With new Christmas album, the Shillong Chamber Choir revives West Asian-influenced carolling traditions of yore
Carolling traditions across the Christian diaspora can be traced as far back as fourth century Rome when songs were first sung to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The tradition of marking the birth of Jesus Christ with music, or carols, is an ancient one. At the heart of the Christmas season lie meaningful hymns and verses composed to beautiful melodies that carollers going door to door sing in perfect harmony and joy to spread the festive cheer. But contrary to what popular culture will have us believe, 'Silent Night' or 'O Christmas Tree,' are rather new age; in fact, there are many ancient carols that have all but disappeared from songbooks which kindle the Christmas spirit.
According to the director of the Shillong Chamber Choir, Neil Nongkynrih, Christmas and carols are about celebrating the biblical story of Christ being born in West Asia. Carolling traditions across the Christian diaspora can be traced as far back as fourth century Rome when songs were first sung to celebrate the birth of Christ.
But of late, Nongkynrih rues, “genuine carols are considered too old fashioned” and are being replaced by love songs set against “snowy lovey-dovey” backdrops dousing out the motifs of Christmas. He invokes the very popular Wham! song ‘Last Christmas’ which is not really about the festival but about broken hearts. On the contrary, he notes, “Christmas is all about healing hearts.”
The Shillong Chamber Choir recently released its festive album, Come Home Christmas for which the choir director dug deep into some forgotten carolling traditions to create tunes heavily influenced by West Asian flavour and language.
In the musical traditions of these regions the end blown flute Ney, the string instrument Oud and the drum-like Darbuka are among the instruments that render rhythm and tone to the carols. Verses have been found in languages like Farsi, for instance, because as the choir’s lead vocalist, William Richmond points out, “it’s believed the wise men that came to visit Jesus at His birth were Zoroastrians,” or Hebrew because “this is the language of the scriptures and a language Jesus Himself spoke in order to read and understand the Word.”
Through his research, Nongkynrih was able to trace a hymn sung in ancient Aramaic, now a forgotten tongue which only a handful can speak. Ancient Aramaic and the carols written in this language have barely survived the passing of time so much so that the choir director was able to track down only the lone, aged Melke Tekin to sing and translate ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ for his album. The trouble with singing these traditional hymns, he points out, is that no one would want to learn a new (read: dead) language when the west has already made a translation available in English. So, instead of Arabic carols like 'Laylet Eid' or 'Sawt el-Eid' one is most likely to recognise the English translations, 'Jingle Bells' and 'Silent Night' respectively.
So also, singing songs in ancient languages is a tricky affair. For Nongkynrih’s choir, “having to sing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in ancient Aramaic was such a tongue twister" that they had to reduce the tempo by to get the pronunciation right before they could take it to the right tempo.
Today, he argues that traditional songs are also being replaced by love songs and verses that spill out our woes rather than centering on Christ. Geography has also played an integral role in pushing these ancient traditions to the sidelines and brought about a western note to carol singing, “most probably at the same time when Coca-Cola changed the colour of Santa Claus from green and brown, to red and white.”
One of the major differences in West Asian tradition and that of western Christmas music then lies in the Christian themes perpetuated by the respective regions. As for the Bible, the West Asian text, which Nongkynrih suggests “is the only authority that we know of,” the Shepherds arrived to see Christ immediately when he is born while the Magi would’ve taken a year or more to travel. However, he points out, “One major defect [in the western interpretation] is the picture of Christ and the mother in a stable full of animals with the shepherds and the Magi together.”
What has also become increasingly popular is Leonardo da Vinci’s manicured “white” Christ as opposed to the Hebrew texts which described Him as a rustic carpenter.
“And so, you can see through time how the music as well has become about this 'wholesome American family' with their Stepford Wives and turkey... and the list goes on. None of this is mentioned in the Middle Eastern text.”
Yet, while western imports might have rendered these verses all but forgotten, for the choir, singing Handel’s 'Hallelujah Chorus' in Hebrew not only marked a return to an ancient tradition – after all, the Bible was first written in Hebrew – but according to Richmond, left the vocalists amazed at how “beautiful and expressive” it sounded. What the song leaves behind is also a sense of togetherness, of an entire community coming together to partake in the festival and celebrate the actual significance of Christmas.