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Black Echoes

Etienne Charles pays tribute to the Creole imagination
Thursday, February 9, 2017
In Carnival—The Sound of a People, Etienne Charles has created a groundbreaking fusion of jazz and the elemental sounds of T&T. PHOTO: MARIA NUNES

In Carnival—The Sound of a People, Etienne Charles showcased our elemental music, the rhythms and forms that define our biggest festival, Carnival. In his January 29 concert at the Queen’s Hall, Charles didn’t just focus on the more familiar beats of steelband and drums. The jazz musician also challenged himself to interpret oral forms like the Black Indian—a portrayal that is becoming a rarer sight in the parade of modern Carnival.US-based trumpeter Charles was inspired to create this ambitious suite of music after a visit to Trinidad for Carnival.

It was his first visit for the festival in several years and he felt it was necessary to explore our musical heritage more deeply.

"I was moved numerous times, by how these men, women and children go from ordinary to extraordinary with the smack of a drum or the crack of a whip or the sound of the pan and how it's the direct link to our ancestors through oral traditions, where you learn by listening and watching," he said in an interview.

At the show, he repeatedly referred to the persistence of these artforms as evidence of the audacity of the Creole imagination.

The evening opened with the Overture-Out of the Darkness, featuring the Midnight Robber played by Damien Whiskey.

According to Charles, the Midnight Robber is "a guardian of a living tradition, introducing the traditions that form part of the Carnival."

The Midnight Robber has evolved and lives on in performers like soca star Bunji Garlin who in his onstage appearances dons a bandana and spits sharp lyrics and biting freestyles.

The audience were deprived of the privilege of seeing Touch D Sky's impressive Moko Jumbies who couldn't fit into the Hall-an unfortunate design flaw. A sharp listener would have detected the influence of Miles Davis and George Duke in this edgy but somehow mellow piece.

If we missed the sight of the ornate Moko Jumbies, there was more than enough electricity in the air when Jab Jabs Ronald and Ronaldo Alfred cracked their whips, causing mini sonic booms in the auditorium during the piece Jab Jab. The subtle bells on the Jab Jab costumes seemed to keep a constant beat and the excellent solo by pianist Charles Sands stood out in a piece that worked on so many levels to convey the electric vibe set by the gaily costumed Jab Jabs. Of all the Carnival artforms, the Black Indian is probably the most mysterious. The Black Indians represent the Creole mix of Africans and Amerindians, and the language of their chants is derived from Aruacan, Yoruba and Creole. I found this an extremely challenging piece, as I kept hearing the war cries of the Black Indian (Andy Patrick) offstage and it was only when he joined the band onstage, that we got a communion-a call and response between Black Indian and the band.

Tobago's Tambrin band isn't typically associated with Carnival in Trinidad, but it is a unique part of our history. Charles explained that the Tambrin drum is designed to be concealed and played softly. Sweet Fingers Tambrin Band were sweet and slightly quaint. The trumpet refrain of "when ah dead, bury mih clothes" got the audience clapping along at the end.

This Carnival will miss Senor Gomez, one of the master craftsmen who died in December. Charles's One For Senor featured an exceptional bass solo from Luques Curtis and the song was reminiscent-at least in the vibe-of Sparrow's tribute song, Memories.

The first half closed with Bois, which, according to Charles, encapsulated a confrontational moment in our history. The drum beat was constant in its rising and falling with the interplay of keyboard and guitar joined by the alto sax and illustrating the tension.

One of the highlights-not just of this piece, but of the entire concert-was the drumming by masters Everald "Redman" Watson & Lion Osuna and the prodigious young drummer Kayode Charles.

Etienne Charles always injects some humour into his performances, and this time, it was a saucy Dame Lorraine played by Dave Williams.

Williams had the crowd in stitches as he moved the Dame Lorraine's bottom in true Denise Belfon style, "sticking it" in time to the drum beats. Dame Lorraine is a flirtatious and cheeky piece of music that features a brilliant alto sax solo from Godwin Louis.

The opus within this opus is Black Echo, a micro suite in four parts that Charles described as a tribute to "our willingness as a people to continue to express ourselves in spite of oppression."

This four-part suite went from Banning of the Drums to Tamboo Bamboo to Iron to Steel. One could not help but marvel at the technical excellence by all of the musicians in this segment-from the excellent drummers to the Claxton Bay Tamboo Bamboo players (a family band, by the way), the Laventille Rhythm Section iron men who played the iron as gracefully as a pan player would their pan, and the pan icon Earl Rodney, who played his double second pans with four sticks.

Of the four pieces, I was most taken by Iron, which reminded me of the work of late composer Ralph McDonald. When asked, Charles confirmed that Iron was indeed influenced by Calypso Breakdown by his dear friend and mentor. He told the audience, "No matter how they try to suppress the creativity and expression of our people, they fail."

The Blue Devils and their raucous biscuit tin symphony got their show in Djab, and there were two Blue Devils from the 2001 Jab Molassies huffing through the aisles, sans fire of course. Etienne Charles said one of his intentions in this suite of music was to "bring the joy back," and based on the ovation at the end, he clearly did.

He was able to create this suite in large part because of a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and staged locally under the auspices of the Calabash Foundation for The Arts.

With such excellence on display, one has to hope that more local patrons will be inspired to fund other progressive artists and performers to help them create groundbreaking work.

Charles revealed a January 2018 date for the release of the Carnival-The Sound of a People CD, but in the meanwhile, I hope this music will somehow be made more widely available. One of his great missions is to expose as many young people to music as possible; it would be a waste if, locally, this music wasn't played and reproduced.


At the end of the show, Charles announced that he will be playing on the road for Carnival. He is determined to bring live music back to the streets and he is gathering some of his peers for We The People. The musical line-up will include David Rudder, Tony Paul, Dean Williams, Leston Paul, Lima Calbio, Keith Prescott and more.


This Monday band will feature T-shirts and sailor costumes designed by Peter Minshall and they will take the road from 2 pm to 9 pm.

Registration begins on February 10 at the camp, 84 Tragarete Road (between Picton St and Maraval Rd) from 11 am to 6 pm from Monday to Friday and on Saturdays from 10 am to 6 pm.



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