Etienne Charles: Creating Scenes with Sound
Trumpet player, composer, and music professor Etienne Charles—known for blending a variety of musical traditions into his own signature style—premieres a work commissioned by Lincoln Center at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, January 3. In advance of the show, cultural entrepreneur and CARIBBEING founder Shelley Worrell caught up with Charles to talk about his influences, latest projects, and the role of artists in society.
Shelley Worrell: Your upcoming album (Carnival: The Sound of a People Vol. 1) is influenced by the sights and sounds of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Can you talk about how Carnival's traditional characters and music have influenced your work, especially your strong use of calypso?
Etienne Charles: My study of calypso goes back many years. I grew up in Trinidad listening to calypso recordings, singing folk songs in choirs, and playing the arrangements of the great calypso artists in brass bands. I also played in a steel band, so all of this is ingrained in my music. Calypso is one of the few art forms built on a history of empowering the people through knowledge, specifically because it was at a time when many people were illiterate. The calypsonian was kind of like a journalist—the one to tell the people what actually is going on. You know, the Growling Tiger said that calypsos are editorials in song. I think Lord Superior said that it's a poor man's newspaper.
So in addition to being unique in terms of the rhythm, the way the harmony is used, and how the melodies are constructed and the lyrics are used, one of the main purposes of calypso was to activate and engage a specific class of people. You see the roots of hip-hop in calypso very clearly and evidently. You also see the roots of reggae in calypso. It's all clearly documented. My third album, Kaiso, was specifically about not just the music of calypso but also the dialogues that happened throughout history with respect to Trinidad and Europe and Trinidad and North America and Trinidad and the rest of the islands of the Caribbean.
The tradition of calypso is pre-Carnival in a sense, because its musical roots are in the gayelle, which is a stick-fighting ritual that happened before Carnival even became a thing for Black West Indians. And the reason I said West Indians and not just Trinidad is because you have evidence of bois in Haiti, in Guadeloupe, Martinique, you have it in Grenada, you have it in Dominica.
Carnival is important to me simply because it's some of the most vivid imagery and distinct sounds that I saw and heard as a child. After recording my second album, Folklore, I started doing research into some of the traditions of Carnival, specifically the personal ones, the devil traditions, like Jab Molassie, Jab Jab, and the whole dragon ritual. And then when I got the Guggenheim fellowship, it allowed me the means to be able to go and spend a lot of time in Trinidad and record and interview many different practitioners in different aspects of the Carnival tradition—the Jab Jabs, the stick fighters, the Dame Lorraines, the sailors, the different folk drumming traditions, different percussive arts like tamboo bamboo, and the iron bands and the steel bands. It allowed me to really dig in, and it re-solidified my view that Black art in the Caribbean really is intersectional, and separating them can sometimes take away from the bigger point. I really see Carnival as one art form with many different sections—music, dance, costume making—because they all interact so fluidly with each other.
The new album is also about putting the visual with the aural, because that's what I remember—the sight and the sound. That sight might be a movement, it might be a costume, it might be a facial expression. It might be a hue of paint, it might be the sight of blood being drawn in a stick fight. It's all these different things that influence my writing and playing. It's kind of a continuation of Folklore, but with more practitioners. This album features maybe fifty or sixty people on it, and most of them are third- and fourth-generation practitioners of different Carnival rituals.
SW: Another thing that strikes me about your work is how you infuse artists and musical styles from other parts of the region, including Haiti and Martinique from the French Caribbean. What led you to tie your work to the greater Caribbean?
EC: That's a great question. The really simple answer is that I have strong roots in the French Caribbean. My great-grandfather on my mom's side was from Martinique, and then on my father's side our family has strong roots in Haiti, so at first a big part of it was just exploring my own cultural roots. I'm a big advocate of people understanding their cultural DNA just the same way people are trying to figure out which parts of Africa or Europe they're from. In addition to paying attention to that, I also pay attention to the migrations that happened after people were brought to the Americas. Learning about my ancestors drew me strongly to Martinican music, Guadeloupean music, Haitian music, music from French Guiana, the music from Dominica, the music from Grenada, and a lot of the French Caribbean islands. Creole Soul was the first album I did after serious study of Martinican and Haitian and Guadeloupean rhythms. I recorded it after my first trip to Haiti, so I brought back a lot of French Caribbean influence, which is still very strong in my music. I studied a lot of field recordings, some of Alan Lomax's recordings, to understand the vocal style and the contours of the melodies so that when I was constructing my own melodies it was based on the understanding of the architecture of those old folk melodies.
I had touched on it a bit in Kaiso, and in Folklore simply because our folklore in Trinidad is really rooted in French Caribbean traditions, having so many French settlers. That's what caused my pan-Caribbean approach. The links are really strong, especially between Trinidad and Haiti, Trinidad and Martinique, and Trinidad and Grenada. I'm grateful to be able to study and incorporate these traditions into my music, because it's really just a part of me as a person.
"Since when did telling stories become politics? Since when did telling the actual story become picking a side?"
SW: Your new work references the immigrant experience. Could you talk a bit about your own your immigrant experience as an artist here in the United States?
EC: I see the United States as an ever evolving place. Things constantly change here, but things constantly stay the same as well. Being an immigrant in this country is challenging because it's a country that doesn't really credit immigrant contributions, specifically non-European immigrant contributions. But at the same time it's rewarding simply because of community. Because of places like Brooklyn, because of places like Queens, because of places like the Bronx, because of places like Hempstead and Uniondale in Long Island, where you have big pockets of Caribbean people. Because of places like South Florida, Fort Lauderdale, and South Miami Dade. You see these strong communities where you can go in the grocery store and it's just like Trinidad. You get all of the things that make you feel a little more at home. So those types of things make the immigrant experience a little easier.
I use my immigrant experiences as a chance to let people know about where I'm from. Many times I interact with people who might have had a taxi driver from Trinidad or a nanny from Trinidad or somewhere in the Caribbean, and I just want to continue teaching people about where we're from and why what we have in the Caribbean is so special. So I more use it towards that: teaching Americans with no Caribbean linkage about what we have and what we do; and then teaching Caribbean Americans what they may not know about what we have and what we do. Even in the Caribbean—at my Carnival concert it turned out there were so many people who had never seen a tamboo bamboo band live, ever. There were people who in many years had not seen the original Jab Jabs crack those whips, who for many years had not seen devils, or people breathe fire. That's why I put them on stage. That's why I've got high-definition videos so that people will see as well as hear what we do, because the images are captivating and thought-provoking.
SW: Right now it feels like a lot of people who are first- or second-generation immigrants here are under attack. Are there any references to the current climate in the United States in the piece?
EC: That's all the piece is about. I'm drawing a long line. I don't know if you're familiar with Weeping Time. Weeping Time, which was in 1859, was the largest slave sale in the history of the state of Georgia. More than four hundred slaves were sold in one sale. I'm referencing that. I'm also referencing Botham Jean, who was a St. Lucian who got killed in Texas recently by a police officer named Amber Guyger. He was in his own apartment. He was minding his own business and she walked into his apartment and shot him and killed him. I'm also referencing Abner Louima. I'm referencing Amadou Diallo.
A lot of people are thinking that the war on immigrants is new, and I see it as old. I remember learning about Abner Louima from the David Rudder song The Immigrants in 1996 or '97. So it's been going on for a long time. My uncles grew up in New York and they would always talk about police brutality against West Indian Americans, specifically in Brooklyn. And you could go back even further to the '20s and '30s and '40s in Harlem and San Juan Hill when police were rough on West Indian immigrants. I don't see it as a new climate. I see it as a climate that has never changed. The whole migrant caravan that's going on right now and people dying in U.S. custody and all those children getting taken away from their parents at the border and kids getting killed and assaulted... I hate to say it, but it's not the first time these things have happened here. It's just the first time that many people are seeing it in the media.
I'm channeling all that in the piece simply because it is a tough time and it is our job as artists—this is why I go back to my calypso upbringing—to tell the story. People ask me, "Why do you play politics with your music?" Since when did telling stories become politics? Since when did telling the actual story become picking a side? It's not about picking sides, it's just about letting people know what actually happened, full stop.
SW: Can you talk a bit more about your process, and what you hope people feel or take away from your work?
EC: My process is very simple. I write music by creating scenes with sound. And my goal is for people to feel what I feel. Because that's all the piece is—the piece is what happened based on how I feel about it. I hope people will feel like they learned something. I hope that they feel a little more energized to understand that there's a game at play now to make human rights a political side as opposed to a basic need. That's what it's about for me. It's about people understanding that any immigrant should be treated the same, and they should all be treated like human beings. It shouldn't matter what color their skin is, it shouldn't matter how poor the country that they're coming from is, it shouldn't matter why they're coming, whether it's for asylum or for work or for education or to visit the Empire State building. Immigrants should be treated the same: respectfully.
SW: What's coming up for you in 2019 and beyond?
EC: The Carnival album is coming out soon, and I'll be releasing videos online for that this month. We have some really fun shows, including San Francisco and L.A., which will include actual Carnival performers.
A big part of what I do is teach, so I'll continue teaching at Michigan State University. I teach applied jazz trumpet, jazz orchestra, and composition. I always encourage my students to dig into their roots to understand what their musical perspective could be, no matter where they're from. I make them figure out where their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents are from, and I make them research that music as well because it's a big part of who they are, whether they know it or not.
Shelley Worrell is the Founder and Chief Curator of CARIBBEING, a thriving cultural organization that stands at the crossroads of film, art, and culture.