By Dr Francisca Allard
“Parang is not a tune you know; parang is me, you, he and he and he and he … a parang is a group, a unit.” (Galán, Eugenio [deceased]. Interview: July 12, 1994).
In the midst of all the ribaldry and superficial musical commentary on parang, its essence just cannot be ignored. Its retention of the Spanish language in an English-speaking country somehow defies the critics who have been constantly predicting its impending extinction.
After reading Archbishop Jason Gordon’s inspirational and motivational series on the ‘Family as Domestic Church’, the reality of Parang as being central to domesticity struck with full force, especially in the light of COVID-19 restrictions.
Traditionally, Parang has always been a family-oriented activity that embraces its own mission, which has defined itself as the bringing of the ‘Good News’ in song, to neighbours, relatives and friends.
The ‘Good News’ is the entire Christmas story which is comprehensively related in the aguinaldos that comprise the serenal (name given to both the introductory songs and those sung along the way), the Anunciación (Annunciation), Nacimiento (Birth of Christ) and despedida (farewell song).
The essential value of the aguinaldo lies in its message; the music being relegated to second place. In the early days, simply a cuatro and a pair of maracas were sufficient to accompany the ‘voice’, which took place of precedence in the delivery of the ‘Good News’.
In the past, these male bearers of the ‘Good News’ travelled on foot, beginning their house-to-house visits from October 8 (the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary) to January 6 (The Feast of the Three Kings) of the following year.
“Many times, the group began with a small number of three or four people but by the time they reached the last house the number of parranderos would have risen to twelve or more” (Galán).
This may be described as their form of evangelisation, as viewers were drawn into the activity and soon became active partakers in the mission of bringing the ‘Good News’. Their joy in this simple activity eclipsed the sacrifice of giving up the comfort of sleep and a warm bed. As Galán stated: “You know, during parang time it was bachelor time— man bedding down whenever sleep take him.”
The departed Loretta Mata (spouse of deceased parrandero, Sylvestre Mata) concurred: “Sometimes wives used to see their husbands only after the Christmas season.” (Interview: October 8, 1994).
These parranderos were like pilgrims on a journey where everything does not go well all the time, especially since alcohol (rum) was the brew that kept them warm on the cold nights.
Being in proximity with one another led to fights and disagreements at times, but when a home was reached all was forgotten with the sheer joy of lifting instruments and voices in song. It was the end of dissension and the creation of unanimity.
This bears out the truth that domestic life is not perfect but certain knowledge of what the mission entails is the glue that keeps the family together.
Loderick Espinosa (parrandero) corroborated this idea: “When you see we paranging and the rum start to affect those fellows, and they can’t take the jokes from their partners—man, they used to hit one another with violin, guitar, anything. (Interview: March 18, 1996)
It is interesting to note that although the parranderos, being generally Catholic, maintained their traditional Christmas celebrations (in the Christmas Parang), regular ‘church-going’ and strict adherence to Catholic dogma were alien to them. Loretta Mata said: “Parranderos never really liked formal Church you know, so they used to scarcely attend Holy Mass, but … they used to pray the rosary and make devotions to the saints. In their own way they practised their religion.” (Interview: October 8, 1994).
Their treatment of the biblical text, the ‘Good News’, attests to this fact. The serenal, which is sung either in the yard or on the outside steps, commences the blessing upon the household.
The principal cantor (in his verses) introduces the group to the host, asks that they be invited in, and announces that they have come in peace and goodwill to present songs based on the Christmas story.
This invites participation from the household and soon the entire home is involved in the harmonious ‘gift-sharing’ of the aguinaldos. This is followed by ‘the breaking of bread’ as all partake in the host’s offering of food and drink.
After the rendition of a couple of secular songs, also inherited from East Venezuela, the despedida is sung. In this song, the soloist, supported by his chorus, gives thanks and praise to the host and bids him goodbye with the promise of future return.
The nostalgia that my friends, Dr Moodie-Kublalsingh and Burton Sankeralli have continually expressed for Parang in its unadulterated form (the simple, poignant folk melodies), can now be understood; particularly during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Parang has more or less left the artificial scenario of the stage and returned to the hearth.
The challenge for us parranderos is to maintain that warm spirit of domesticity within a genre of music that is in constant flux.
Dr Francisca Allard is a freelance lecturer in Ethnomusicology & Spanish