Christmas Music Tradition: Jingle bells with ghungroos and bhangra: Christmas gets a twist & desi soundtrack | India News

When you think of the sound of music, you are likely to think of hits like Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue

Christmas Music Tradition: Jingle bells with ghungroos and bhangra: Christmas gets a twist & desi soundtrack | India News

When you think of the sound of music, you are likely to think of hits like Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’, ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! or if you like jazz, the wonderfully atmospheric ‘Christmas’ (1967) by Ella Fitzgerald. Then there is Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ which is still on the 2023 Billboard Hot 100 chart despite being released in 1994.
Dropping a Christmas track is not a tradition in India, but several choir masters, conductors and musicians have been composing tunes and four-part harmonies with Indian influences, and hoping they resonate as universally as ‘Feliz Navidad’ or ‘Silent Night’.Going beyond mere translations of old hymns and popular yuletide carols, or cover versions, their music seeks to celebrate the birth of Christ in newer, more relatable and locally specific ways whether it’s singing old Tamil hymns in country music style or adding bhangra beats.
Alfred J D’Souza, director of Mumbai-based Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy which organises ‘A Festival of Festive Music’ at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) every December, has composed over 50 carols in which he often compares Christ to Krishna and replaces sleigh bells with the sound of ghungroos.
‘Not many know of Xmas music tradition among Punjabis
Alfred J D’Souza is also releasing his first book of his Indian carols next year. The reason for the desi twist is that in a tropical country, one can’t exactly identify with references to a white Christmas and sleighs. “Adding elements like rangoli, sandalwood, jasmine, marigold and mango leaves is better than taking traditional western carols and putting Hindi words with an Indian instrumentation,” he says.
Few are aware of the Christmas music tradition in Punjabi communities, mostly sung in the tappe-boliyan style of folk songs. “Tappe were originally sung by camel riders in Punjab and Sindh to the music of camel bells. Boliyan are usually traditional, passed down from generation to generation and elaborated along the way…But entirely new content has also emerged in recent times..,” writes poet and journalist Nirupama Dutt in the anthology ‘Indian Christmas: Essays, Memories, Hymns’ edited by Jerry Pinto and Madhulika Liddle.
A quick search on the internet throws up slickly shot music videos of ‘Christmas tappe’ with phulkari-clad women celebrating ‘the name of the lord’ in tunes borrowed from old wedding songs like Baage Vich as well as some original tunes. “My new Christmas geet released on December 1, and I will perform it across Punjab this month,” says Romika Masih, a Jalandhar-based singer who gives Christmas a bhangra vibe. Her devotional music has fetched her over five lakh subscribers and invitations to perform live in Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. “Earlier you’d hardly see women step out to record worship songs. Once I started doing so in 2017, several followed,” says Masih, who changed her surname after her conversion to Christianity in 2011.
Delhi too has a vibrant choral singing tradition. Rajinald Vijay Milton was in school in the late 1970s when he heard the hit song ‘Gapuchi Gapuchi Gam Gam’ from the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer ‘Trishul’. With his father already a guitarist and organist in a Delhi church, Milton and his brother spun their own little Christmas adaptation as ‘Prabhuji, Prabhuji Swagatam’. Today, as choir director at YMCA and Christ Methodist Church choir, Milton dare not borrow tunes from Hindi cinema for congregational singing. “It is considered objectionable inside the church. People say they start visualising scenes from movies,” says Milton, who has composed more than a hundred original Hindi worship songs and carols.
His first success was the Christmas song ‘Khamosh Raton ki’ back in 2009. “Today there isn’t a single Hindi-speaking church that doesn’t sing this carol,” says Milton, who has over seven lakh subscribers. His kids Shaun (27) and Shanon (21) have their own YouTube channel called ‘Yeshu ke Geet’ where they are often seen singing their father’s new Christmas tracks or giving quick-fix tutorials on how to play “Hindi Christian songs in three chords”. This year, Milton has released three new Christmas songs. Many singers, aspiring and established, took to creating original Christmas videos and songs during the pandemic lockdown.
Brothers Joel Samuel, Jowin Sam and Johan Paul from Chennai realised how the rich tradition of southern gospel music – from the Cathedrals Quartet to Ernie Haase – and the upbeat tempo of country can be harnessed to spread some cheer in uncertain times. Thus, was born the viral singing trio of The Samuels whose upbeat renditions struck a chord globally. “Our specialty is taking old songs and giving them a new twist. One inspiration was ‘Amazing Grace’ as sung by The Oak Ridge Boys (an American gospel and vocal quartet),” says Joel, who is studying in the theological wing of Serampore College (University) in West Bengal. The Samuels also harmonize old Tamil hymns. “We started singing these traditional Tamil songs, which people hardly remembered in tenor and bass voices. These catchy versions helped us reach more audiences,” says Joel.
Singer-songwriter Rohan Solomon, who is better known as the former frontman of the erstwhile alt-rock outfit Cyanide, has a Christmas chartbuster to his credit. His 2021 song ‘It’s Christmas’ went on to make it to the top 5 in global radio charts. Following its success, Solomon released its video version this month replete with holiday lights, a crackling bonfire and decorations. “It is almost like an uplifting choir. But there are also influences of old Motown records and some Beatles-ish chord progressions,” says Solomon.

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