Christopher Castagne: “Young parranderos like us, we sing everything”

Musician Christopher Castagne on the roots of parang, Trinidad’s traditional Christmas music, and how the sound is also a way of life

Christopher Castagne. Photograph by Arnaldo JamesChristopher Castagne. Photograph by Arnaldo James

It’s really hard to explain, the feeling you get when you hear the boom boom boom of a box bass, or the sh-k-t sh-k-t of a marac wafting in the breeze. You jump out of bed to find a band paranging your neighbour, pick up your cuatro, and run to join them at 4 am Boxing Day morning, and find yourself next afternoon, miles away, with people you never knew, inside their house, sharing and laughing with them.

I find that it embodies the true spirit not only of Christmas but who we are as Caribbean people. Parang is a culture, literally an approach to living life, one which strongly values community and family, generosity and sharing and looking out for one another. And, in all of this, enjoying life to the fullest — and I don’t mean materially, but I mean being truly happy.

I grew up in Trincity [a suburb east of Port of Spain], which is not an area known for parang, but my neighbours across the road were originally from Paramin. It was a very large family, and they continued the tradition. Ever since I know myself, from about July, we would hear parang, seems like almost every night. I can’t remember the first parang song I ever heard, but I do distinctly remember as a very little boy falling asleep listening to the sound of the box bass, fascinated by the simplicity of the instrument, trying in vain to figure out how it was possible that a wooden box with a string and a broomstick could make all those notes, and so sweetly. I’m sure I dreamed about it too. I know for sure this played a role in my parang life — the box bass is my main parang instrument, although I also play good cuatro and mandolin, as well as pan and guitar.

My mother, Andrea, was a founding member of Los Parranderos de UWI when she was a student, and she would entertain us with stories of sneaking up on friends and relatives, jumping over their front walls to wake them up with a surprise parang in the middle of the night, and more stories of long, dark treks up steep, unlit hillside trails in the countryside, all in the name of parang.

I started playing parang at eighteen with Los Amigos Cantadores from Trincity, which came out of my neighbour’s family’s band. I had just started learning guitar, and they approached me. They needed a cuatro player, and it seemed just like guitar, but easier. I started playing right away, but it took me a lot of practice to really get the strum.

I especially grew to love the National Parang Association’s annual parang festival, which travels around the country to a different village every week, meeting parang icons in these small villages who would tell me the histories and stories about various bands and parranderos. Soon, the scratchy old man’s voice on the radio when a “country parang” band came on would take on an entirely different meaning — what was once annoying I soon came to love. You see, it puts you in a setting like a friendly country village, at the house of a welcoming family, everyone sharing what they have freely — music, food, drink, smiles, jokes.

I played with Los Parranderos de UWI for two years. The professional band I play with right now is Voces Jovenes, from Diego Martin, which is celebrating fifteen years in parang this year. At times I play with veteran parang queen Clarita Rivas — she calls the band Clarita and Friends. I also play with a smaller group of friends from St Joseph called Uno Mas. We’ve been playing together for about six years, but we do mostly house parang — real parang!

Something most people don’t know about parang is that the original word is a verb, not a noun. To parang is synonymous with “to lime” — long ago, people used to use the words interchangeably, at any time of the year. In fact, some old people will still talk about “parangin’ yuhself all over de place” — and they’re not talking about music at all.

The Capuchin Spanish monks, noticing the affinity of the indigenous peoples for music, got this idea to try to use music to help in their conversion efforts. They first tried it in Mexico, and there was such success, it spread. That’s the nice version. Of course, we know there was a lot of brutality and wickedness that went along with it, a very hurtful past that we are yet to properly acknowledge, I think. But basically the Spanish culture eventually replaced the Amerindian one in Trinidad — but I would say mostly on a superficial level, like language and religion. So we get songs sung in Spanish about the birth of Christ. But the true essence of parang, what makes it what it is, both the culture and the music, is much more Amerindian, with African influence also, which is seldom acknowledged. One of the most popular original parang compositions of the last ten years within the parang community, “Don Alberto”, was composed and sung by the [Trinidad] Carib community’s shaman, about a medicine man searching the mountains to get herbs to do his healing.

The parrandero would sing just about life in the villages, on the farms, about the elements, nature, love — similar to any folk music, including kaiso. I sometimes say parang was extempo in Spanish! The research has documented it, but I can tell you from being in the culture — it still happens, and very naturally too.

There are various types or subgenres of parang, like Serenal, Nacimiento, Aguinaldo, Castillan, Estrebillo, Warap or Guarapo, Bolero, Galleron. Some are distinguished lyrically — based on what they sing about — some musically — chord and song structure, time signature, etc. Then there are different styles according to region. So, for example, Lara Brothers from Santa Cruz has a very unique and beautiful style, while La Familiar de Rio Claro from deep South has an equally distinctive but very different style, also very sweet. Parang in Matelot is very different to parang from Tabaquite, and Paramin is a next story again! Then there’s Creche, the French influence, which often has more of a kaiso beat and which long ago was kept very separate from parang. But these days young parranderos like us, we sing everything, trying to preserve the variety but still bring our own flavour to it.

I don’t think any style is better than any other, but my personal favourite song to sing is probably a Manzanare.