In Memory of Walter Ferguson
How can you know so much about someone you’ve never met? The answer, surely, will be that there are people who seem to have fallen from astrolites — humans who seem to have an aura and a talent that radiates from the invisible.
I remember the first time I embraced the dream of meeting Don Walter Ferguson, widely known as “Mr. Gavitt.” In those times, about 10 years ago, the journalist Diego Delfino had uploaded on his Facebook page a tremendously casual image of himself with the legendary musician. It had the aura of a postcard. It was unique: he was there in the photo next to an absolute legend.
Over the years, my desire to meet Mr. Gavitt grew, but there were limitations, including the distance to his residence in Cahuita. In addition, it would be an arduous task finding a form of contact that would allow a literal stranger to shake hands with such an eminence.
I still did not lose faith. I devoted myself to listening to Ferguson’s music during those years, trying to study it. I sought to find out how a calypso benchmark was made and, in the long run, a legend of Costa Rican creative inventiveness.
When I joined the newspaper La Nación as a head journalist for arts and culture, I once again dreamed of that chance to meet the music icon. One of my colleagues, Carlos Soto, was the owner of the music source and managed to visit Ferguson on the occasion of the Magón Prize being awarded to him in 2018.
Envy appeared — the good kind of envy … Carlos knows it well. What a chance he had! Deep inside of me, I supposed that this was my last chance for a “meeting” with the musician, even if channeled through someone else. I was not mistaken; I could never know Walter Ferguson in person. But the satisfaction with what my colleague told me about the interview was so valuable that I still cling to his words as if it had been a meeting from another dimension.
“My mom used to tell me that I was going to be a great composer,” Ferguson told Carlos. This recollection offered precious further evidence for the theory that Mr. Gavitt (who, by the way, was born in Panama) was an astrolith.
My colleague Carlos told me that the living room in Don Walter’s house was always filled with foreigners. It was no wonder that every time there was a festival in the Caribbean, Ferguson was the dedicated one. Such news caused many international visitors (and of course, Costa Ricans) to show up in the living room of his home to ask him “things” about his songs and express their admiration for him.
Ferguson claims to have composed more than 150 songs, although he only recorded about 40 — more than enough testimony to notice his verve. With his raspy, gravelly tone, he took care to build a soundscape of the Costa Rican Caribbean.
He was the composer of “Cabin in the Wata,” “Callaloo,” “Carnaval Day” and many other songs portraying life in the villages of the Costa Rican Caribbean slope, with a mixture of humor and tragedy.
King of Calypso
Those songs made him not only a musical literati, but the “King of Calypso,” a monarch who did not look down on anyone and had an immense capacity for open arms. His family can attest to the countless visits they received in honor of Mr. Gavitt.
That warmth is reaffirmed when recalling his story. For most of his life, Don Walter was dedicated to interpreting his music without poses or pretensions. He shared his songs without leaving the town where he lived, and needed only a guitar to indulge his inventiveness.
It occurred to Ferguson that it would be a good idea to record his compositions on cassettes and then he could sell the tapes to tourists visiting Cahuita. He did not imagine the fate in store for his creations.
Mr. Gavitt’s artistic ingenuity became public knowledge — and reproducible — causing word of mouth to spread. His name reached the ears of the Central Valley residents, and, thanks to his chords and vocal tone, many Josefino artists were captivated by the charm of calypso. This ultimately saw a fusion of genres and a cultural exchange to which successive generations are still indebted.
Today, bands and singers from all over the country are inspired by Ferguson’s influence when forming their musical style. But that has not been confined to Costa Rica. His music crossed borders, as in the case of the Uruguayan Jorge Drexler, one of the big names in the region. He has been a spokesperson for calypsonian talent throughout his international career of more than 30 years.
“Going to “Mouths,” one of Drexler’s favorite songs, has constantly crept into his repertoire. Even on his album “Dance in the Cave,” Drexler added a sample of Mr. Gavitt. During his last performance in the country, in March 2022, Drexler dedicated words and music in tribute to Don Walter. “A big round of applause for the teacher of teachers!” he said.
Drexler is fascinated by Ferguson’s life story. In the 1970s, Mr. Gavitt decided to retire from music. After that, he performed occasional compositions but never recurring frequently.
But his timeless contributions to Costa Rica’s musical legacy left a lasting mark, worthy of recognition over the years to the present day. In 2009, the Association of Composers and Musical Authors of Costa Rica honored Ferguson’s lifelong work as a composer with the Ricardo Mora Award. In 2017 he received the Emilia Prieto Intangible Cultural Heritage Award.
The following year, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly declared May 7, Don Walter’s birthday, as National Calypso Day.
Finally, on February 22, 2023 — three days before the 103-year-old’s death – the Assembly declared Ferguson an “honorary citizen” of the Republic. The timing was more than a curious coincidence.
Not surprisingly, two Costa Rican presidents had in mind to visit the legendary musician during their tenure. In 2018, Luis Guillermo Solís did so in conjunction with the Legislative Assembly approving Law 9526, declaring August as the month for commemorating Afro-Costa Rican culture.
“It is a true honor to recognize the work and talent of a calypsonian of the caliber of Don Walter Ferguson, who has contributed so much to the national cultural heritage through the
calypso music composition,” the then-President said during his visit. “The extraordinary rhythm that connects us with the roots of Afro-descendants who make up a fundamental part of the Costa Rican identity, and who reaffirms us as the multiethnic and multicultural country that we are,” said the then-president during the visit.
Many acquaintances who worked with the then-chief can attest to his determination, from the time of taking office in the Presidential House, to meeting Mr. Gavitt. Apparently Don Luis Guillermo has always been a fervent follower of the calypsonian, something he verified when Don Walter passed away on February 25, 2023.
That day, Solís posted on Facebook, “May his music follow us accompanying forever, and joyful to the heavenly hosts until the end of time. I wish that your journey is sweet and that your memory inspires many generations of artists and virtuous citizens of your beloved country and beyond. Thank you, Don Walter, for allowing me the privilege to enjoy the sweet friendship with you.”
Unlike the opportunity Solís had to enjoy a broad conversation with Mr. Gavitt during his visit, the situation was a bit more complicated for his presidential successor, Carlos Alvarado Quesada. Alvarado very much wanted to take advantage of his tour in the Caribbean territory to go and greet the legend. But those were different times. The pandemic was at its peak and, furthermore, Don Walter was already affected by health issues and with difficulties speaking.
Alvarado sat on the step at the entrance to Ferguson’s house and they talked on the phone. Then, after a few minutes, he got to see Mr. Gavitt’s face firsthand — a face loaded with years but still outlined with a wide smile. The president’s own happy face was evident; he knew that he was in a privileged moment. Not even a pandemic had prevented him from sharing it with this hero!
I like to mentally hug all of those postcards and imagine all the conversations that happened in those four walls of Don Walter’s Cahuita home. The words spoken in memory of him are like a river that ends in the same place: a warm room where the music always sounds and conversations are not forgotten.
With his raspy, gravelly tone, he took care to build a soundscape of the Costa Rican Caribbean.
King of Calypso passes away at age 103