Piper of parang

Laura Dowrich-Phillips looks at the life of a parrandera musician, Claire Piper, during parang season in Trinidad

Claire Piper (in red) serenades guests at President`s House, Trinidad. Photograph courtesy E Matthews

When Claire Piper puts down her microphone on December 22, she won’t have many finishing touches to add to her home in preparation for Christmas Day. She has been doing it little by little over the last few months: painting a wall there, putting up curtains here. On the two days leading up to Christmas, there’s not much left to do except bake bread and ham, and sweeten her sorrel and ginger beer.

When it comes to putting away her house (as Christmas cleaning and decorating is called locally), Piper, lead singer of the Carib Santa Rosa parang group, does not have the luxury of last-minute preparations.

“We have to fit Christmas preparations into our parang schedule. Because it’s seasonal, it means we can do our lives for the first six months and do parang for the next six months.”

Parang is the music of Christmas in Trinidad. It is believed Venezuelans introduced the music when they came to work on the cocoa estates during the Spanish occupation of the island from 1498-1797.

Embraced today by all races, parang is sung mainly in Spanish (or a local version of it), and though the lyrics were traditionally religious, the songs touch on almost any topic. Accompaniment is usually provided by instruments such as the cuatro (which resembles a small guitar), box bass, guitar, maracas or shak-shaks, as they are known locally, claves or tock tocks, mandolin and “scratcher.”

The parang season, which officially began on September 29, comprises a whirlwind of activities that include competitions, corporate functions, bar gigs, and charity events.

Santa Rosa, one-time former national parang champions, no longer competes, but still performs at numerous corporate events, many of them through its sponsor Carib Brewery, as well as private charity events, and high-profile government functions.

Piper’s parang preparations begin as early as July. After leaving the Ministry of Works, where she is a stores clerk, Piper heads to her Arima home, prepares a meal, then goes to the gym, where she spends about two hours. At 7 p.m. she heads home to prepare for her group’s rehearsals, which are held two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, on her porch.

By October the group meets three nights a week, as the gigs increase in frequency. By the week leading up to Christmas, the group does about two performances a night. December 22 is the last day for performing.

In addition to being the lead singer, Piper is also the group’s musical director and public relations officer, which means she not only has to schedule performances and handle public appearances, but also select the music it will perform during the season.

“Every year we try to introduce two new songs in addition to the 50 older ones we perform. I find new music for us to perform. I love Juan Luis Guerra, Gloria Estefan and other Latin artistes. I would hear their songs and re-adapt the Latin music to the acoustic instruments we play. We do not do covers.”

Santa Rosa’s repertoire also includes all genres of parang music. In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, they do the aguinaldos, which speaks of the birth of Christ and the annunciation, as well as serenale songs, which parranderos traditionally sang at people’s houses with the express purpose of being invited in for food and drinks.

The group also sings guarapo, which can be about any topic, and joropo, which Piper described as salsa’s predecessor. But because the group fuses Latin music with traditional parang, it has also developed a unique sound.

That sound is prominent on a new album, the group’s first in ten years. Launched at the end of September, the album contains three original songs, one of them penned by Piper. It’s called La Promesa (The Promise) and was inspired by a melody that stuck in her head during the 2005 Panorama steelband semifinals in Trinidad.

Piper began singing parang at 19 with the junior San Jose Serenaders. Though her father played parang LPs at home, it was a live performance that he took his family to see that sealed Piper’s fate.

“Gloria Alcazar. She was the lead singer for the San Jose Serenaders. When I was a child, about 13 or 14, I saw her perform for the first time and she changed my whole concept of the music. I thought only old drunken men used to sing, but she was a pretty woman with a beautiful voice. I am glad I had the opportunity to meet her before she died in 1981.”

Despite the toll it takes, rushing from gig to gig, changing clothes in the car, Piper, who also works as Holly Betaudier’s production manager for the television icon’s Holly’s Parang Bandwagon series, said parang is in her soul. “You have to really love it to be in it,” she said.