Holiday music with an international flare By Fred Koch


I am not always comfortable when it comes to making holiday music recommendations because, "Whose holiday are we talkin’ ’bout anyway?" Is it mine? Or is it yours? Or is it someone else’s? Music is such a subjective and personal experience to begin with that when you factor in the emotional nature of holiday and/or religious music, going out on a limb to recommend music becomes an even heartier challenge. And the other variable in this little "picking holiday music" exercise is the quality of the crop of musical harvests for the year.

To be honest, I feel somewhat limited because I can only respond, with any confidence, to the holiday music that I grew up with and am connected to, and that is Christmas music. So when it comes to making Hanukkah and other holiday music recommendations, I’m at a loss. One year I enlisted the help of a good friend who talked to me, from a Jewish position, about the accuracy and meaningfulness of the lyrics and song themes. This year, though, because I do not have any new Hanukkah picks, it has been suggested I point out that there is a great selection of Jewish music at The recordings section is organized into more than three dozen categories. So if you are looking for recommendations on Hanukkah music, you are sure to find what you need at this well laid-out and comprehensive site.

So with that said, here are my Christmas music picks for 2003.

CHRISTMAS AROUND THE WORLD, by various artists, Putumayo World Music, $15.98,; all ages.

I have become such a fan of world music and all the spirit that it brings that I was excited to hear this new release from a leader in world music, Putumayo. As with all of its CDs, this is a compilation of songs featuring various artists from diverse cultural backgrounds.

This fine CD starts out with a Haitian group from New York performing "Joyeux Noel" followed by a soft jazz/Scottish/ Irish hybrid rendition of "Here We Come a-Wassailing" by an American group, Steve Schuch & the Night Heron Consort. There are wonderful Cajun sounds provided by Sheryl Cormier ("St. Nicholas") and Michael Doucet ("We Three Kings"), rhythms and grooves from the group Cuba L.A. that will get you dancing, as well as a Flamenco version of "White Christmas."

"Christmas Around the World" is full of great interpretations of classic Christmas songs and carols, but my two favorites have to be the gentle and soulful version of "Douce Nuit (Silent Night)" by Kali, an artist from Martinique and Liuba Maria Hevia’s beautiful treatment of "Venid Fieles Todos (Adeste Fidelis)." The first time I heard this Cuban arrangement I didn’t quite recognize it, but soon came to realize that it was indeed one of my favorite hymns as a child, "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

Other songs include "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by the Banks Soundtech Steel Orchestra (Barbados), a gentle acoustic guitar arrangement of "What Child Is This?" by Dan Crary (U.S.A.), Pepe Castillo’s (Puerto Rico) "Anguinaldo Jibaro" and "Paz en la Tierra (Joy to the World)" by Ramon F. Veloz (Cuba).

I think the sentiment found on the Putumayo Web site sums up this wonderful new recording: "In a world that is constantly changing, Christmas is a time for revisiting the familiar customs and rituals that connect everyone to generations past. While Christmas is celebrated in different ways around the world, among the unifying elements that help create holiday spirit are the songs, hymns, and carols that serve as the soundtrack for the season."

Because this CD is on a major record label, it will certainly be available at all music retail outlets. You can also go to the Putumayo Web site and listen to clips of each song.

CHRISTMAS WITH THE VON TRAPP CHILDREN, by The von Trapp Children, Rattlesby Records, $18.98,; all ages.

The von Trapp family has become synonymous with "The Sound of Music" ever since the famous singing family inspired the film some 40 years ago. The von Trapp children are back with their second CD-this time bringing their gentle harmonies and sweet voices to a host of traditional Christmas songs. I was hooked with the first song, the beautiful "Carol of the Bells" and stopped what I was doing to listen all the way through to another favorite of my students at school, the somewhat obscure African-American "What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?"

Though it has not been long since their first release "The von Trapp Children, Volume 1" (reviewed in Chicago Parent, February 2003), I’ve noticed two things that display some maturity and growth in this project. First, their voices sound better, more mature and they seem more comfortable in this recording. Maybe because they have spent a good part of the year singing and performing together, Sofia (14), Melanie (12), Amanda (11) and Justin (8) just seem to blend better. And the superb arrangements and production work of Chris Stone create a very musical and supportive foundation to showcase the children’s talents.

As a listener I love the mix of familiar pieces with the less well-known, though equally beautiful, songs. In fact, there are a couple of songs here that I have never heard-the tender and beautiful "Mary Did You Know?" being one. After a baker’s dozen of traditional Christmas songs, the von Trapp Children finish the CD with some more child-like songs including "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," "Hot Cup of Cocoa" and the bluesy "Yummy Yummy Christmas" before they finish up with a peppy version of José Feliciano’s "Feliz Navidad."

Sure there is an abundance of Christmas music available, some good, some not-so-good, and tastes in music vary, but I think you will enjoy these new releases. They are at the top of my list for this year’s Christmas celebration. Peace.


Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children’s musician and producer. His Web site,, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children’s music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch’s past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes and comments to [email protected]



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