Carols off the beaten track

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HOLIDAY classics often get a modern makeover this time of year and if one did not know any better, there’s more to Christmas carols than just Jingle Bells and Joy to the World.

And no, it’s not that Hawaiian Christmas song Mele Kalikimaka.

At a recent choir performance by Cantus Musicus, the Kuala Lumpur-based international mixed chamber choir sang a refreshingly different tune that came in the form of lesser known traditional carols from Italy, Norway, Czech Republic and Russia.

“We wanted to present some Christmas carols that were off the beaten track which means you will not be able to get it so easily on a CD and you will not hear it as background music in a supermarket,” said choir director Lisa Ho, after performing at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Kuala Lumpur.

The renowned choir was formed in 2003 and is made up of 36 singers from 11 nations who share a passion for choral music.

The evening kicked off with In the Bleak Midwinter, a carol based of Christina Rossetti’s poem, followed by more than a dozen of pleasant delights including O Sanctissima, a traditional Sicilian carol and Gaudete, a medieval Latin chant from a Swedish and Finnish sacred song book called the Piae Cantiones.

Audiences also received a crash course in music history when Ho explained how Patapan, a French Burgundian carol from 1720 became the prototype for The Little Drummer Boy.

Though unfamiliar to Malaysian ears, these carols are deemed rare because of Malaysia’s Anglo-centricity.

“We tend to sing more English and American hymns and carols but there are lovely traditional carols from Russia, Italy, Czech Republic and Norway which are very beautiful but no Malaysian would get a chance to listen to because they’re not in those countries when Christmas is being celebrated,” Ho said.

Predominantly folk tunes that have been rearranged to make them relevant for modern times, Ho said some of the songs the choir sang were her own personal arrangements.

While some carols have been translated into English to help English-speaking audiences understand a song’s meaning, the choir is no stranger to singing in foreign languages.

Cantus Musicus often perform five to six shows a year, all free of charge for music lovers.

“When we sing at the Finnish church, we will sing in Finnish and it’s something we have to learn,” she added.

Christmas without carols are as unorthodox as it can get but truth be told, our experience of these joyous holiday tunes have been confined to shopping malls and the customary John Hughes holiday film.

These days, the sight of a group of children going from house to house carrying tunes of festive cheer are hard to come by. Ho recalls going up on buses to sing carols when she was a child on top of joining a carol group organised by her church. The latter too, is rare these days.

“You don’t see that a lot simply because it is difficult for churches to organise carolling parties and it takes somebody who is really interested in doing this,” said Ho.

She added back in the day, a police permit was required for carollers to go from house to house.

“Nowadays, life has become so fast tracked that those old traditions of carolling, going from house to house is no longer there.”

In the age of digital music, much has indeed changed.

“We hear a lot of CD music and if you wanted a carol, you just push play which is also quite nice but it’s a shame because there is less interaction with a CD than you would have if you had a group of people coming over to your house singing and you would serve them something to eat afterwards.

“That camaraderie, that fun and that relationship is perhaps a little bit lost in modern times,” she said.