Trinidad And Tobago Remixes Caribbean Christmas Traditions The twin-island nation is famous for the infectious genres of calypso and soca. But during the Christmas season another type of music dominates.

Trinidad And Tobago Remixes Caribbean Christmas Traditions

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The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago is famous for calypso and soca, the infectious music that takes center stage during Carnival. But during the Christmas season, another type of music dominates. John Otis is going to tell us about it.


JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: I'm at a sound check for a band that plays old-time instruments. What you're hearing is the cuatro, a small, four-stringed acoustic guitar. There are also mandolins, maracas and a box bass, Trinidad's version of the washtub bass.


OTIS: These are the key instruments for the making of a kind of religious folk music called parang.


OTIS: During the months leading up to Christmas, parang can be heard just about everywhere in Trinidad. Most of the songs are about the birth of Christ. However, not everyone understands them. It turns out that parang was brought to Trinidad by migrant farm workers from nearby Venezuela. It's sung in Spanish even though the mother tongue here is English.

LOS ALUMNOS DE SAN JUAN: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: This parang group pantomimes to help audiences grasp the Spanish lyrics to songs, like this one about the Annunciation when the Virgin Mary learns she will become the mother of Jesus. The band is called Los Alumnos de San Juan. Its leader is Alicia Jaggasar, who also heads The National Parang Association.

ALICIA JAGGASAR: Parang music is our way at Christmastime to tell the story but in a different language and in a different musical style. So you wouldn't hear it as the normal (singing) hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.

You will hear (singing in Spanish).

OTIS: Now, here's how it sounds in concert.

LOS ALUMNOS DE SAN JUAN: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: On Christmas Eve, parang bands go house to house until the wee hours in an exuberant form of Christmas caroling. But they must adhere to some elaborate musical etiquette to gain entry.

JAGGASAR: You have to do a serenado from outside, and in that song, you have to actually say who you are and what you come to do. And it's only when the host hears who you are, then the door is opened. They don't just open it just like that.

OTIS: But once inside, the party revs up, says Michele Reis, a Trinidadian academic and a big fan of parang.

MICHELE REIS: That's what I would wake up to. Christmas morning, I would hear the cuatros, the mandolins as the groups went from house to house.

OTIS: And what do they give you in the house for singing?

REIS: Oh, there's lots of rum flowing. There's food that comes out. There's a lot of alcohol. There's a lot of drinks. And it's just a really festive time, you know?

OTIS: To keep this tradition alive, high schools and colleges in Trinidad hold parang contests, like this one in a Port of Spain park.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

OTIS: Still, musicians are always tinkering with parang in an effort to reach a wider audience.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing, unintelligible).

OTIS: This is one result, so-called soca-parang. It's sung in English so more people will understand and is fused with the frenetic rhythms of soca. Purists complain that the lyrics often glorify girls rather than the gospel, but Jaggasar endorses the hybrid.

JAGGASAR: Because we are the land of calypso and soca and steel band. We like to mix things. That's just our culture.

OTIS: Indeed, her own group likes to stretch musical boundaries.

JAGGASAR: It's Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

JAGGASAR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In fact, one of their most recent recordings is a Christmas-themed version of the global hit "Despacito." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.


LOS ALUMNOS DE SAN JUAN: (Singing) Ah, si, days are shorter, nights longer, the atmosphere filled with love and laughter, joy and care. Here's what - look; we getting ready to head up to Lopinot, the traffic man, we pull up and we ready for the the show. We going and we don't want to miss Los Alumnos (ph).

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