Etienne Charles: Jazzy and Original
Imagine the scene. Etienne Charles is at Dulles Airport (Virginia, USA), glued to his iPhone. He’s heading to London for a concert, PanJazz UK. I email him some questions, and over the next hour, we go back and forth.
Touring, technology, and the trumpet. These three ‘t’s’ sum up his daily routine, revealing a new-age musician, trumpeter and jazz connoisseur, who has managed to be dubbed a visionary at the early age of 27, with his authentic take on the Caribbean aesthetic.
Etienne’s debut album, “Culture Shock” (2006), is a mélange of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and straight-ahead jazz, and his latest album, “Folklore”, released in 2009, features original music inspired by the folklore characters of Trinidad, and is filled with folk rhythms and African chants. With a musical imagination, prone to genius moments, he continues to hold his cultural heritage close to his heart, and is currently working on his new album “Kaiso”, exploring some of the classics of the Calypso songbook (in particular Lord Kitchener and Sparrow).
This path seems natural for someone with a folk-music-playing great-grandfather, who moved from Martinique to Mayaro, a cuatro-playing grandfather, whose strumming can be heard on classic folk and calypso recordings of the Growling Tiger, an uncle, who gave him his first trumpet at the age of ten, and a father, who was a member of Phase II Pan Groove, which Etienne later joined, playing on the road every Carnival, and in the national Panorama competition.
From his early, formal training as a child (to save neighbours from the horrid noise of a zealous, untrained Etienne on the trumpet), to his days at Florida State University and the world-renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where he studied on scholarship and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music, and a master’s degree, respectively, Etienne remains a student of his genre.
His list of achievements is also rich and lengthy. From acing international competitions, to freelancing in the New York City jazz scene, to performing and recording with a diverse range of great artistes such as Roberta Flack, Wynton Marsalis, Ralph MacDonald, Maria Schneider, the Count Basie Orchestra, Marcus Roberts, Monty Alexander, David Rudder, and Lord Blakie (who he also appeared in a Crix ad with), Etienne is living his dream. He’s toured extensively, performing in places like Qatar and Costa Rica with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, and his music has taken him as far as The Netherlands and Africa, and across the US and the Caribbean, as a jazz act for many a festival. Yet despite living in airports, he’s always close to home, Trinidad and Tobago, a fact that becomes more obvious, as the interview progresses.
O: You are part of the new generation of musicians who are from the Caribbean, but are not totally of it. How do you define yourself as a musician?
EC: I’m a musician inspired by the people I know, the places I’ve been, life’s ups and downs, stories, and of course the sounds I hear. Naturally, growing up in Trinidad the sounds were calypso, good ole soca, steelband music, shango drumming, chutney and of course the worldwide popular music of the 80′s: people like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, bands like Miami Sound Machine, Sting and loads of others. My parents have thousands of records, which I heard as a youngster. I didn’t know it then, but it shaped my musical concept to be all encompassing. As a result, I’m proud to be rooted in traditions, but versatile and open to innovation with integrity and respect for the traditions out of which they came.
O: How long have you been doing music professionally?
EC: Since I was 12. I played once at a church in Fyzabad and the priestess shook my hand and thanked me. Much to my surprise when she walked off, I realized I had $10 in my right hand. That was my first, paid gig. Right after that I was on a tour to Venezuela. So it has been 15 years so far, and they’ve flown by. I still remember that Sunday in Fyzabad. I played the hymn “Count Your Blessings” and was a nervous wreck.
O: In most of your performances, you always play some real distinctly Trini music, whether it be Kitchener’s “Sugar Bum Bum”, “Santimanite”, or “Mama dis is Mas”, and your latest CD “Folklore” is all about the folklore characters, douens, soucouyant etc. Where did this passion for indigenous music and stories come from?
EC: My fondest memories thus far in my life are from childhood. ‘August holidays’ in Mayaro would be about nighttime scary stories, which included Anansi, douens, La Diablesse etc, and being the gullible child that I was, I immediately conjured up images in my head, which stuck. And when I sat at the piano to write, as I thought of these characters as a composer, these were the sounds I heard. They became my album “Folklore”.
I’m also passionate about the cultural gems we have at home and pushing them forward as art and expression changes. I just love the look on someone’s face when I tell them about a soucouyant flying through the sky. Be it with words or music, the sounds that go with those memories for me are roots music. So, if I’m playing a set of “Folklore”, even if I have to play it myself you’ll hear the avalo, or shango groove or kaiso.
O: You’ve firmly held onto your heritage. Why?
EC: What else do we have? I’m lucky enough to know some of it, not nearly enough, but it’s a lifelong search and so I keep looking for pieces. I can’t think about how many people/ideas/stories/sounds were lost in the Atlantic, but we’ve been blessed to have kept so much. The only way to move forward is knowing where and more importantly WHO you come from.
Etienne Charles: “Sugar Bum Bum”.
O: Where do you get your musical ideas?
EC: Where DON’T I get ideas from. I hear sounds for almost everything. And I’ve been lucky to have some compositional inspirations from many of the greats. J.S. Bach – for taste in sequence. Thelonious Monk- for groove, great melodies and innovative use of the blues. Wayne Shorter – for using sounds to create colours. Horace Silver, David Sanchez, Monty Alexander, Michel Camilo, Danilo Perez, Chucho Valdez – for fusing their roots and the jazz language. Kitchener for his phrasing and bouncing rhythm, Spoiler for the humour. Marcus Roberts, Boogsie Sharpe, Ralph MacDonald, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and so many others.
O: You play various instruments, drums, recorder, steelpan, cuatro… Why did you choose to focus on the trumpet?
EC: I haven’t played recorder since I got a trumpet. I don’t think there was a point where I made a choice, but I know that the first formal training I had was on the trumpet. It’s also closest to the voice out of all the other instruments. It can shout, bark, cry and sing in its own way. Other instruments help my writing process, especially drums/percussion and the cuatro.
O: You got your first trumpet at age 10. Do you still have that trumpet?
EC: Nope. My uncle took it back I think he still plays it.
O: What’s your creative process like, in terms of when you settle to creating an album? The experimentation etc.
EC: First I think of the theme. Then I go bit by bit, doing research, getting facts, also listening to stories from older folks. If I’m writing originals, I might write for a year or two then choose a few songs to record. If I’m arranging pre-recorded music, I listen to the original recording over and over until it’s as if I were there. Then I put my swing on it. My bandmates are always up for trying ideas out. It’s one of the great highlights of New York musicians.
Etienne Charles performs “Folklore” live.
O: People mostly associate jazz with a mature audience. Are you trying to capture a young market? Do you think you can relate to a younger audience?
EC: Capturing a market as a jazz musician these days is a bit different. I’d love for people all over to hear my records and come see us play. I won’t say I’m targeting a particular market as music is for everyone. As Shadow aptly put it, “Old lady, young baby, everybody could dingolay”. I’m 27, a child of the 80′s. I’m young to some and old to others. Audiences get younger and older at the same time, just like musicians. I can relate to my generation.
O: Who is your target market – North America, Caribbean, all over?
EC: I want the world to know about a soucouyant, a douen, Papa Bois, Mama D’lo and all the other characters. I also love seeing the reaction of child who is hearing about a half-woman, half-serpent for the first time, and Caribbean folks who haven’t heard the stories in decades. I love hearing audiences sing “Oh Lord, Oh Lord” and “Sugar bum, sugar bum bum”. I’ve had the joy of teaching people to chip, as well as having people thank me for reminding them of the good times from a region they once called home. The Internet has made the world a lot smaller. My parents raised my sister and I to think as citizens of the world. So naturally, my dream is to have the world as my audience.
O: You’ve been home a few times this year, performing at Tobago Jazz and other shows, you were back at the end of October, and have a show in November. Why is it important to you to keep blessing T&T’s stages, and working with local musicians?
EC: It’s important, as this is where it started for me! Keeping touch with the local musicians is also a must, as we move forward in the Caribbean jazz idiom. And it gets cold in the US! And there’s nothing like some good, home-cooked food!
O: What are your thoughts about the local jazz scene?
EC: It has grown in immensely! We used to play jazz in Polesca and on the pavement outside Squeeze. That was the local scene in 2002! There are numerous venues now for musicians to play, as well as a healthy presence of home-grown musicians on the jazz festivals in Trinidad, Tobago, Barbados and St. Lucia to name a few. There are also a lot more festivals in Trinidad now. The scene is happening now. I remember the first time I walked into Satchmo’s. I was amazed! I never thought I’d get to hear legends Errol Ince, Slam Charles and Merv DeGannes swinging standards at a jazz club in Trinidad and there I was! Hearing Errol, Slam and Merv confirmed for me how much jazz was an influential part of the structure of calypso classics from the 30s, 40s 50s and 60s. These are the people we need to learn from!
O: What has been critical to your growth and success?
EC: Respect for traditions, social, musical, religious and academic. Hard work! Hours of practice and listening. My French teacher used to say, “repetition facilitates learning!” Listening to criticism and being humble and grateful for the comments. I’m always trying to get better, more musical. I’d say my move to ‘The States’ put a lot in perspective, as to how much I had to learn. Having to study trumpet formally and learn jazz as a language. Thanks to my teachers for their patience and guidance! My move to New York to study at Juilliard also put things in a new perspective: being humbled every day by the finest teachers and young artists on the planet: dancers, actors and musicians. It was a great time for growth and self searching. New York is an amazing congregation of some of the most forward-thinking artists, always pushing me to question what is and work on striving for a better sound.
O: You’re 27 now. What vision or goals do you have for your career and your life?
EC: Jeez. It feels like yesterday that I was running around after taking Common Entrance. My vision is take music to the world, and use it to change the problems we have today. My goals are to become a better person, better musician, and teacher. Another goal is to get to spend as much time as possible with family. I also want to learn Portuguese.
O: What’s your ultimate dream?
EC: I want to make a wicked curry like my Mom and a stinging fish broth like my Pops. Other than that, I’m sitting on a cloud. I’m so grateful to have the chance to do what I love every day: use music to change people. I thank God for the gift of health, a loving family, great friends, and of course the ability to have music in my life.
Photography by Mark Lyndersay of http://lyndersaydigital.com. Mark is a professional photographer and writer working in Trinidad and Tobago since 1976. His column on personal technology, BitDepth, has been continuously published since 1995. He is currently pursuing a photo essay series about how Trinidad and Tobago pursues its culture and festivals called Local Lives. Both series are archived on his website at http://lyndersaydigital.com.
Check out the rest of this week’s issue (Issue 32, 15/11/10)
- Famine and Feast: The Life of a Freelancer
- Brainwashed: For the Love of all things Foreign
- A Migrant’s Tale: Bittersweet Reflections of T&T
- Carbon Copied Love: How Parents affect our Relationships
- Masturbation: Taboos, Lies and Easing d Tension