recording sessions from Don Walter's home recording career - spanning 25 plus years - because around 2002 Don Walter stopped to record and sell his one-off tapes, because by the close of the year his first professional CD ("Babylon") was in production and cassettes were not in demand anymore. Argueably one of the last tapes that Don Walter ever sold to his fans personally was that of Mario Chacon, though Cihan's recording might be of the same period. To top it off, Cihan's tape contains a version of the rare song "No Bother To Cry" - when we first found that composition on a tape from Marcyn's Canadian Tapes, nobody in the Ferguson family could even remember it, including Don Walter. A real treat and another sound recording that will be "repatriated" to the grandfather of Costa Rican Calypso.
To celebrate we share THIS LOST & FOUND CALYPSO of Mr. Gavitt, recorded on a unique cassette in the 1980s with his trademark lo-fi overdubs (adding a second voice and drumming). This gem is coming from the legendary tapes we've recovered last year courtesy of Don Manuel Monestel.
Cheers! And a joyful CALYPSO DAY in Costa Rica and beyond️
101-year old Walter "Mr. Gavitt" Ferguson, the retired Calypso King of Costa Rica, was treated to a first row of freshly digitalized calypsos from the vast tape archive of Manuel Monestel.
Enjoy the following video, containing heartwarming footage of Don Walter enjoying some of his recently recovered Calypsos - songs he hasn't heared in over 35 years:
"It so nice man - me never expect them song still alive". He remembered most of the recovered songs - the happy centenarian even managed to sing along - turning the listening session into a meeting of old friends after decades of separation. Still, a few songs came as a complete surprise, as he couldn't remember having written or performed them: "Me never remember song like them exist at all ... but the guitar is me playing!"
Now we could not have done this enormous digitalization work (over 50 hours of material) without all those generous donations we've received to our crowdfunding Campaign... The Tape Hunt Project, Manuel Monestel and of course Don Walter and his family are very thankful for all your kind support. Also big thanks to sound engineer Draxe who was in charge of the professional digitalisation.
Some of the recovered songs were included in the "Sneak Peek" reward (donations of $100 or more), which was sent to the donors yesterday - thank you again for your generosity and commitment to save Costa Rican cultural history!
And there is even more to celebrate: On 01.01.2021 it will be precisely four years that we have started the Tape Hunt, and three years since we've started our website and social media campaign.
Of course, 2020 was a turbulent year for obvious reasons, but still we were lucky enough to find and recover more tapes than in any other year - a task that would not have been able without our supporters.
Please stay tuned for more on this...
On Nov. 14th 2020 a real life statue of Walter Gavitt Ferguson Byfield was unveiled in Cahuita's Central Park.
The statue was made by joung sculptor Minor Mena López shown in the top picture above. Because of the Covid pandemic only a few spectators gathered for the event hosted by the artist and Don Manuel Monestel (picture 2nd row left and center). As usual the living legend himslef was not attending, but was represented by family members (son and tape hunt initiator José Peck Ferguson, picture 2nd row on the right).
Help us fund the professional digitalization of Manuel Monestel's archive recordings of Walter Gavitt Ferguson - 50 hours of material!
Since the early 1980s, Costa Rican researcher and musician Manuel Monestel freqeuntly travelled from the capital city San Jose to the the caribbean
village Cahuita to meet up with the legendary Calypso King Walter Gavitt
Ferguson a.k.a « Mr. Gavitt » or « Segundo ». Where others
had just seen an old modest man with guitar and tape recorder, Monestel
recognized a genious composer with a vast body of work and a unique artistic
expression. Thanks to the tireless work of Monestel to give Ferguson’s music a
national and international platform, the world is now able to grasp and enjoy
the beautiful musical universe of the « trovador de Cahuita ». And
with time, Monestel’s academic and artistic efforts also became an important
driver of the valorization of afrocostarican culture and the growing interest
in Calypso Limonense in Costa Rica nad beyond.
By the mid 1980s, the two men had naturally become very good friends. With Gavitt in his most productive phase, steadily composing new material and recording it on his legendary one-off cassettes, it is not surprising that Monestel occasionally got hold of a few of Gavitts tapes in all those years. But when we recently asked him to look around how many he could find, his answer blew our mind: «I’ve still got around 45 tapes and also a few recorded interviews with Gavitt.» «Oh my god ! This translates to roughly 3'000 minutes of material… » « Yes, I know. »
Needless to say, this is the biggest catch since we started the Walter Gavitt
Ferguson Tape Hunt : Besides being an invaluable testimony of time,
those 30 to 40 year-old cassettes also contain more of the unheared "lost Calypsos" that urgently need to be rescued from the slow but unstoppable decay
of the magnetic tape.
Now the huge task is to carefully digitalize those approximately 50 hours of historical recordings for the Tape Hunt archive of the Ferguson family. Also, a personal copy will be made for Gavitt, so he can once again hear his old and forgotten songs. The task will be performed by a professional sound engineer in San Jose, Costa Rica. To pay for the sound man’s services, we have started a crowdfunding campaign - donate here.
The raising of this treasure was also covered in Costa Ricas newspaper La Nacion - read here.
Thank you for your kind support!
The project Cultura y Raices CR (Costa Rica) produced this wonderful video, showing afrocostarican youth dancing to Walter Ferguson's "Carnaval Day" and thanking the Calypso King for his music.
In Costa Rica, you can now send your letters or postcards using a stamp or a post mark with Don Walter Ferguson.
The official stamps are depicting "Musicos y compositores nacionales": Besides the internationally known Calypso King Walter Gavitt Ferguson (stamp of 1'215.00 Colones), there is a stamp with writer and folclorist María Mayela Padilla (stamp of 720.00 Colones) and one with Martha Fonseca y Bernal Villegas of the rock duo "Suite Doble" (stamp of 825.00 Colones). The stamps were issued on May 29th 2020. To obtain these stamps please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Happy Birthday Methusalem!
Unlike his 100th birthday a year ago, which was celebrated all over the country, nobody will shake his hands today... The lockdown was a heavy blow for the retired Calypso King, as the Ferguson family lives off a small cabin rental business in Cahuita that can't survive without tourism. The ongoing fundraiser and the new Benefit Album "Keep the Cabin Above The Wata" are a big help to ease the financial pressure.
Calypso Day at home... Enjoy 2.5 hours of Costa Rican Calypso!
Today is also the second time that Costa Rica celebrates National Calypso Day. And despite the Lockdown, you can still celebrate Calypso Day at home - this is why we have put together a mix full of Limonense Calypso. So just press play and get in the mood.Muchas Gracias a Ramon Morales de Leche de Coco Calypso y a Jorge Salazar Navarro por contribuir a este mix.
The cover shows a photo of the actual "Cabin in the Wata" which was built by a fisherman called Bato as he refused to move away from his land when Cahuita National Park was created by the Government in 1970. You can listen to Don Walter recounting the whole story of the "Cabin in the Wata" in the following video (in spanish, thanks to Tania Robles):
Did you know that a renowned Portuguese artist did a portrait of Don Walter? Here is the Story.
When Portuguese photographer and film maker João Silva returned to Lisbon from an extended trip to Costa Rica, where he had helped to create the South Caribe Roots Archive, he must have had hundreds of great photos in his luggage, many of them portraits of local people.
Back in Lisbon, he met up with his friend, artist and singer Pedro do Vale, an internationally renowned painter of big, photrealistic portraits. The two friends looked through João's portrait photos for inspiration and Pedro's eyes soon fell on a picture showing an old man from Cahuita with a unique facial expression. Pedro liked it and decided to paint it. which he had interviewed for the Roots Archive.
It took Pedro do Vale about two months to finish his amazing portrait of Don Walter. This great piece of art is still in Lisbon today, belonging to the artist.
Help Walter Gavitt Ferguson and family through the COVID-19 Crisis
Although Walter Ferguson, 100 year old Calypso legend of Costa Rica and author of „Cabin in the water“, has touched many lives across the globe with his music, has never been able to live from it: For the last four decades, Don Walter and family have been living off a small cabin rental business in their hometown Cahuita.
In all these years, the Fergusons have welcomed countless tourists from all over the world in the traditional guesthouse „Sol Y Mar“ and the romantic „Riverside“ cabins. By offering guided tours, the Fergusons helped visitors to discover the caribbean beaches, local culture and the rich wildlife surrounding Cahuita.
Now, as COVID-19 CRISIS has stopped tourism completely, the Fergusons are affected badly and struggling hard. They urgently need financial support to make ends meet and to hold on to
their business, their life’s work and their home for over a century.
DONATE to the fundraiser
Donate 6 Euros or more & get a free download of the exclusive BENEFIT album «KEEP THE CABIN ABOVE THE WATA» featuring Tape Hunt recordings by Calypso King Walter Gavitt Ferguson. The new album contains a wealth of beautiful "Best Of" material recorded between 1979 and 1998.
Music genres as well as specific songs have been travelling throughout the West Indies for a long time.
Here is an example of the well travelled Caribbean composition "The Weed Song", adopted by Walter Ferguson as "72 Weeds".
Walter Gavitt Ferguson ca. 2009, photo by Nazareth Pacheco
"The Weed Song" originated in British Guyana. Unlike many other travelled Calypsos, this one can actually be traced back to a specific Calypsonian called BILL ROGERS. Since its first recording in 1934 on shellac, it has been played and recorded in countless versions throughout the Caribbean. The following video shows five of them from different eras and different locations.
- On Costa Rica's Limon coast it was adopted as "72 WEEDS" by WALTER GAVITT FERGUSON (enjoy a Tape Hunt version in the video) and also by PITUN (EDGAR HUTCHINSON) probably during the 1940's/ 50s when they played in LOS MISERABLES together.
Stirred by its fame, "The Weed Song" served as a base for new compositions «borrowing» meldoy or lyrics from the original tune :
- In 1954, US singer HARRY BELOFONTE and writer JACK N. ROLLINS changed "The Weed Song" in lyrics and melodic structure (except for the refrain), now telling the story of a small boy getting sex education. Their song called "Man Piaba" was hugely popular outside of the Caribbean.
In 1957, Trinidadian GEORGE ANDERSON, together with his brother, the legendary Calypsonian DUKE OF IRON (CECIL ANDERSON) invented completely new lyrics for "The Weed Song", but keept the melodic structure and rhythm intact. The lyrics of their song called "The Walking Department Store" tell the story of a street vendor who is selling stolen items.
This song too travelled through the Caribbean, an example is the version by LORD COBRA of Panama, who dubbed it "Crooked Salesman".
The latest episode of For Keeps: A Podcast About Collections And Connections hailing from San Francisco USA, is dedicated to The Walter Gavitt Ferguson "Tape Hunt".
Thanks to all involved, stay healthy and bless up!
Wimba! Costa Rica surprises again with a handful of excellent tapes and a film crew
After a warm welcome we all sat down and Mario explained us how he had
aquired his tape personally from Don Walter in August 2002: Like
hundreds of travellers and music lovers before him, Mario knocked the
gates to Gavitt's house and shortly after was greeted by the King
himself. Mario introduced himself and mentioned that he was interested
in buying some of his music. The 83 year old Calypsonian explained that
he had just finished a lenghty recording session (it would become the
album, all recorded in Gavitt's house because of his refusal to go to a
city studio), but unfortunately that recording was not yet available.
There was a pause, Mario felt slightly disappointed and the Calypsonian
scrached his head. Then, all of a sudden, Gavitt lit up, told Mario to
wait right there, turned around and went back in the house. After a few
minutes Gavitt reappeared at the gate with a smile on his face, a
cassette in his hand and added: "Tres mil quiniento Colones." Though
Mario didn't have a cassette player at the time, he thanked Gavitt and
bought the tape straight away... It is a fact, that after his first CD
was on the market in 2003, Don Walter stopped recording cassettes and
sold CDs instead, so Mario's tape may well be the very last of his
unique self-recorded tapes that the Calypso King ever sold on his
Photo of Don Walter 2002 by Mario Chacón
We all agreed that this day at the Studio "Eclipse" in Turrialba shows exactly how the magic of Walter Ferguson works: people get moved by his music, and when they really start to love and care, they eventually want to give something back. So more and more people are joining the Tape hunt, all for the love of music and the immense respect for Mr. Gavitt.
As the digitalization and evaluation of those 5 tapes will take some time - please stay tuned for more news on this.
BBC World Service, the world's largest international broadcaster joins Don Walter's Tape Hunt - listen to the show
We're stoked to announce that the BBC World Service, with an estimated 60 million listeners worldwide weekly, will air an exclusive "Tape Hunt" episode on Sun 29 Dec 2019, featuring interviews with Don Walter, Peck Ferguson and Niels Werdenberg. Big up to Reporter Clayton Conn and his team for their effort to spread the word.
Fingers crossed, this show will reach more tape owners around the world (please contact us here) so we'll be able to find Don Walter's missing Calypsos from the 70s, 80s and 90s!
Following the broadcast on 29 Dec 2019, the Radio show will be available online.