Recently, television journalist Jabari Fraser called me to do an interview about Trini Christmas music; the traditions and varieties and how the music interacts with the wider culture. (Why me? I am however honoured.) We never got around to that interview, but his query sparked my interest in what we have to offer at this time of the year.
I find that at Christmas time, we can hear four categories of music.
Music of the old Spanish tradition: Parang
We know it when we hear it; lyrics in Spanish, few melodies that are ever present annually. Group singing. Lopinot, Paramin, Daisy Voisin, Lara Brothers, Clarita Rivas. Names for the pantheon. The history, spread and maintenance of this singing tradition is to be lauded in a country which does not speak Spanish regularly. Of course, this music’s spread had more to do with immigrants than with Spanish colonial life despite some counter-arguments.
Christmas Choir singing
Another older tradition that has come down through the years and now has an annual commercial rite of passage: the celebrated live concerts (at Queen’s Hall, at least) by local choirs such as The Marionettes Chorale, The Lydians, The Love Movement Choir. Caribbean voices singing from the traditional European and now New World songbooks of carols and seasonal songs. La Petit Musicale. I want to put into this category another old tradition that is disappearing, that of cantiques de noël or crèche. Some call this French parang. (Holly Betaudier first introduced me, and I guess many others, to this music via his television Christmas specials of past. That man is a keeper of the flame!)
I like to refer to this as our attempt at being commercial in the global sense. This music had the familiar tropes of American popular music and allowed our artists to explore their global appeal. The lyrics pointedly were not about snow, sleigh rides, even Santa Claus, but focused on where we lived and existed. Stylistic frames of reference were ironically not local. Kelwyn Hutcheon is the poster boy here with his Perry Como/Frank Sinatra hybrid styling of the Pat Castagne 1960s classic “Kiss Me For Christmas” even getting a modern redo with producer Johnny Gonsalves . Lennox Gray with his staple “Around My Christmas Tree” has a Johnny Mathis vibe, but a rhythm that resonates with a slowed down parang rhythm. The lyrics are essentially Trinidadian. Mid-1970s, or I guess post-1970 Black Power revolution saw that focus on Trini themes and lyrics, even as the musicians explored their potential outside of Trinidad. Funk, R&B and Pop were mimicked to popular accolade. Record sales were the business model statistics that mattered. That would change soon.
Calypso/soca fusion: parang-soca
Over the years calypsonians and soca singers have sang on Christmas themes using stock calypso rhythms or improvised on parang harmonies, melodies and rhythms to craft songs in English that provide the sonic ambience of Trini Christmas. Instrumentation including cuatro, mandolin, chac chac and box bass proliferate. Rudolph “Nap” Hepburn’s classic “Tell Santa Claus” with that brilliant lyric has stood the test of time as a calypso that tells a Christmas story. Of course, along the years with the advent of soca, other artists have capitalised on the trend of extending their sales and popularity by singing a Christmas calypso or soca to segue into the Carnival season. From Sparrow, Kitch and Melody to Crazy, Scrunter, Baron, Kenny J and Relator are the key figures with multiple tracks that stand in that unique space between Christmas and Carnival.
As the years went on and the business model for music distribution moved from record sales to downloads to access via the internet, we get this:
and we had this. (This track has been taken down from Soundcloud, but you can imagine how this expletive laden ditty would come across as a Christmas song.):
Solitude seems to be the new normal at Christmas! Where we go from here is either downhill, or to oblivion! One always surmised that there were elements of smut and double entendre in these soca-parang songs. “Gimme the homemade wine, Madam Gloria, it sweet!” (“Homemade Wine.” Scrunter) and “I want meh brush, neighbour. Gih meh de brush.” (“De Paint Brush.” Kenny J) might be skillful wordplay. “Doh Parang by F***ing Me” seems less so. If one says “gay abandon,” that may be taken out of context, but that is soca-parang today!
Humour has always been a hallmark of calypso/soca, so these modern takes on soca-parang or parang-soca would be inevitable. From Ninja’s “(We Parang de) Wrong House” to Sprangalang”s “Bring Drinks“—…roti and egg, peanut butter and turkey leg, who cook this thing?”—this modern incarnation of Trini Christmas music is here to stay.
The first two categories can be considered a part of an older tradition in local music, group singing, with the latter two being modern innovations and solo platforms that describe us as unique, not so much in the method, but in the content. Much of this music is also for sale, but sales being what they are today, the possibilities to spread this music beyond our borders may not be uppermost on the minds of the creators. Couple this with the state of broadcast media opting for a narrow window to play these songs—Boxing Day is now the official start of Carnival music season—and one respects the continuing efforts of artists to put out new Christmas music. Our music industry would need to take note of the content output, and as a body of work try to exploit it wherever and as much as we can.
To all my readers, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings and a prosperous 2015!
© 2014, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.