Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Coventry Carol

We are leaving the Caribbean and heading for Renaissance England. I love this carol for its haunting beauty, its very unmodern harmonies, and for its counterweight to the sicky sweetness of so much of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. What other carol do you know of that tackles the Massacre of the Innocents? The darkness is held up to emphasize the brilliance of the light, which broke into a dark world with a much higher purpose than inspiring tinsel and candy canes.

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Friday, 19 December 2008

The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy

Thank goodness for high school choir directors. They give you exposure to all kinds of things that you might have missed otherwise. And if I'd only heard Nat King Cole's version of this song, I'd never have learned to love it. His languid, white-washed version is a study in boredom.

If this one doesn't have an authentic calypso beat, it should not be allowed to see daylight. (I can't figure the graphics for this clip. Nothing to do with the song's lyrics, nothing to do with Island culture. Lazy.)

For an alternate, and rather entertaining version, go here. Seeing the outstanding prima donna from Down Under tackling this one with a group of red-robed, beruffled British choir boys is a lesson in cultural diversity all on its own. And they respected the essential nature of the song too, which was nice.

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Thursday, 18 December 2008

Il est né, le divin enfant

This is a very amateur videoclip of the North Chamber Singers doing one of my favourite French Christmas carols. Why would I choose this one over a more polished version? Well, first of all, they get the tempo right. When this one is done by choirs in French cathedrals, they drag it out at about half the speed, effectively killing it as far as I'm concerned, and turning it into something dirge-like. I used to link this one with Angels We Have Heard on High (another French carol) when I led worship in a little French church and we'd swap back and forth between the two, doing both of them with a lively, sprightly rhythm. Yes, there is a place for the solemn awe of "O Holy Night", but there is also a place for the bouncy joy that this little choir captured. And their English accents are so cute...

I have no idea where these kids are from or anything about their choir. I'm open to enlightenment.

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Wednesday, 17 December 2008

O Holy Night

Josh Groban's Christmas albumIt was Hallmark who killed Josh Groban for me. I was only vaguely aware that such a person existed (yes, I know. I live in a cave) but when the lady at the cash started hawking his Christmas CD, I said no politely, the way I almost always do when somebody at the cash hawks me something, and mentally scratched him off my list of people to be taken seriously.

I mean, it was Hallmark, for crying out loud. That's where I go for cards, not culture.

And then I started looking for Christmas carols on YouTube, and I kept running into him. And I listened. And I revised my opinion. So, for your edification and mine, I am going to let him sing one of my all-time favourite songs of any kind, right here on my blog.

While he may be making high school girls and their older sisters go moony-eyed all over the world, he really has a voice. And I very much appreciate the fact that he sings the song without trying to draw attention to himself. Many a famous voice has turned my stomach when I had to watch the antics of the singer, who may have been mouthing sublime lyrics, but was really singing "Look at me, look at me, look at meeeeeeeeeeeee." Humility on stage is such a rare virtue, and to me at least, a very endearing one.

O Holy Night is one of those songs that I can sing from deep, deep in my guts. "A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices." And the wonderful emphasis of faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall on your knees: a singer's dream.

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Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Sicilian mafia reeling

More good news.

Italian carabinieriRemember in the early 90s, when Italian judges who dared take on the Sicilian Mafia were being gunned down in the streets? The news then gave me a sick feeling in my stomach and I wondered how on earth the Mafia's stranglehold would ever be broken.

I wish I could say it is now extinct, but at least we can say it has fallen on very rough times, at least in Sicily. Italy made a wave of arrests today, depriving la Casa of most of its top leadership. Again.

Italy had to call in the army at one point, but with enough determination, even an organization with such deep roots can be dug out.

The rest of the world should sit up and take notice. A mafia don is not that much different from a warlord. Or a Mexican drug czar. But it takes a massive, sustained effort on the part of both government and the people.

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God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

With an African flavour.

The joyful rhythms of this fifteenth-century carol make it highly adaptable to many different styles, and probably account for its enduring popularity as much as the catchy tune. Any tune that has pleased people for centuries deserves all the attention it gets, as far as I'm concerned. This has always been one of my favourites, in whatever style it's been adapted to.

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Monday, 15 December 2008

Christmas has become a season of increasing frustration for me. It's taken me a number of years to appreciate precisely what was my favourite aspect of the celebrations and in the famous words of Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Christmas used to be the only time of the year you could walk into a shopping mall or a grocery store and encounter truly sublime music. No longer. It's now interminable, tacky, overwrought Christmas pop. I swear, if I have to hear "Rock Around the Christmas Tree" one more time, I will scream. (That one is kind of cute, but one listen per annum is plenty.)

So as a public service, I am going to post a series of Christmas music videos, part of the playlist I've been compiling to console myself in the absence of my Christmas CD's which are far, far away. Warning: my tastes are eclectic, but all of these will share the characteristic of being explicitly religious. You don't have to be religious to enjoy them though. I like music that stands on its own. If you don't like today's offering, come back for tomorrow's. It will be something quite different.

Christmas at BaylorWe're starting off with a small a cappella choir singing "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and "The Blessed Son of God." The first is from a beautiful old German hymn that is almost never done by pop singers, because the intricate interplay of voices is part of its charm. I guarantee you haven't heard this one ad nauseum in the shopping centres. More's the pity. I could hear this one many, many times before nausea set in.

From the "Christmas at Baylor" DVD.

In passing, if you like choral music, try to take in university concert choirs. There's nothing like a choir made up almost entirely of music majors.

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