Christmas skanking: Caribbean music for the season

Garry Steckles isn’t a fan of traditional Yuletide music, “classics” like “White Christmas”. Luckily, Caribbean musicians have created their own genre

Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry gets festive. Photograph by David Corio

I’m not, I have to confess up front, a huge fan of traditional Christmas music. I’ve heard Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas” more than once too often, and I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds, of people trying to do something new and different with the same song, probably the best known of all Christmas standards.

The overkill doesn’t help, either. Come late October, no matter where you go, it’s virtually impossible to avoid “Feliz Navidad”, “Mary’s Boychild”, and “Deck the Halls”. I did get some light relief from these staples during a couple of Christmases spent in the United Arab Emirates not so long ago — but that’s another story.

Despite these misgivings, most years, come lateish December, I’m perfectly happy to get into the spirit of the season — and no, I don’t just mean rum. I’m talking about Christmas music.

Caribbean Christmas music, that is.

The tried and trusted melodies are transformed when they’re recorded with a soca, reggae, or calypso riddim. And the equally tried and trusted lyrics take on a new life with a light rewrite introducing a touch of island wisdom or humour. My real favourites, though, are something that’s a rarity in most parts of the world: original Christmas music that embraces both the spirit of the occasion and the region it’s being celebrated in.

Let’s start with reggae, and with one of Jamaican music’s greatest producers, songwriters, arrangers, singers, and studio maestros, Lee “Scratch” Perry. The song I’m thinking about is one that’s been on heavy rotation Chez Steckles, and not just at Christmas, for the past decade or so. It’s called, simply, “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year”, and it’s one of the greatest numbers ever recorded by Perry, whose CV includes more reggae classics than perhaps any producer other than Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Scratch’s employer, teacher, and mentor in his apprenticeship era. The basic riddim’s downright hypnotic, the melody’s equally addictive, and Scratch’s quirky vocals are complemented by Sandra Robinson’s sweet alto.

“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year” also happens to be included on a collection that I’d recommend as a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to add a collection of seriously good Christmas reggae to their music collection: Trojan’s Christmas Reggae box set. It features a smattering of original Christmas compositions and a slew of reggae versions that breath new life into the classics. Among the former are Yellowman’s “African Christmas”, the Ethiopians’ “Ding Dong Bell”, John Holt’s “Lonely This Christmas”, Alton Ellis’s “Merry Merry Christmas”, Desmond Dekker’s “Christmas Day”, and the Maytals’ “Merry Christmas”. The latter include a bunch of the great Jacob Miller’s previously hard-to-find reggae takes on Christmas (think “Deck the Halls” with lots of colly), and reggaefied standards by A-list vocalists such as Holt, Don Carlos, Peter Broggs, and Freddie McGregor.

Speaking of A-list vocalists, it’s not widely known that a not-too-shabby reggae singer by the name of Marley — first name Robert — recorded a couple of Christmas songs during the Wailers’ early years with the aforementioned Clement Dodd’s Studio One label. There’s a slow, semi-ska version of “White Christmas” (“not like the ones I used to know,” sings Bob) and the full-tilt ska “Sound the Trumpet” (the melody of which incorporates a straight steal of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”), the highlight of a various-artists album titled Reggae Christmas from Studio One.

The other great hotbed of Christmas music in the English-speaking Caribbean is Trinidad. The annual celebration of parang, brought to the island from nearby Venezuela, is as much a part of Christmas in Trinidad as midnight mass, ham, turkey, and sorrel, and parang musicians, known as paranderos, trek through neighbourhoods serenading residents, who traditionally show their appreciation with seasonal food and drink.

Trinidad also has an abundance of Christmas music on record by just about all of its leading artists, including Sparrow, Baron, Scrunter, Daisy Voisin, and Machel Montano. My personal favourite Trini Christmas album, though, is a venerable six-tune gem titled A Calypso Christmas, starring three vintage Christmas songs by the incomparable Lord Kitchener: “Christmas Greetings”, “Bring de Scotch for Christmas”, and “Father Christmas”, all showcasing the Grandmaster’s sublime melodies, and all touching on the ample supply of beverages, not of the non-alcoholic variety, on hand for the celebrations.

Christmas with Kitch. I’ll drink to that.