Have Yourself A Trinny Parang Christmas

San Jose Serenaders, others perform Spanish-language Christmas music on English-speaking island.

The San Jose Serenaders are Trinidad's leading interpreters of parang. Throughout "parang season," from October through December, you can hear the music across the island.

"The way we sing our Christmas carols in Trinidad is quite different from your traditions in America," explained Michael Lezama, co-founder of the San Jose Serenaders, a 10-piece group of Trinidadian carolers.

"Throughout the season we go door to door with our percussion instruments, guitars, mandolins and cuatros [small four-stringed guitars of Venezuelan origin] in hand and sing through the night. We'll stay up until two, three, even four in the morning as strangers invite us into their homes. We sing and they let us partake of their eats and drinks."

Trinidad's more than 40 parang groups perform a style of music rooted in neighboring Venezuelan parranda. In colonial times, Trinidad, like Venezuela was ruled by the Spanish.

"There are 2 schools of thought about how parang ended up in Trindad", explained Lezama, who co-founded the San Jose Serenaders in 1967. "Trindad was ruled by Spain until the British arrived in 1797. The seat of government was in the state of Oriente, in eastern Venezuela. Christian monks brought Spanish culture to Trinidad.

"The other school of thought alleges this music came from trade," said Lezama, now in his 50s and serving both as a percussionist and band manager. "Guiria, Venezuela, is just across the channel from Port of Spain, and there was a massive exchange of trade. No roads go from Guiria to the Venezuelan interior, and it was actually easier to reach Port of Spain than the rest of Venezuela. They brought over goods and this part of their culture as well."

While many of the songs in the Serenaders' repertoire, such as "La Parranda," come directly from Venezuela, their musical roots extend to other parts of the Caribbean as well, incorporating Dominican merengue and Puerto Rican salsa in addition to Venezuelan gaita.

What is even more remarkable about parang's popularity in Trinidad is that the music is sung in Spanish. "Only about 2 percent of our population speaks Spanish," explained Deborah Joseph, an English teacher in Trindad and lead singer of the San Jose Serenaders. "But what's incredible is that parang cuts across all social and racial boundaries." The band's repertoire consists of traditional parangs about the birth of Christ and the Annunciation.

"Everybody enjoys parang in Trinidad," Joseph said. "They know what the songs are sung about but they don't understand the language. Just about everyone understands these songs, even if they know virtually no Spanish."

The group plans to branch out into "political parang" in the future, following a path blazed both by calypso, Trinidad's musical newspaper, as well as Venezuelan parranda, which has become more political in recent years thanks mainly to one of the country's more popular bands, Un Solo Pueblo.

Venezuela parranda groups traditionally went door to door, singing about the nativity and asking for gifts, treats, liquor and food. Un Solo Pueblo performs such patriotic anthems as "Viva Venezuela," set to a parranda melody, in addition to parrandas composed for political candidates, governors, ministers and even Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Undeterred by Trinidad's limited Spanish-speaking population, Lezama has begun composing political parangs, including "La Historia de San Jose," about Trinidad's capital during Spanish rule. Lezama is determined not to adopt English into parang, insisting that "our tradition needs to be maintained."

Other groups have created soca-parang, a "hands in the air, jump up" style of Christmas music complete with English lyrics.

The San Jose Serenaders will spend the last week of the Christmas season in the United States. On December 16 they kept 300 Trinidadian-Americans up past 4 in the morning paranging through the night at the Rose Castle club in Brooklyn.

While they may have had to alter their late-night, door-to-door night performance schedule to accommodate American crime statistics, they haven't changed their sleeping habits on their behalf.