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Parang Bands Are Trinidad Tradition

December 21, 1998

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad (AP) _ This time of year, the ``singing postcards″ are on nearly every street corner, determined to carry on a Christmas tradition even if hardly anyone understands a word of the songs.

They are parang bands, a cultural phenomenon in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. They begin popping up in November and disappear by early January, but with Christmas just days away, the singing groups are hitting their peak.

Imported from nearby Venezuela, the music has a lively, decidedly Latin beat. ``Parang″ is a mispronunciation of ``parranda,″ the Spanish word for ``spree.″

One theory holds that Spanish missionaries began the tradition while trying to teach the natives the Christmas story through song. Another claims that Venezuelans who came to Trinidad to work the coffee and cocoa plantations brought the songs.

``But both _ or neither _ might be true,″ said Gail Ganpat of the parang group Los Buenos Parranderos.

In this English-speaking country populated mostly by descendants of African slaves and East Indian immigrants, what makes parang’s popularity all the more surprising is that the lyrics are in Spanish.

Traditionally, the language of parang was a creole patois or even pseudo-Spanish created as Trinidadians mimicked the sounds of Venezuelan workers, Ganpat said. The trend now is a return to linguistically correct Spanish.

The tradition took root during the Spanish occupation of the island from the early 1500s to the British takeover at the end of the 18th century, when itinerant groups of men and their guitar-like cuatros went from farm to farm like carolers singing Christmas songs.

The singers would get a taste or two of rum from the locals in appreciation and move on to the next house or farm.

The once-rural tradition has gone nationwide.

``Now it has come to the cities,″ said Cynthia Ross, president of the National Parang Association.

Parang seems to be everywhere. There are concerts, festivals and contests that often last all night.

During competitions, bands are given two topics that they must sing about _ themes such as the manger scene, the streets of Bethlehem, or the journey of Joseph and Mary.

Today the institution of parang has given rise to such variations as the use of electrified instruments, women singers and even a genre of music know as ``soca-parang,″ a calypso twist on the old recipe.

In some cases, the songs are now sung in English. ``Gimme rum, gimme whiskey, gimme something to eat, and we will sing you our Christmas songs,″ goes one.

But part of the Parang Association’s mission is to stick to the age-old lyrics, which Trinidadians still applaud even when they don’t understand a word.

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