Reviewed by Johan Palme on 3rd December, 2017
One thing you’re often told about Christmas music is just how fake it is. How commercial. How plastic. People will inevitably start talking about “White Christmas” being recorded in a swelteringly hot studio in May, as written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish.
Some of that is certainly true. And yet, those same people will never talk about Irving Berlin, on New Years Day in 1940, overcome with emotion as a few rare snowflakes dropped down from a California sky, remembering the death of his baby son, twelve years earlier almost to the day. Christmas music walks a fine line between the fake and the real, and they’re almost always tangled together.
This Christmas album by the Merrymen is a shining example of just that. The Merrymen were by far the internationally most recognised Bajan group of their generation, but much of their success lied precisely in not sounding like their were from Barbados at all. At a time when Bajan music was innovating like crazy and bursting with creative energy, the Merrymen made a virtue out of being safe, gentle, impeccably recorded and sounding like a decade-old white folk group. Do you think Harry Belafonte’s version of “Mary’s Boy Child” comes across as having anything Caribbean completely smoothed down? You should hear the Merrymen’s version, which ups the gentle guitar picking and bubblegum harmonies and is almost implausibly even less soulful. As Calypso, which the sleeve claims it is, it’s utterly, irredeemably fake.
And yet, that’s not necessarily the measure of a real Christmas album, which this certainly is. Emile Starker has a fantastic, clear, beautifully balanced tenor voice, and the harmonies are clever and evocative. And the love of the holidays shines through, in genuine, heartfelt, and interesting takes on a series of standards. So perhaps it’s worth asking – whose realness are we really striving for?