Reviewed by Johan Palme on 5th January, 2021
One of the unexpected sorrows of dealing with a music genre that, let’s face it, had its absolute heyday more than 50 years ago, is to frequently have to see its legendary creators pass on. Last year, for instance, saw the passing of among others Doris Day, Leon Redbone, Jessye Norman, Peter Schreier and legendary Phil Spector drummer Hal Blaine. While this year has seen fewer Christmas music legends go, December saw the loss of a man whose Christmas music recordings should be considerably better-known than they are: Guadeloupean record producer Raymond Célini, perhaps the premier creator of Antillean chanté nwel records.
From its small recording studio in Pointe-à-Pitre, Célini’s label Aux Ondes became one of the few record companies in the sixties and seventies to truly take the music of the French Antilles seriously, and not just its most export-ready expressions but a whole host of both popular and folklore music, stretching deep into the African roots of gwoka and into all the interesting syncretic creole music expressions that the Caribbean is a hotbed of. That includes, of course, the fascinating creole-sung Christmas genre chanté nwel, which has possibly its finest recorded hour on several albums on Célini’s label. Like parang, the genre has an enormous musical complexity, with an interesting and musically intricate intermixture of french carols, waltz and quadrille with more specifically Antillean, African-derived rhythms like the biguine.
Abel Zenon, still going strong today at over 90 years old, is one of the biggest stars of biguine, and his Christmas outing on Aux Ondes is magical. Weaving in and out of different rhythms, sometimes mid-song, it is both fully traditional and fully contemporary biguine, full of energy in musical interplay with a child singer. As Christmas music, it’s fun and nostalgic; as a piece of musical history rarely this well recorded, it’s absolutely invaluable.
The date of the record appears to sadly be in some dispute; I’ve gone with the date the label has supplied to record companies, but at least one seller has a different year. It is not written out on the label or sleeve of the record. Also, the sleeve has two names for the group, and you may have better luck searching for the Spanish language Abel Zenon y su Combo.