Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Traditions & Paranda

It's Christmas everyone - cheers! Hope you're with friends and family I'm at home, in my BK apartment, on a Christmas so laidback that the 500 square feet of my living room was somehow more than enough. My mom, brother, aunt and cousins came over and we ate the usual - a turkey seasoned with a good old fashioned red spice paste we call ricado, stuffed with sausage, scallions, etc and cooked on the top rack of the oven. In the usual where-are-we-going-to-have-Christmas session last week, I suggested to my mom that we try roast beef, or cornish hens this year. She answered with a clucking that came from the back of her throat and a whine about how turkey and ham are essential parts of what makes Christmas Christmas. In my mom's house, as well as my Brooklyn one-bedroom, I guess tradition reigns strong - though in all honesty I'm not sure whose traditions we are celebrating. But distracted by the salt fish simmering on the stove, it's simplest to conclude that what makes Christmas Christmas is different for everyone, to every Christian and every pagan.

This year, after Thanksgiving I turned into the worst Grinch of them all. I refused to buy a tree. I flaked out on helping a friend decorate her own tree. I turned down an offer to brave the crazy crowd and see the Rockefeller tree get lit. I turned off Chistmas specials. I told my mother that if we had to exchange gifts for another year in a row, we should wait till the sales the day after Christmas to buy them. Still, somehow the smell of pine, the sight of silly reindeer hats and babies dressed in red and families carrying strollers and gifts on the subway together dragged my spirit out of me in the day or two before the holiday. At my godfather's church on Christmas Eve I sang hyms whose stories I've never really believed, feeling as always a little bit shallow, shrinking from the gaze of others. The we got to Joy to the World, a song I can't help but warm up to, and I belted the notes out as the ladies in their red sweaters and feathered hats waltzed down the aisle for communion.

Singing these songs, so soon after my return from Grinchdom, made me wonder again what was Christmas was all about. Was it Joy? Or was the message Peace? Jesus, the Prince of Peace, he came to be a savior in our midst...Or was it the gift of life, was it myr, frankinsence and gold? My mind wondered to Trinidad, where I've never been but have heard that at Christmas small bands of serenaders or carollers performed their own festive versions of sacred music, usually with guitar, voices and percussion, including an afro-Venezuelan instrument called the marimbola. The word parang, one account says, comes from the Spanish word "parranda," which means merry making. In a Serenal or Aguinaldo, a type of song still sung today, parranderos announce their arrival in song and seek to gain entry to the homes of family and friends to relate the story of the birth of Christ, and to share - yes indeed - in the messages of Joy, Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men.

In Belize, there is a popular music that we call by a similar, Spanish-derived name - paranda. The music makers are called "paranderos" or "parranderros," as well, but the songs are sung all year round - not just on Christmas, and the lyrics to the music (often sung in Garifuna) are not so merry. Nor are they religious songs, though a potent spirituality seeps through the haunting guitar chords. Either way, many of our rich and gritty musical traditions are arguably born out of a tradition of merry making that was most notable in the lives of slaves and indigenous peoples on rare occassions, like Christmas, when black and brown families and friends were allowed to unite, the men sometimes returning from labors that took them hundreds of miles away from home. They speak to our spiritual heritage as much as the hymns and psalms that over the years we have made our own...

I didn't get through this blog entry on Christmas day. In fact, it's a couple days after Xmas and I just finished watching Kanye and Jaime Fox stun the crowd at the MTV awards reruns - Jaime belting out those Ray Charles high falsettos, Kayne throwing his would-be-kinda-sparse-without-the-beat lines into the crowd like curve balls. It was nice to see a performance so sharp yet so simple in contrast to the rings of fire, trap doors, beach scenes and smoke exploding onto stages that were admittedly impressive, but so much overkill. My meaning of Christmas has dawned on me. It's simple - Simplicity. Like Sizzla said:

Simplicity we use to survive
Many find it difficult because they ignorant and hype
Simplicity we use to survive
Do what you doing properly, that's the way through life.

When on Christmas holidays past would you receive multiple text messages from friends? I did, from friends at work, or in the studio, or the road. I think I was with them in spirit. To me, work, celebration and spirituality are often alter egos of themselves. Still, I must admit that I remain one of many souls searching for something that I can give myself completely to. And in that thing, a simplicity of purpose - even on a day with so much fanfare as Christmas.