Think of the music of Trinidad and Tobago and the sharp report of steel pan drummers parading at Carnival is most likely to come to mind. Those rhythms and melodies are associated with the ecclesiastical calendar — it is an ecstatic sound for fitting a month’s worth of partying into a day or two before Lent begins. But another Trini music tradition is part of a religious holiday that draws near this month. When it’s Christmas, it’s time for the sound of “soca parang.” And whether listening or dancing to this Yuletide party music, Trinbagonians are all but sure to be enjoying rum, whether straight or mixed in an island eggnog called ponche creme.
The “parang” in soca parang is a traditional Christmas music performed in former Spanish colonies, from Venezuela to Puerto Rico. It is a string-band sound, led by the strumming of the cuatro, a sort of cross between a guitar and a ukulele. You can still hear traditional parang music in Trinidad, but for the most part, it has been combined with soca, the funky, densely percussive pop that grew out of, and eventually eclipsed, calypso. Many American radio stations switch to Christmas music during the holidays. (For some, the holiday that starts the Yuletide season seems to be Labor Day, if not the Fourth of July.) So, too, Trinidad radio listeners mark the Christmas season by when local stations go into heavy rotation of soca parang.
A classic of soca parang is “Drink a Rum” by calypsonian Lord Kitchener. The lyrics tell of being in London during Christmas and making it a Trini-style holiday by having a drink of rum and a ponche creme.
Just as parang music stretches across the Caribbean and takes on the musical flavor of different islands, so, too, the basic ponche creme concept varies throughout the West Indies. In Puerto Rico, one enjoys coquito, which is heavy on coconut cream. In Barbados, rum cream is likely to forgo the eggs. And the recipe given me by top Bajan mixologist Dameain Williams adds in chocolate, both in the guise of creme de cacao and straightforward chocolate syrup. “Christmas would not be the same without the presence of a rum cream,” Williams says. His version combines 2 1/2 ounces dark rum with an ounce each of condensed milk and vanilla milk and 2 ounces of plain old milk. Half an ounce of creme de cacao, a tablespoon of chocolate syrup, a teaspoon of coffee, and half a teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg give the Barbados style of the drink its mocha mojo. Blend at high speed for about half a minute and then serve over ice.
To make the drink as they do in Trinidad, beat four eggs and the zest of one lime together in a mixing bowl. Blend in a can of condensed milk and a can of evaporated milk and a cup of rum. Add to the batch some ground or grated nutmeg and a tablespoon or two of Angostura bitters. As with the Bajan version, serve over ice.
A note on Angostura. It’s only natural the bitters are a product of Trinidad. But there’s a good reason for dousing a Christmas quaff with Trinidad’s signature product, and it has to do with how Angostura tastes — for many, a mystery. I’m perennially surprised at how few people know what the classic aromatic bitters taste like. Angostura may be commonplace, but it also seems strange. There’s the little bottle drowning in the large paper label. And in it is a liquid so potent that it is normally used in drops and dashes. Young cocktailians know to use Angostura in making a Manhattan, but there aren’t that many who recognize the flavor the bitters impart. In other words, few have shaken out a dash or two onto their palms and licked it. Those who do find that Angostura is almost Christmas in a bottle.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?