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A serious parang jam

By Terry Joseph
December 10, 2004

Perhaps the clearest indication a little learning could be a dangerous thing is the disdain in which parang is held by most intellectuals polled on this topic during my 25 years of writing on indigenous arts, by their own admission a position predicated largely on the premise that singers of this music frequently mispronounce its Spanish lyrics.

Meanwhile, those to whom Spanish is native applaud The Lara Brothers in Panama and Mexico. Parang groups visiting Venezuela and other South American countries also report rapturous appreciation even as those who learnt the high school version of the language continue to accuse paranderos of spouting gibberish.

Quite unfortunately, detractors included senior media officials (present company certainly not under scrutiny here), whose dismissal of parang music manifested as reluctance to give it fair space, conceding only fluffy visuals, pictures of female lead singers in swirling floral print dresses with roses in their hair, or the novelty of a young boy playing the maracas; those choices inspired by motives unrelated to promulgation of an indigenous art.

Consequently, in the crucial mid-20th Century, when other forms of local music flourished through media exposure, parang simultaneously suffered from deficiency of mainstream spotlighting in much the same way contemporary chutney has been virtually quarantined to radio stations that carry Indian programming exclusively. A parang band of whatever sophistication was referred to as "a parang side", inferring ad hoc collections of drunkards intent on "mopping" liquor, that perception stretching to insist singers offer only a cacophony of gargling noises in exchange.

Today's anxieties over personal security, having reduced willingness to let unfamiliar (and more than likely inebriated) men into homes where they're not specially invited, extinguished parang's other major marketing tool (as has also been the fate of carol-singing), social conditions conspiring to jam the spread of this thoroughly legitimate music which, as its primary motive, sought only to carry messages of the birth of Jesus Christ.

In a country that exploits every opportunity to congratulate itself on diversity and tolerance, the music with which an appreciable percentage of the population identifies has been-to larger degree than comparable niche arts-muzzled by those best positioned to help it integrate and mostly on the basis that singers know not of what they speak; that assessment coming from those who majored Spanish and considered themselves certified defenders of the purist version.

Whereas the majority of early calypso was sung in broken French, a patois that enjoyed popularity in both rustic and urban environments, it was spared the level of insult heaped upon paranderos whose lyrics were not the lingua franca of city-folk; inviting the conclusion that people who speak or sing pig-Spanish should know their place and stay in the hills of Paramin, Santa Cruz and Arima, the forested section of Sangre Grande, or distinctly rural areas like Siparia and Rio Claro.

The concomitant pampering of calypsonians, who turn everyone else's language into whatever they thought they heard continues to this day, even where intended as derogatory to "Chin", "Nani" or French-Creole targets but similar latitude is not accorded Papa Ghun, lest he confuses magnanimity with weakness, grows impertinent through familiarity and begins to consider himself one of "us".

Notwithstanding the sheer sweetness of strumming in triplets on a finely-tuned cuatro, the amazement of a homemade box-bass well fingered, the mandolino cuddling his instrument for an intricate cascade or a flautist whose every trill imports merriment, the official parang inspectors' reference position remains rooted in impromptu language exams for the lead-singer.

Calypso meanwhile substituted and then institutionalised "lavway" for the French "le vrai", turned "cannes brulee" into "canboulay" and later "camboulay", then went to Africa to similarly abuse "kaiso", which originally meant "bravo" or "encore", corrupting their new-found buzzword to the point of making it interchangeable with description of the art itself.

But just let Miss Parandera get one word wrong, mistakenly sing "esposas" (Spanish for "handcuffs") instead of "esposa" (which means "wife") and my well-educated friends will jostle each other to call in the language police.

Nowhere in their thinking is factored the philosophy, theatre, motive, camaraderie or cultural flavour that is parang, nor does consideration of its large fan-base increase the art's ranking.

If only because parang has survived such a hostile reception, it at least qualifies for a hearing, taken in the absolutely jolly spirit intended, uninterrupted by schoolmaster syndrome. No parang song has ever created animosity, incited anarchy, induced horning, glorified carnage, supported drug abuse or unprotected sex, condoned domestic violence or maligned any person.

With so noble an outlook and given our current social circumstances, you'd think we need more parang rather than less. Instead, we seem to be doing everything possible to jam it, or at least deny the music access to leverage opportunities; all because we got to go to high school and learn Spanish while some of the people who stayed true to their cultural heritage didn't, or maybe, couldn't.

That, my dear friends, hardly reflects the spirit of Christmas, whereas parang defines it in those communities where appreciation of indigenous art is unrestricted by scholarship.

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