Caribbean Matters: Celebrating Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago with parang

It’s the Christmas holiday season in the Caribbean and as you might expect, celebrations there don’t feature snow, fir trees, or reindeer. Traditional Christmas events abound, with music and special foods, which vary from island to island and are also connected to countries in the Caribbean basin mainland.

This year, we’re going to explore a holiday tradition in Trinidad and Tobago! T&T is an English-speaking country and remained part of the British Commonwealth after independence, but during its early history, it was a Spanish colony. After the end of slavery, Venezuelans migrated to the island to work on cocoa plantations.

The parang Christmas holiday tradition on the islands is of Venezuelan origin. 

RELATED STORY: Caribbean Matters: Holiday celebrations take to the streets with parrandas, Junkanoo, and Gombeys

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

Avah Atherton wrote “The Surprising Origins of Parang, Trinidad and Tobago’s Christmas Folk Music” for Smithsonian Folklife magazine in 2021.

The raucous  sound of a cuatro and maracas spills from a variety store in Arima, a borough in eastern Trinidad. A woman in a long  wrap skirt stands nearby, hips swaying in time. Behind her, whistling along,a street vendor measures out bags of the bright red sorrel that will flavor his customers’ Christmas  drinks. A red-striped minibus, one of our “maxi-taxis,” stops at the curb, and as the doors open, passengers nod their heads, tap their feet. The driver’s arm, hanging out the window, slaps out the beat against the warm metallic frame. Rhythm is in our blood and bones.

This present cacophony is a mix of woody percussion and strings. The song is “Cantando  Glória,” one of many that reference the birth of Jesus Christ. Few Trinidadians would understand the Spanish words, as our official language is English. Yet, in Trinidad and Tobago, this traditional folk music, parang, has come to represent our Christmas.

Parang has a history that dates from the late eighteenth century when cocoa farmers from nearby Venezuela were brought over to develop plantations in Trinidad and Tobago (or T&T, as we call it). These Spanish-speaking farmers settled in communities like Lopinot, Arima, Santa Cruz, and Moruga. They were called cocoa Españols, which eventually became cocoa panyols. They carried over one of Venezuela’s cultural traditions, the parranda navideña. During the Christmas season—October into January—groups of singers, known as parranderos, visited the homes of friends and family to share aguinaldos, or “gifts” of  Christmas songs.

Parranderos, then and now, performed a range of music accompanied by Venezuelan instruments like the cuatro, maracas, and guiro. They would sing a serenal to announce their arrival, followed by aguinaldos like “Ave O Maria” and “Cantando Glória,” before saying their goodbyes with despedidas.

This half-hour documentary, “A Tree With Roots Music,” explores parang music in Trinidad.

From the YouTube video notes:

Filmmaker David Bettencourt and Musician Andrew Murphy travel to Trinidad & Tobago to explore its musical traditions. In the remote valleys we find a unique style called Parang, remnants of early Venezuelan immigration and Carib peoples who inhabit the island.

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When parang music is discussed, the name and voice of Daisy Voisin, who was dubbed “The Queen of Parang,” is sure to be heard. Interestingly, Voisin did not start off her early life as a singer—she was 46 years old when she stepped into the role.

DAISY VOISIN: QUEEN OF PARANG (1924-1991)

Alexandra Daisy Voisin was a deeply religious and devoted person to La Divina Pastora (The Virgin Mary of Siparia). When she ended her mortal reign as Parang Queen of Trinidad and Tobago, her body was returned to the church where, eighteen years ago, she had received a message to spread parang throughout the world. And since that time she continued to do just that.  

She was born at Carapal, Erin on September 23, 1924, in a family consisting of six girls, of which she was the youngest.

As a young girl growing up in Lorensotte, Daisy was involved in school concerts where she performed as a singer. To pursue a career in singing was the least of her ambitions; to her, singing was a hobby. 

She later gained employment as manageress at the Consumer’s Cooperative in Palo Seco. In 1960, she was appointed to a clerical position at the Family Planning Association and it was during that period of  her life that she became involved in parang.

ARRIVAL OF THE QUEEN In 1968, she joined the Siparia Village Council, Fyzabad Choir and Morne Diablo Group. Her first opportunity to lead the Morne Diablo Choir in parang was in 1974, when the lead singer, Francis Molloy, became ill and had to be hospitalized. 

Her stepfather, Lucien Bravo, whom she called “da da”, had given her all the help he could. Her first solo “Aquinaldo” was partly composed by him.  

Lucien had predicted that she would be a queen one-day.

Have a listen as Voisin and La Divina Pastor perform “Alegria.”

Lyrics:

Alegria Alegria

Alegría alegría se nació el señor Para salvar al hombre y ser su redentor En Belén de Judea la virgen María, “eso es el niño, el rey” decía Entrando la sala del recibimiento, y yo les cantaré acerca del nacimiento En una nochebuena, dulce resplandor, es la gran estrella anunció el señor En el comedero de aquel ganado, María parió el Dios soberano Nació un profeta en pueblo de Belén, con una estrella en el frente para predicar el bien La virgen María y el santo José son los padres buenos de este niño rey Doce de la noche, nació el verdadero y lo bautizaron día seis de enero

Joyful joy, the lord was born To save mankind and be his redeemer In Bethlehem of Judah the virgin Maria said, “this is baby, the king”. Enter the reception hall and I’ll sing about the Nativity. On Christmas Eve, glowing softly is great star that the lord proclaimed. In a cattle feeder, Mary gave birth to the sovereign God. A Prophet was born in the town of Bethlehem, with a star ahead, to preach the good words. The virgin Mary and saint Joseph are the good parents of this boy king. Twelve o’clock at night, the rightful one was born, and they baptised him on the sixth day of January.

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Here’s another performance of “Sereno Sereno.”

Moving on from the parang music, there is of course food to go with it!

Travel Pulse:

No Caribbean celebration is complete without food, and a parang fete boasts specific Christmastime dishes and drinks. Partygoers usually dance while sipping cups of punch de creme, an alcoholic eggnog spiced with rum, or fresh ginger beer or sorrel, a fruity crimson drink made from sorrel flowers. Pastelles, a Trini form of tamales, made from steamed cornmeal and stewed meat wrapped in banana leaves are always a highlight, along with paime, a sweet version of pastelles created with coconut and dried fruit. Other mainstays include rum-soaked black cake and pelau (chicken and rice.)

Just looking at the food in this video from Foodie Nation has me hungry!

Hope you’ve enjoyed your holiday visit to Trinidad and Tobago. Be sure to check out the comments, where I’ll have videos of Trini chefs demonstrating their recipes! Hope you will try to make some of the dishes, if you haven’t already!

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