SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

So when does Christma-Hanu-Kwanizka begin? No wonder they call it the holiday season. That's a lot easier to say. Stores seem to start hanging holly, lighting menorah, putting jolly fat guys in their windows the day after Labor Day. So we have decided arbitrarily to declare that the holiday season begins after the fourth Thursday in November.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: We just can't think of a better way to jump into the holiday spirit than with the spirited band, our friends Pink Martini. Just released a holiday album, "Joy to the World." Of course that's Thomas Lauderdale on piano. The entire band has joined us here(ph) in studio 4A.

Thomas, thanks for being with us. And who's with you?

Mr. THOMAS LAUDERDALE (Pink Martini): Well, there's China and Jess and Gavin and Martini and Derek and Brian and Phil and Dan and Timothy and Nicholas and me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right. Well, good to have you all with us. Could we - you're certainly familiar to our listeners.

I'm not sure I've heard the story on the air about how you folks began. You and China were students together, right?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: We were students...

SIMON: Not in kindergarten. But...

Mr. LAUDERDALE: At college. We went to Harvard. We lived in Adams House, which is the artsy, sort of gay, international dorm. And we would practice late in the middle of the night. She would sing opera arias at the top of her lungs, and I would be her little accompanist.

And then years later we both graduated, went off to different corners of the world. She went to New York, I went to Portland, Oregon and got involved in political events and started the band Pink Martini, and we became the house band for progressive causes in Portland and in Oregon. So we did fundraisers for civil rights, for the environment, for music and public education, for schools, for libraries, for public broadcasting.

SIMON: China's still on the East Coast at this point.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yes.

Ms. CHINA FORBES (Pink Martini): I was oblivious, just, you know, doing my own thing in New York. Thomas called me urgently.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Because I didn't get along with the first singer.

Ms. FORBES: It's hard to get along with singers, isn't it? So you called...

Mr. LAUDERDALE: You're a different breed. (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FORBES: I know. You called me and said, I need you to come to Portland, Oregon immediately. I just fired my singer and I have this band and can you fly here. And I was doing theater at the time, so I was unemployed and took the first flight out of there and learned the songs on the plane. Delta Airlines gave me a lot of frequent flyer miles.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: So she would fly back and forth every other weekend, it seemed, to Portland. And finally she gave in three years later and moved and became a full-fledged Oregonian.

Ms. FORBES: Yeah.

SIMON: So, China, you came out to Portland to join them. And then the band really has taken off.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: It's been a slow build for 16 years. And, you know, we vowed never to do a holiday album. But this year - this album was sort of commissioned by Starbucks, actually, in about May. It's not just Christmas songs, but there are Hanukkah songs, there are verses of "Silent Night" in German, as well as Arabic. There's a samba version of "Auld Lang Syne," Ukrainian, and the Chinese New Year's song.

SIMON: I mean, just between the two of you, Thomas and China, you have about a dozen cultural strains. And I mean, do you sit down and say I like this, I like that. Why don't we try this? Why don't we try that?

Ms. FORBES: We kind of brainstormed. Everybody in the band wrote down a list of their favorite Christmas songs, which is fun. And I think everyone was excited, you know, to finally get a chance to do some of those songs. And then we kind of whittled it down to the ones that worked the best and the songs that kind of came together when we tried to arrange them.

It was a fun process, because it wasn't like the pressure of writing an album's worth of songs. It was like culling from your childhood favorites, you know. So it was just a different experience.

SIMON: Hanukkah's going to be first up. And we want to call on not only Portland's own, but NPR's own, Ari Shapiro, who occasionally performs with you. Ari, you're going to join them on the first song?

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes.

SIMON: "Ocho"...

SHAPIRO: "Ocho Kandelikas."

SIMON: That doesn't sound Hebrew, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It's not Hebrew. It's actually not exactly Spanish either. It's an ancient language called Ladino, which was spoken by the Sephardic Jews of Western Europe, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Spain. And the language is almost extinct, but this song is not.

(Soundbite of song, "Ocho Kandelikas")

PINK MARTINI (Music Group): (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: That was terrific.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: That was just, that was just, that was - is it remotely traditional?

SHAPIRO: It's actually a relatively recent song. I think the woman who wrote this song wanted to keep this language alive.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Laurie Jakota(ph)...

SIMON: Ladino.

SHAPIRO: But certainly the tempo and the rhythm of this version is unique to Pink Martini.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Well, it's actually, Ari had the idea of switching the chorus around a bit. That shows his sort of musical brilliance, I think, as well. Because before it was pretty straight. It was - do you want to sing it?

SHAPIRO: It was (singing in Spanish)

Ms. FORBES: Right. But Ari made it better.

SHAPIRO: So we syncopated it.

Ms. FORBES: And now it's...

SHAPIRO: Syncopation...

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, that's...

Ms. FORBES: Swinging Latin.

SIMON: It's just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. When the whole band was getting together and contributing their holiday favorites, did anybody, for example, mention something like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?

Ms. FORBES: No.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: No.

SIMON: OK. My point being, was there something when you actually went through the creative process deciding what to put on this album, did you find there was something to be said for the standards?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I think most of the great - aside from the carols and from the Christian hymns - I think that there was a really great period between 1940 and 1962, '64, '65. That's the golden age of great Christmas and holiday songs. That's when "White Christmas," for example, was written. That's when "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was written.

SIMON: Actually, you do seem to spotlight the period you talked about, from the '40s maybe to the mid-'60s where maybe we think of Christmas as an idea as much as anything else. An annual coming home for families, something like that?

Ms. FORBES: Yeah.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: That's right. I mean, you know, it is interesting because through the process of thinking about this album, there were things that were highlighted that served almost like as an education. For example, "Do You Hear What I Hear," which was written in 1962 by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker. And it was written, inspired by two things. One: it was written at the height of the...

SIMON: This is: (singing) Do you hear what I hear?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yes. It was written at the height and in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it was also inspired by the authors watching mothers walking their children in strollers in Central Park, which I think is also a beautiful image. And one could sort of bask in the glory of how beautiful that song is without ever knowing any of the history.

But knowing the history of it only deepens, I think, the meaning of these pieces.

SIMON: You have a version of "White Christmas."

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Yes.

SIMON: We're going to get you to do it...

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Which I think is the, you know, "White Christmas" is the best Christmas song ever written. And Irvin Berlin, the author, also thought it was the best song.

SIMON: Often pointed out, it takes a Jewish immigrant to the United States to write a really great Christmas song.

Mr. LAUDERDALE: That's right. And so here is a very simple, beautiful version played by Dan Vanley(ph) on the guitar and sung by China Forbes.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

PINK MARTINI: (Singing) The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it's December the 24th, and I am longing to be up north. I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow. I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, with every Christmas I write. May your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white.

SIMON: That's absolutely beautiful. I'm sorry...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, it's a combination of the purity of that and then you - well, I've told you this - you have the greatest voice I think I've ever heard.

Ms. FORBES: Oh my goodness. Thank you.

SIMON: What made you decide to just sort of go for the simplest possible treatment with that?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: Well, yeah, 'cause I think that that's, it's just the right way to expose the sort of - the inner beauty of the whole piece.

SIMON: To establish, we're doing our Andy Williams Christmas special with Pink Martini. We have a fire going here in Studio 4A and a basset hound somewhere around. Or it's a golden retriever, I didn't see.

China, let me turn to you for a moment. Is holiday music ever just a song or do you always have to be aware when you perform it that it's it's sacred to people?

Ms. FORBES: I think it is sacred. I think that, at least as the singer of the song, I feel like there's that collective, you know, we're all made up of this sort of nostalgic fabric of our entire lives, of these songs and what they mean to us and the memories we have that are associated with them. So, when we sing them, I think all of that comes flooding back.

I feel it and I feel like everybody seems to feel it. So there is something sacred, whether it's, you know, Christian or not. You know, it doesn't really matter to me. I'm not religious but it's like the closest I ever feel to spirituality is through music and so at Christmas or singing holiday songs, that is religious for me, even though it has nothing to do with Christ.

SIMON: I was hoping we could go out on, I guess if I had to nominate a favorite song this time of year, it's "Little Drummer Boy." Do you know anything about this song?

Mr. LAUDERDALE: It was written in 1958. Harry Simeone was one of the writers and it was first recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale.

SIMON: Chorale, um-hum. "Little Drummer Boy" always gets me. I just think of a little boy staring at the major and doing his best.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Drummer Boy")

PINK MARTINI: (Singing) Come, they told me, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. A newborn king to see, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. Our finest gifts we bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum. To lay before our king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum-rum-pum-pum-pum-rum-pum-pum-pum. So, to honor him, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, when we come.

Little baby, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, I am a poor boy too, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, I have no gifts to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, that's fit to give our king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pump-rum-pum-pum-pum-rum-pum-pum-pum. Shall I play for you, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, on my drum.

Mary nodded, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, the ox and lamb kept time, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, I played my drum for him, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, I played my best for him, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum-rum-pum-pum-pum-rum-pum-pum-pum. Then he smiled at me, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, me and my drum. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh...

SIMON: Thank you so much. Thomas Lauderdale, China Forbes, everyone else with Pink Martini, thanks so much. Your new album, "Joy to the World," available in Starbucks everywhere.

Ms. FORBES: Everywhere records are sold.

SIMON: Everywhere records are sold, that's what I meant to say. And also thanks to Ari Shapiro. Thanks very much, Ari. And for more Pink Martini, you can come to our website, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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