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Wednesday 19 June 2019
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Local Christmas classic surprises

Culture Matters

Christmas secrets of TT

Laughing children

Tug at Mister Santa

Teddy bears and dollies saying “mama”

The fragrance of black fruit cake and red wine

We’ll toast to a special friend of mine

His name is Jesus

Come little children

Round my Christmas Tree

We’ll have a very merry time

We’ll sing, dance and play

To the break of New Year’s Day

We’ll listen to the church bells chime...

– Around the Christmas Tree, Lennox Gray, 1978

IT WAS the 1970s. Afros, war, Black Power and revolution dominated the world. At home, the fervour of independence from British colonialism had begun to wear off as citizens increasingly questioned the contradictions of an oil-rich nation plagued by stark inequality in many spheres. Compounding this scenario was the fact that local airwaves and the lone television station, TTT, maintained a steady diet of foreign music and viewing, causing those in the know to raise an alarm over the damaging effects of cultural imperialism.

It was against this background that Lennox Gray wrote the songs Around the Christmas Tree and Sha-la-la. Although his motivation may have been socio-political, his inspiration was the smells, sounds and memories created by his grandmother at their humble abode in Piccadilly, Port of Spain.

In an interview, Gray recalled wanting to counter the emphasis on a “white” Christmas by documenting the joys of our local celebration, characterised by the pastelles, ginger beer, homemade wine and other elements.

While Around the Christmas Tree is very influenced by the style of American singer Johnny Mathis – soft and very European – Gray’s song Sha-la-la is more reminiscent of the funky, strident song Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But none of the irreverence of the Webber/Rice song here.

Sha-la-la is an immediate 70s classic, that exudes the vibe of the time with the voices of Sesame Street-sounding children, electric guitar and cheerful lyrics. “Tell your granny put the sorrel in the sun to dry/ Make the pastelles, bake the ham/ And now do you know why? .../ How glad I am just to know, my friend/ That you are never far and I will never be sad .../ Groovy lovers in the city walking hand in hand/ Little children make the toyshop like a fairy land/ ... Sha-la-la la-la, just have a happy day/ A happy Christmas Day, la-dee-dee dee-dee ...”

But the song that always held the biggest surprise for me was originally recorded in 1959 by American singer Perry Como. It was subsequently covered by iconic 1970s group the Carpenters and even by Olivia Newton-John and Vince Gill, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. However, despite the foreign star power around this song, undoubtedly the best version is the adaptation by our Mighty Sparrow. In fact, as a child, I had no idea it was him singing and used to think it was amazing that foreigners could know so much about our country.

The song? Home for the Holidays. “... Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays/ ’Cause no matter how far away you roam/ When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze/ For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home/ I met a man who lives in Port of Spain and he was heading for/ San Fernando and some homemade pumpkin pie/ From San Fernando folks are travelling up to Maracas Bay, I’m sure/ To a lovely moonlight picnic, man that traffic is terrific...”

The sentiment of being home for Christmas is a powerful one whatever your religious persuasion. It is possible that Bing Crosby was the one who started the trend of singing about pining to be home with his iconic I’ll be Home for Christmas.

It said that this song became somewhat of a rallying call for American soldiers waiting to go home after the end of the Second World War in 1945. “... I’ll be home for Christmas/ You can plan on me/ Please have snow and mistletoe/ And presents on the tree/ Christmas Eve will find me/ Where the lovelight gleams/ I’ll be home for Christmas/ If only in my dreams ...”

We are fortunate that visionaries like Lennox Gray and the Mighty Sparrow dreamed of a Christmas that truly celebrates our unique foods, music and traditions. The mood of the 70s made it possible as we searched for our identity as a developing nation. In 2018 we are still searching, but perhaps the message is in the music – that everything we are looking for was always here, and the key to unlocking the secrets is already in our hands.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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