Sun | Mar 29, 2020

Christmas carols vs popular songs

Published:Friday | December 21, 2018 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
The Jamaican Folk Singers entertaining at the Devon House Bakery with a selection of traditional Jamaican Christmas carols and popular folk songs.
Fab Five has done a number of Chirstmas songs steeped in Jamaican culture.

Although Jamaicans do not have a tradition of carolling through the streets at Christmas-time, groups such as the Jamaica Youth Chorale (JYC) and The University Singers, as well as a wide cross section of churches and educational institutions still see the significance of rehearsing and performing the seasonal songs.

"Carols come from a colonial tradition," said Gregory Simms, principal director of Jamaica Youth Chorale. "But they have been globally accepted as a significant part of the season's celebrations."

According to Simms, there is a space for the creation of carols and songs in Jamaica, but the first distinction that needs to be made is between traditional carols and popular songs.

"Over the years, you find that once a song has one-third of its lyrics connecting Christmas and the birth of Christ, in a broader sense it is called a carol; but consistent with the dictionary definition, these are usually of religious importance, where the lyrics are focused on the meaning of Christmas and take on the arrangement of hymnals," said Simms.

For a long time, persons have inaccurately categorised popular locally produced Yuletide songs, as "ol' time Jamaican Christmas carols, by referencing those with a mento musical style."

Songs such as Santa Ketch up eena Mango Tree by Faith D'Aguilar, and Fab 5's Christmas Breeze a Blow are two from a long list of popular songs that are loosely identified as carols.

Simms noted that during the Yuletide season, children are used to hearing and singing lyrics that speak of Santa Claus climbing down a chimney. But as a child growing up, he shared, "I just surmised that because I did not have a chimney, he would not be coming. It was not until hearing Santa Claus, Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto?, sang by Carlene Davis, that the meaning changed."

Simms added: "As much as how in popular culture we push Mariah Carey's versions of traditional carols - that most persons can't get enough of - there remains the importance for us to continue creating our own music for the season. These songs are specific to us understanding Christmas in our culture."




The question of the Christmas songs' bearing on local culture can be answered easily. In many cultures that celebrate Christmas, traditional carols are constantly recreated to include the prominent music genre in that locale to reflect that specific culture.

"Within the Jamaican context of Christmas, to a great extent, it resides in the music made, and because of this the songs are relevant to generations of the past, present and future, especially the tracks that have wordplay like Yellowman's Breadfruit Roasting on an Open Fire - taking inspiration from Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire - and the songs that are infused with reggae and dancehall rhythms," Simms said.

From the collective responses of a number of secondary-school music teachers and choir directors, both carols and popular songs of the season are still relevant even in schools.

David Reid of Bishop Gibson High School said: "They remain part of the teaching; while more noticeable during the December period, they are still favourites, especially those that connect to where we live."

The music teacher added that traditional carols such as Away in a Manger are also relevant and are easily restructured or made into versions that Jamaicans call their own 'ol time Christmas carols by blending the folk, mento, reggae and dancehall sounds.




Meanwhile, Noel Dexter, renowned musicologist and director of music at The University of the West Indies, said that the rerecording of a few popular American or English carols and songs is the norm, especially in the Caribbean.

Speaking to the origin of the 'ol' time' Christmas songs, Dexter, who is also known for the popular Yuletide song Sing De Chorus, said: "People in the Caribbean have always tried to be more original, especially when I was growing up, and it was, and is, always encouraged during Christmas."

He noted that songs such as Christmas a Come (Mi Waan Mi Llama) are well aged and came about because of a need to form a relationship between the season and the culture.