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December 25, 2008

I'm Dreaming of a Coconut Christmas

A new neighborhood for caroling.
Photo: Eyebyte, Alamy Images for

by John Oseid

This year I'm enjoying Christmas in the islands. Okay, I'm in Brooklyn staring at my ice-bedecked balcony, but the soundtrack to my Christmas is Caribbean. I hope it's not the eggnog talking, but I'm intoxicated by an unusual and charming Trinidadian music called parang. Who knew the English-speaking island's traditional Christmas carols are sung in Spanish?

The quaint numbers, "Palomita Blanca" (White Dove) and "Que Venga" (Come, My Love), on the CD Trinidad Parang Christmas Celebration hardly suggest we're in a country known for soca bacchanals and steel pan drumming. The flutes and guitars on the fast-paced, eight-minute "El Que Siembra su Maiz" (He Who Sows the Corn) puts you right into a reverie of the Cuban countryside. When you hear "Vamos a Tomar un Trago" by the way, you will want to do just that--take a drink.

Legend has it that the basic elements of parang were brought to Trinidad by seventeenth-century Spanish monks. Venezuelans who later came to work the cocoa fields developed it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These so-called Cocoa Panyols had their own communities in the northern mountain villages and parranderos, or merry-makers, would go house to house, singing about the Anunciación and Nacimiento. Today, parang festivals are held from October through Epiphany on January 6.

Parang's distinct flavor comes out through the use of typically Spanish instruments: the four-string, ukulele-sized guitar called the cuatro, mandolins, violins, flutes, claves, maracas and "scratchers." Here's a nice description of all the pieces, including the box bass, unique to Trinidad.

So turn off that Hot-One-O-Whatever radio station playing those incessant Mariah, Christina and Celine "special Christmas" albums and join me in the islands for something truly festive.

More music:
* The album Trinidad Parang Christmas Celebration belongs to the Voyager series of folk albums. The songs were recorded by the Lara Brothers, a leading parang group of four brothers and two sisters. This amateur clip may be shaky, but it shows the group's joy and authenticity at a live festival.
* Dozens of full samples of parang classics can be heard on this site. It includes Spanish lyrics and a profile of the "Queen of Parang," the late Daisy Voisin. This page breaks parang down into its distinct song types and rhythms.
* Look out for a Canadian-based parang group called Los Pájaros, which performs all over North America. Among the samples on their MySpace page is a version of the famous song "Rio Manzanare."
* Parang caroling is all about eating and drinking. This wonderful Trini food site is full of recipes if you'd like to discover what traditional black cake and pastilles are.


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