Viva Parang

In Trinidad, the sound of Christmas is parang, a living reminder of the island’s Hispanic heritage

  • The late Daisy Voisin, parang queen. Photograph by Caldeo Sookram
  • Rebuscar performing in Lopinot. Photograph by Caldeo Sookram
  • Los Buenos Paranderos of El Dorado. Photograph by Caldeo Sookram
  • Crafting traditional string. Photograph by Caldeo Sookram
  • The Lara Brothers performing in 1972. Photograph by Caldeo Sookram

It is four o’clock in the morning on Christmas day. For the last hour, the only sound to be heard is the rushing of the river, swollen by the rain that fell to bless those coming out of Midnight Mass.

I turn on the warm spot on the bed, pulling the blanket closer against the creeping mist and chill that lingers until noon in the valleys of the Northern Range at this time of the year. Then there’s a sudden commotion outside, and the dogs start barking. I can just about make out something that sounds like a quarrel and . . . the strum of a guitar . . . a rattle. Some raucous singing. I can’t make out the words, but the music has a fast tempo, and the singers belt out the chorus as though they were straining every sinew in delivery.

I stumble out of bed, half weary and half excited. Through the crack under my bedroom door, I can make out that the living-room lights have been switched on, and my grandparents, who fell asleep just half an hour ago, are greeting people heartily. There is a clinking of glasses and an exchange of toasts.

More singing follows. All the lights are on now, and I can hear my grandfather and grandmother have joined in the singing. I pop out in my nightie to investigate. Two hours later, my hands are sore from playing the tock tock, and the paranderos bid farewell and drift off to another house.

In Trinidad, when you turn on the radio from October onwards you can expect to hear a sound some describe as “Spanish carolling” on almost every station. On television you might catch a glimpse of groups of colourfully dressed people singing in this same three-step rhythm, driven by percussion and string instruments. This is parang. In Northern Range villages like Arima, Lopinot, and Paramin, groups of paranderos go house to house during the Christmas season, providing entertainment for their neighbours.

Historians and parang enthusiasts have long argued over the origins of the up-tempo Spanish-language sound which creates a space for itself every Christmas. Some believe the music was brought to Trinidad by the Capuchin monks who controlled missions in different parts of the island between 1687 and 1837, and used music to indoctrinate the indigenous Amerindians in the ways of the Christian faith. Others believe the music came from Venezuela.

What is clear is that where you find cocoa in Trinidad, you will find parang. Trinidad was once the second-most important producer of cocoa in the world. Spanish settlers began cultivating cocoa on the island in the 17th century, and as more settlers moved to the island, the Catholic missions which took root in the valleys of the Northern Range also developed cocoa estates, using Amerindian labour.

With Venezuela only seven miles away, and with no immigration or maritime laws to speak of (or no one to enforce them) mainlanders were frequent visitors to the island. After Trinidad fell under British control in 1797, Venezuelans continued to settle on the island.

The mainlanders, called coco panyols, were employed to clear the forest and establish cocoa seedlings. These coco panyols intermarried with the Amerindians and other ethnic groups working on mission-run estates. Undoubtedly, the cultural exchanges that occurred under the cool shade of the cocoa and immortelle trees led to the creation of parang.

Professor Gordon Rohlehr of the University of the West Indies explains that parang is a combination of Spanish lyrics, Venezuelan music, and Trinidadian rhythms. The word “parang” has its origins in the Spanish word parranda, which roughly translates as “merry making”. Parranderos — the singers and instrument players — travel from house to house in communities with their “singing telegrams” of Christian teachings. At Christmas time, these songs tell the story of the birth of Christ, but in some communities parranderos also take songs of blessing to their neighbours at other times of the year, in celebration of a new birth, a marriage, or a successful harvest.

Traditionally, the parranderos would arrive at a house and very quietly gather at the door. At a pre-arranged signal, they would all start playing and singing simultaneously. In exchange for the entertainment, the parranderos were given food and drink by the household. They could be expected to turn up (at any hour) any time from early November to 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany — also referred to as Les Rois or Lewah in French patois — which marks the end of the season.

Parang remained a largely rural phenomenon until the 1960s, when Holly Betaudier (“The Arima Kid”) began his career in media and entertainment, producing talent showcases which were broadcast on radio and, later, television. Having grown up in a community where parang was played throughout the year, Betaudier made sure to incorporate the art form in his shows. Soon Holly B’s Parang Bandwagon began showing up in rural communities, and parang became “commercial” at Christmas time.

Annual “parang fiestas” followed, starting in October, mainly in the communities of Lopinot, Arima, Santa Cruz, St Joseph, Caura, San Raphael, Rio Claro, and Paramin. The National Parang Association, which has its headquarters in Arima, was founded in 1971, and parang groups began to compete against each other for prizes in annual competitions. These competitions have grown to include a junior parang competition, in which schools, choirs, and youth groups participate. Some bands also enjoy a rigorous schedule of appearances at office Christmas parties, clubs, charity shows, and concerts.

The songs have changed as well. Traditionally, parang lyrics were mainly religious — which is to say, Christian — sung in an old Spanish dialect. Today, parang lyricists have kept the celebratory themes of the music, but the subject is not always religious, and songs are sometimes sung in English.

Cristo Adonis, lead singer with Rebuscar and shaman for the Amerindian community in Arima, has penned a popular song about the duties of the medicine man, titled “Don Alberto”. This year, one of his offerings, composed in the galeron style, is titled “Viva Indigena”. The subject matter is Latin American politics of the day. Cristo sings about the victory of Evo Morales in the Bolivian election, and about the moves made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to return land to indigenous peoples there.

“The music is evolving, not just through its sound, but through the subjects we sing about. Because of its roots, it has made sense to me to reclaim it. To empower the indigenous community, and sometimes inform them about their heritage. Before, everything was about Christopher Columbus and about Christianity, and I decided to change it,” Cristo explains.

“Parang was always about good news, so I am continuing the tradition of the storytellers. In Venezuela, parranderos sing galeron about Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara, so I am following their lead.”

A parang glossary

Parang songs fall into several main categories.

  • Serenal or aguinaldo: Used to announce the parranderos’ arrival at a house. Tells the story of the birth of Christ, and spreads the message of peace and goodwill.
  • Anunciacion: Tells the story of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, when she finds out she will be the mother of Jesus.
  • Nacimiento: Relates the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
  • Guarapo: A lively song on any topic.
  • Joropo: Similar in style to a Spanish waltz, it makes great dancing music.
  • Vals (castillian): A secular song with a slow waltz tempo.
  • Salsa: The Cuban style of Latin music which has taken the world by storm is increasingly popular with younger parang bands.
  • Manzanare: A waltz celebrating the Manzanare River in Cumana, Venezuela.
  • Estribillo: A very lively sing-along number that involves call and response from the audience.
  • Despedida: Farewell tune giving thanks for the joy of sharing good times with the host, until next Christmas.

Uno, dos, tres . . .

The instruments played by parang groups represent the many facets of Trinidad’s heritage, including Amerindian, African, and European influences. Traditionally, most bands played a combination of the following: cuatro, mandolin, tiple, violin, bandol, bandolin, guitar, box bass, maracas, cello, wood block, and claves. Today, anything from the clarinet to the saxophone can find itself on stage in a parang band.

Bandol (or bandola): This flat-backed lute from Central and South America measures approximately two and a half feet long, and has four double strings. Two of the base strings are made of metal and two of gut, while the four treble strings are all made of gut.

Box bass: This wooden instrument, native to Trinidad, consists of a square or rectangular box about eighteen to twenty inches high with a hole, six inches in diameter, in its centre. A detachable pole is positioned on one corner of the top of the box. From the centre of the box, a string of nylon or jute is attached to the top of the pole. Notes are achieved by varying the angle of the pole and moving the fingers, which depress the string along the pole. The sound is emitted through the hole in the front of the box.

Claves (or tock tock): Originating in Cuba, these two cylindrical hardwood sticks are about eight inches long and an inch in diameter.

Cuatro: an instrument of the guitar family, found in South America and the West Indies. The small cuatro of Venezuela has four strings, traditionally made of gut but nowadays mostly of nylon.

Güiro (or scratcher): A percussion instrument consisting of an open-ended, hollow gourd with parallel notches cut in one side. It is played by rubbing a wooden stick along the notches to produce a ratchet-like sound. It is believed to have originated among the Arawaks, and spread among the peoples of the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of Mexico.

Bandolin (or mandolin): One instrument or two? Some Trinidadians consider them to be synonymous, while others claim that the flat-backed version is called the mandolin and the bowl-bodied one is known as the bandolin. They are both small pear-shaped plucked wire-string instruments with four double courses of strings .The round-backed version is sometimes made with the shell of a morocoy (tortoise).

Maracas (or shak-shak): A pair of gourd rattles, most commonly oval. The gourd contains the naturally dried seeds of the fruit. Imitations in wood, wickerwork, Bakelite or metal contain beads, small shot, or similar rattling pieces. In Trinidad and Tobago, maracas are usually made from the fruit of the calabash tree.

Pollitos: These two rectangular pieces of wood (seven by four inches) with two square pieces half the length of the rectangles produce a sound similar to castanets. Between each piece of wood is a quarter-inch round dowel. The three dowels and four pieces of wood are strung together with cord, with a centre loop on the outside to place the thumbs.

Tiple: A smaller version of the bandol with strings made of metal, it can be found in Spain, Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, where it has five double or triple courses. It is called the “soprano” because it is the most treble instrument in the ensemble.

Wood block: Related to the rectangular wooden slit-drums used as time-beaters by the Chinese. The orchestral wood block is generally in the form of a rectangular block of teak or similar heavy wood, with one or two slotted longtitudinal cavities. The instrument varies from six inches to a foot in length. When struck on the surface with wooden drumsticks or beaters, it produces a resonant and penetrating tone.

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