Reviewed by Johan Palme on 13th December, 2015
The history of recorded Christmas music is full of disparate traditions. And yet – probably largely due to the enormous influence of American popular culture in just about every corner of the globe – the vast majority of Christmas recordings have a clear influece from either European art music, or carolling on both sides of the Atlantic, or the great jazzy Christmas recording traditions of mid-century America. On top of that there are certainly occasional of Christmas-themed recordings that fit into existing local non-Christmas styles.
But if you’re after a complex, rich, Christmas-specific tradition that’s utterly unlike anything Eurocentric, it’s surprisingly much of a struggle. However, in the Caribbean, there’s a fascinating exception: parang, the Christmas music tradition of Trinidad. Stemming from the paranda and asalto traditions of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, it’s completely set apart from all the other music of Trinidad. It’s got a complex set of locally unique instruments, including the bandolin and cuarto. It’s got a dozen musical subgenres, with different themes and rhythms and vocal styles. It’s got a broad associated tradition of food, dress, dance, ways of performing. It’s got dozens of famous songs that get covered by different artists. It’s even got its own language: Spanish, a language not otherwise widely spoken on the island.
The Strictly Parang series, four volumes, is as good an introduction as any available. It covers both a broad array of historical styles and a few representative current examples. (One of which, I warn ahead, is rather racist and an ill-chosen example, but the rest are good.) Most of the island’s biggest names are here, with the glaring exception of Daisy Voisin. And the amazing thing is, despite its completeness as a separated tradition, you can truly feel the Christmasness, that perfect nostalgic twinge. A different Christmas music, but so perfectly Christmas nonetheless.