It is officially Christmas season. I was out shopping a couple days ago and heard my first christmas song piped into the store. I am glad I did not hear it until December. I have to admit it really grinds my gears to hear Christmas carols before Thanksgiving. I'm not a Scrooge who dislikes christmas. I love it, I just get annoyed by the crass commercialism of stores setting up displays in October and playing the music in an attmempt to make me spend money.
Last week I told you if I were a proper Trini I'd be scrubbing and panting and sewing like a fiend to get ready for Christmas. This week let me introduce you to some of the sounds of Christmas in Trinidad. I have to admit when I lived there and December rolled around and the weather was still in the upper 80s and I heard 'Walking in a Winter Wonderland' I almost split a gut laughing. When 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' played on the radio I thought, "Keep dreaming." When I was chatting with neighbors I mentioned the incongruity of living tropically and hearing such songs. We shared a giggle over that, discussed real snow, and then they asked me if I had heard any parang music yet. They told me parang was the real Christmas music of Trinidad, not all that Bing Crosby and Burl Ives stuff. Well, now I HAD to learn about it!
There is some debate as to the true origins of parang music. Some say it was brought directly by the Spanish colonizers. Others are inclined to believe it came along with imported cocoa plantation workers from Venezuela. Either way it is clearly a Spanish influence that is deeply ingrained in Trinidad. Parang comes from the spanish parranda. meaning the merrymaking of the musicians. In the most traditional forms of parang all the songs are sung in Spanish even though the language is really not spoken at all on the island. Many of the instruments, though not all, are common to Spanish music.
Parang season (yes there is a season) runs from October (I'm ok, with it being this early, honest I am, it's not crass commercialism down there) to January 6, which is Feast Day for the 3 Kings (Les Rois, a French name that ends the Spanish music season on an island populated by Africans and Indians...I LOVE that). As with so many things in Trinidad, there are competitions to crown the champion parang bands. The competitions were begun as a way to revive a tradition that had begun to die out prior to independence.
In days past, parang bands would circulate through neighborhoods much the way we see Christmas carollers in the USA. The bands would have 4-6 singers and instruments of all sorts. Guitars, violins, mandolins and cuatros, maracas, scrapers and wood blocks, and box basses (imagine a hillbilly instrument, the upside down washtub with a pole and string coming out the top so it could be plucked, box bass is similar)and pollitos (sort of a wooden castanet) are all common parang instruments. The bands would announce themselves with an aguinaldo song and relate the story of Christ's birth. More sacred themed songs would be sung, perhaps later a call and answer type piece of music or a salsa or waltz would be played so all the revellers could enjoy a dance. Tasty treats would be shared. Finally a despedida or departing song of thanks and well wishes would be sung.
Eventually the parang bands became a bit more stationary and parties were organized around a favorite band and the revellers would come to them. Still the music was sung in Spanish and the same styles of songs prevailed. It simply allowed a good Trini fete to go on late into the night. In more recent times, styles have diversified. Soca-Parang, which is sung in English, has become popular especially as a tourist ploy since it carries more North-American themes. And not to be left out, the Indians have added their instruments, themes, and musical patterns to the mix to create Chutney-Parang.
Nosotros Tenemos (excerpts)
Nosotros tenemos un coro especial
Y en esta casa le vamos a cantar.......
Si quiere yo cante en su lindo hogar
un paso adelante mandame a pasar......
Con gusto y contentos vamos a cantar
Este parrandita viene de San Juan
We have a special chorus
and we are going to sing it to you in this house.
If you want me to sing to you in your beautiful home
let me come in.
We're going to sing with pleasure and happiness.
This little parang singer comes from San Juan