Listen to this song by superlative singer-songwriter-guitarist and major Christmas fan Bruce Cockburn. It’s  “Riu Riu Chiu”, as taken from his album Christmas.  The song is sung in an archaic form of Spanish, telling the tale of an Almighty being who creates a woman, who then creates him in return.  Hmm.  That sounds kind of familiar.

Bruce Cockburn released his Christmas record in 1993, and even though I’m a big fan, when I heard about it I thought the worst.  I imagined folk-pop versions of  “Up on the House Top” and a cover with Cockburn in a sweater, basically.  Well, I needn’t have worried.  Cockburn had been planning this record since the early ’70s, the beginning of his career in fact.  He had loved Christmas music, more to the point the more spiritually oriented material, since childhood.  His dad had given him a homemade booklet of Christmas songs while he was a child.  He’d kept the booklet of course, which served as the album’s basis.

The record is no seasonal knock-off, and it’s clear that Cockburn threw himself into it.  As mentioned, this song is sung in Old Spanish.  But other songs are sung in Latin, French, and even in the Huron language, on which an expert, John Steckly, was consulted on phrasing and pronunciation.   A project like this might come off as kind of pretentious in the hands of a lesser talent, it seems to me.  Yet, what comes through is Cockburn’s enthusiasm for delivering music he’s clearly in love with.  He was clearly committed to it, and I’d argue that it is one of his best efforts overall.

There is a wintry, organic atmosphere to the record as a whole, and to “Riu Riu Chiu” in particular.  The song  is traditionally sung acapella. But, Cockburn uses a repeated descending guitar riff in tandem with Hugh Marsh’s violin lines, which really pushes it along without being intrusive. So, he’s added his own imprint to it, as well as presenting an old tale in the truest sense of the folk song tradition.  It comes off as reverent, but also kind of spooky too.  And strangely, there is an impulse to move to it, just because it’s so rhythmic.

Who ever thought an ancient tale of the Christmas story sung in archaic Spanish would be so funky?

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6 thoughts on “Bruce Cockburn Performs Christmas Song “Riu Riu Chiu”

  1. I love Cockburn’s Christmas album. I think it’s one of Cockburn’s best albums (certainly the first sign that he was destined for great things with him and Colin Linden producing), I think it’s one of the greatest Christmas albums ever made…

    …but I hate “Riu Riu Chiu” I find it monotonous and repetitive. It has a nice guitar hook and I’ll even give you Hugh Marsh’s great violin but it doesn’t really do anything else for me.

    Had you said “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”, “Iesus Ahatonnia”, “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes” or even “I Saw Three Ships” I might have been more enthusiastic. But…sorry mate. I just don’t like it. But thanks for highlighting a wonderful album all the same.

    1. Hey Graeme,
      Fair dues and horses for courses, I guess. If you find it monotonous, I find it hypnotic and atmospheric. It’s one of the best tracks on the record for that. But, at least we agree that it’s one of Cockburn’s best records – a real example of his ability to put across his passion for the material.

      Cheers for comments!

  2. just for the record,

    you guys are clearly out of your minds. but also you have obviously never delved into Cockburn’s 1970s work, which is unfathomably gorgeous. Go away and listen to In The Falling Dark, High Winds White Sky, and Sunwheel Dance, and then tell me this Christmas album – which has been in constant rotation at my family Christmases since 1993 – is “one of Cockburn’s best.” argh. Humans and Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws also eclipse it, as does a 3-CD unreleased 1976 live set of Cockburn at a (Presbeterian?) retreat in Alberta. stunning.

  3. Cockburn’s Christmas album blows 95% of the other contenders away for reasons like those you’ve noted in your post. Perhaps my loss that I only have one of his other albums – I tend to spend the year looking forward to bringing this one out on Thanksgiving evening.

  4. Hey Ryan,

    I think you’d do well to check out all of the albums which Ben has listed in his comment. You also might want to check out the live album Circles in the Stream, which is a great document of that 70s era.

    Hey Ben – funny you should mention Sunwheel Dance and In the Falling Dark. I think one of the reasons I think the Christmas record is so good is because it was something of a return to form, back to this era. With those earlier records, High Winds, White Sky included, he was attempting to touch on a lot of spiritual questions. And so the feel of those records tend to have something of a mystical quality to them. For the first time in over a decade, Cockburn return to this sensibility on this record, which is one of the reasons I think it’s one of his best.

    Cheers for comments, guys!

  5. I think the emphasis is on ‘one of his best’. The man has done 25 albums in a 38 year span, so there’s plenty of room. Its a big pantheon. Bruce Cockburn is my favourite musician. Ben, no need to sell me on his stuff because I’ve listened, re-listened and essayed them extensively myself. I would take Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws and only that to an desert island with me. It’s his best, period. I think his first album is unbelievably beautiful. I think Sunwheel Dance is one of the most stunning works ever made. I think Circles In The Stream is the only live album I would take with me in a fire.

    And I still think Christmas is ‘one of his best’ albums. Particularly since the only ones surrounding it are his two T-Bone Burnett collaborations which are intriguing and lousy respectively. As I said in my first comment, it presages all the great work that came out in the late ’90s and early 2000s when Cockburn collaborated with Colin Linden. And I’d place Charity of Night as ‘one of his best’ too.

What are your thoughts, Good People? Tell it to me straight.

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