Trinidad's music takes flight at Parang

I'd spent the daylight hours observing the variety of Trinidad's bird life, especially the multitude of bright plumage, and was contemplating a quiet night.

But then I remembered why I'd booked my short stay at Joan and Matthew's bed and breakfast in Arima. It would give me more local color than staying in a hotel, I'd figured.

So I should not have been surprised when Matthew announced that they were going to the Parang Festival and asked if I would like to join them.

"This will be very good. You will hear the real indigenous music of Trinidad," he said enthusiastically.

That was good enough for me.

"Where is the festival being held?" I asked after we got under way.

"Lopinot," Joan replied.

"The town was named after a French count who lived there," Matthew elaborated.

Quietly I tried to recall the map of the island. I didn't remember seeing any place called Lopinot and wondered where on earth we were going as we wound our way around dark corners on an empty country road.

"How far is it?" I asked, trying not to sound like an impatient child on a holiday road trip.

But just as fathers do on those trips, Matthew reassured me with that stock reply, "Only a few more miles."

Then in the middle of nowhere, we drove around a corner and there were cars everywhere. The village of Lopinot had seen a massive explosion in its population.

And Joan and Matthew seemed to know every second one of them.

I was keen to learn more about the tradition of Parang (derived from the Spanish word parranda, which means to party or to spree), so that I would understand it better when I saw the bands compete.

So my hosts asked friends, who asked others, and finally I was introduced to Debbie Joseph, a singer in the San Jose Serenaders, who had just toured North America.

She told me the music was a fusion of Venezuelan and Calypso from the old days of slavery, and that it had an upbeat tempo with a Spanish style.

"What does it express?" I asked.

"The themes center around the Annunciation: that Mary would have the Christ child, and the coming of the three kings. You can see that it is linked to our Catholic roots," she answered.

Parang forms part of the celebration of the 100 days of Christmas, which starts at the beginning of October. As such, the competition of the bands has become an annual event.

"Parang is part of the island's traditional way of life," Ms. Joseph added. "People would visit houses, and those inside and out would serenade each other in Spanish."

The custom is much more popular in rural areas than in Port of Spain, where, she says, the young people are influenced more by the Jamaican reggae-style music.

But tonight we were definitely out in the countryside. And the crowd of thousands had come from near and far.

About 25 bands were scheduled to play that night. Each of them performed three songs, introduced by the lilting tones of a radio DJ whose enthusiasm never waned.

Instruments included the mandolin, violin, flute, and maracas, as well as guitars. Traditional toc toc, a pair of wooden sticks, kept the rhythm.

Some of the local bands had five members, others had a dozen. They dressed in black and white outfits - as though they were dressed for church - or in rainbow colors reminiscent of the island's birds. Each band had its own group of supporters.

The crowd danced through the night. The young, inspired by the rhythm, had eyes only for each other.

Of the many bands I saw that night, the one I remember best was a family group dressed in red and green. (See photo.) It comprised several generations, from the grandfather playing the mandolin to a very young girl who stood out front onstage.

Probably 10 years old, she swayed to the beat of the music, her movements at times almost imperceptible. But her eyes took in the crowd, as if she were in control, and she sang the chorus with style.

For me she epitomized the color and spirit of Trinidad.As the sign above the stage said: "Keeping the tradition alive."

For more information about Trinidad, phone 888-595-4TNT; e-mail tourism-info@tidco.co.tt; or see www.Visit TNT.com. For the bed and breakfast, Chateau Guillaumme, in Arima, phone: (868) 667-6670; e-mail: joan william@yahoo.com; or visit www. caribsurf.net/cguillaumme.

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