Christmas is fast approaching and parang music is in the air, soon to quicken our steps. Parang, having originated in nearby Venezuela, is what makes a Trini Christmas so different from all other yuletide experiences in the Caribbean region, along with the seasonal pastelles and paime, the ponche-a-creme, sorrel and ginger beer.
When I was a child, parang was not as ubiquitous as it is nowadays. In country areas, small ensembles of men got together on Christmas Eve, la Noche Buena, with the single stringed box bass, their cuatros, maracas, toc tocs and voices to move around, serenading households where they were enthusiastically welcomed for a few songs. Freshly brewed strong coffee, black cake and lots of rum and cherry brandy sustained them as they wandered from home to home.
I always waited to hear the merry band slowly arriving in whatever outpost my agronomist father was assigned to and where the coco panyols lived. How many people fully understood the Spanish words they were singing or hearing? Few perhaps but maybe more than people do today. Enough it is to know that the songs are Christmas carols, but in Spanish, and they all have to do with the extraordinary coming of the infant Jesus.
The cultural and linguistic influence of Spanish in Trinidad, specifically, goes back a long way. A wonderful new 48-page book entitled Encore “Lovey”! has now been published to thrill all our hearts and take us back to a different musical time in TT. Its thick back cover contains three CDs of 65 tracks in clear, crisp sound, many with Spanish titles, of historic Trinidad string-band recordings of 1912 and 1914 music by Lovey.
George Robertson Lovelace Baillie (known as Lovey), was a violinist who led his 12-piece string band for most of the first three decades of the 20th century. His music was not the prevailing jazz, nor ragtime, but the book’s authors believe that it was the definite Spanish American instrumentation which marked it out, and Lovey and his band enjoyed enormous popularity.
In 1912, the 12 musicians took a sponsored trip to NYC and were recorded by Columbia and Victor – the first waxings by a band from the English-speaking Caribbean and among the earliest ensemble music on record in the Americas by musicians of colour. It solidified the band’s reputation to the extent that as WWI was about to erupt and change the world forever, Columbia engineers came to Trinidad and recorded even more of Lovey’s music in 1914.
The story of Lovey’s life, music in his time and a world of social history is revealed in the well researched and highly readable essays by the begetters of this newest account of Trinidad’s long-lost musical history – Richard Spottswood, Steve Shapiro and John Cowley. As they point out, string bands were popular in the day, playing paseos (calypsoes) in the pre-Lenten season, waltzes and tangos at social gatherings. But the reason we can learn now about them, since they had largely been forgotten, is simply that Lovey was recorded, in the US.
The authors are correct to emphasise how enormously fortunate we are that Columbia, now owned by Sony Music Entertainment, archived “many of the metal parts used to manufacture Lovey’s records.” So although the recordings on 78 rpm discs had become obsolete, some of the 1912 recordings were able to be inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2002, on Spottswood’s recommendation.
To mark 100 years of the 1912 recordings and the 50th anniversary of TT's independence, Spottswood divined publication of the valuable recordings, and here it is, a decade later.
Fresh transfers from the archives have afforded us the fantastically good sound of the new CDs. Apparently, these recordings are all that remain of the music of the era, apart from the post-1914 Lionel Belasco recordings.
As a result, we do not have a hugely substantial picture of our music of that time. So few bands, of which there were many, were ever recorded and even Belasco’s scores did not survive.
Without the evidence it is difficult to know which Lovey compositions were new hits and which old favourites. The Lovey recordings do, however, reveal how his own repertoire changed over his career in line with prevailing tastes, and the Encore “Lovey”! selection includes rhythms from other Caribbean islands and mainland South America.
In a typically original, insightful and light-hearted recounting of our musical and social history using, as always, newly sourced documents and newspaper clippings of the day, music historian John Cowley paints a vivid picture of the trials of being a musician in the early 1900s.
It would be fair to say that things have improved somewhat, although not enough. Even successful bands like Lovey’s, which relied on a middle-and upper-class clientele, and had the honour of playing for the famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova when she visited briefly en route to Venezuela while on tour, had irregular incomes, forever susceptible to external shocks and the vagaries of patronage and the competitive local market.
Limited-edition copies of Encore “Lovey”! The Historic String Band Recordings are available. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org