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Viva parang!


Living and loving the Caribbean lifestyle, with James Fuller

A dishevelled-looking man steps forward from the shadows. His oversized black T-shirt has seen better days; his leathery face likewise. But he walks with a purpose, and soon others follow, flecks of white dusting their short-cropped hair. Then a young woman emerges in a voluminous dress and strides her ample frame confidently to the head of the group. She stands braced and tall, her posture commanding attention. She catches my eye and smiles. I’m slightly unnerved. One of the men raises a wooden block from his side and begins an uptempo ‘toc-toc’ beat. The others glance at one another, raise instruments from their sides and simultaneously burst into sound, smiles and song.

It’s parang time.

Just as the blooming yellow poui heralds the Caribbean’s looming rainy season, so the first cuatro strum and “Aiiiiieeeeeeee!” accompaniment means Christmas is upon us in Trinidad. To some, listening to Spanish folk music in the southern Caribbean might seem surreal, but parang is as Trini as Carnival. And while its origins might be disputed – whether it was imported by early Spanish colonists or Venezuelans working the cocoa plantations (the cocoa panyols) – its effect is not.

As I stand in the crowded bar, music washing over me, others are swaying on the spot, clapping and foot-tapping in time, humming and singing along, however tunelessly (it’s a fallacy that all West Indians are vocally blessed). A couple breaks out into dance, taking to the bare concrete floor in a swirl of hips and feet, the man holding his partner’s hand high as she twirls repeatedly beneath it in time to the music. Onlookers “Hupppaarrrr!!!” in appreciation. Parang is energy, it is joy. Who cares if you can’t understand the lyrics?

The official parang season runs October to 6 January (Dia de los Reyes: Day of the Kings). To most, it simply means Christmas. Associated with rural Northern Range villages, it was tradition in yesteryear for bands of parranderos to travel from house to house, singing for food, drink and fun. Once it was a common sight; most now take their parang at events like this or the annual competitions and festivals.

Even if its origins are Spanish, Trinidad’s cultural fusion has imparted its own flavour to the art form and in so doing has made it its own. There are the offshoots of soca parang and chutney parang, again with a heavy emphasis on vibrancy and fun, frequently mixing lyrics highlighting seasonal traditions, food and drink with social commentary. Again, it’s infectious stuff, even if some of the double entendres do… ahem… stray some way from parang’s original Christian teachings.

But tonight it’s old school. As the band plays on, the parranderos turn to one another, bobbing and dipping heads, smiling encouragement as they play their instruments. Percussion and strings form the guts of the sound: cuatro, mandolin, violin and guitar mix with maracas, scratcher (güiro), box bass and toc-toc (claves) .

Some might tell you that traditional parang is losing its place in the modern world, but try telling that to the patrons of this bar tonight. And try telling that to a misty-eyed expat Trini sat in a cold, damp west London flat listening to the first strains of Daisy Voisin’s ‘Alegria Alegria’.

The word parang comes from the Spanish parranda, meaning spree, fete or merry-making. And that’s what it signifies: it’s time to celebrate. It’s Christmas – time to break out the ponche de creme. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it holds a special place for me. It’s touch-your-heart and move-your-soul music. Viva parang!