Maria Josefina’s favorite Christmas ornament is a tiny Puerto Rican tree frog. She’s eager to tell you — in song — why el coqui is so special to her and to her native island, especially at this time of year.
“This is really a beloved song,” the Woodland first-grade teacher said of “El Coqui,” a folk song about folk traditions. It celebrates the unique chirping sound of the little frog (“co-kee, co-kee!”), which is found only in Puerto Rico, and it also stresses the importance of maintaining native traditions, “or the coqui will not sing,” the song says.
Those native traditions include late-night caroling or parranda, Josefina said, which means moving from house to house in a singing, strumming, drumming group that grows noisier at every stop.
“It’s very loud caroling” that contains an essential Puerto Rican flavor, Josefina said. She came to the Pacific Northwest six years ago pursuing better career opportunities but still carries Puerto Rico in her heart.
“I want to share that it’s part of our tradition and culture,” she said. “Getting together to sing and play, that’s still part of us,” she said.
Every culture has its musical Christmas traditions, and you can get an earful of them during the Vancouver Master Chorale’s “Celebration of Carols” concerts this weekend. Carols you’ve heard a thousand times and carols you probably don’t know will be offered by members of the choir and some special guests who’ll sing in Spanish, Mandarin, Russian and Swedish.
That’s in addition to classic carols delivered in German, French and Latin. You’ll hear diverse styles of English too, from the very traditional “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to the very gospel “See Dat Babe.”
“All of the best-loved Christmas carols will be sung,” Master Chorale director Jana Hart said in an email. “Bruce Dunn, principal trumpet with the Vancouver Symphony, has assembled a large brass orchestra, percussionists and harp to accompany this family-friendly holiday concert.”
The concert will also feature a musical setting of the beloved ” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” and, to finish everything off with a bang, an audience singalong of the soaring “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
The singalong is a teaser for a free event the following Friday night: the Vancouver Master Chorale’s second annual “Sing-Along Messiah.”
“We’ll sing all choruses in the entire piece,” Hart said, “accompanied by Laurie Chinn on the mighty First Presbyterian pipe organ.” It recently enjoyed a $140,000 restoration.
“Bring your own score. We will have some to lend,” Hart said. The inaugural singalong “was packed and so much fun last year.”
Mountains, music, ‘mys’
Min Kuang moved from China to the U.S. with her husband and lived for a few years in the Midwest. Then the couple fell in love with the greater diversity — of people and of landscapes — in the Pacific Northwest.
“One foggy morning it took my breath away, like a fairyland,” Kuang said. “I hadn’t seen mountains in a long time.”
She said she also enjoys seeing more “Asian faces” on the West Coast than she did in Iowa and Wisconsin.
Most Americans know little more than stereotypes about China, Kuang said — the primary ones being Chinese food and a penchant for math skills — so she’s hoping to deepen the picture with a truly cross-cultural musical offering. Kuang will add a Chinese twist to Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” by singing a Mandarin version that transmits both her personal faith and her cultural origins, she said.
“I’m hoping I can introduce different aspects of our culture to this community,” she said. “It’s a rich and vibrant culture with 5,000 years of history.”
In Sweden, singer Viola Rohling said, darkness and cold that seem to last all winter long have sparked a sweet cultural backlash called “mys,” which means getting comfy, cozy and communal with friends, food and music. It’s not exactly a Christmas tradition, Rohling said, but it might as well be, since it overlaps so naturally with the season.
“We have a spirit of Christmas that is very sincere, and we celebrate for three days,” she said. “We have a wonderful repertoire of Christmas songs and hymns.” At this weekend’s concerts, Swedish native Rohling and fellow choir member Matt Bay will sing a Swedish-duet version of “O Helga Natt,” that is, “O Holy Night.”
Also contributing a duet to the concert will be Sarah and Vera Tsybikova, cousins of choir member Gannadiy Tsibikov.
“They have amazing voices. The music that comes out of Russian and Ukrainian churches, it’s just incredible,” Hart said.
Before it crumbled, the Soviet Union strictly suppressed artistic and religious expression, choir member and Ukrainian native Anzhela Zamedyanskaya said. When Christians in those countries fled to the United States in the early 1990s, “singing to God” became the new normal.
“The church became our platform and our outlet” in a way it never could before, she said.
“We are singing songs that were sung by our grandparents and great-grandparents,” she said. “Music is the most powerful way to keep communities together.”