Etienne Charles – scholar, musician, jazz standout- speaks on Pan, Panorama 2012 and more

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, panist, assistant jazz professor, performing and recording artist Etienne Charles shares his overall thoughts on Panorama – its past, present and future… Here are some excerpts, with a link to the full interview below.

WST – Folks who are now getting hip to Etienne Charles identify you as a trumpet-playing jazz musician. But you also have a serious Pan allegiance. For those who don’t know about this – bring them up to date on your Pan background.

Etienne – “I basically grew up in Phase II’s pan yard as my dad and uncle were in their second pan (double second) section. I remember when they won 2 ‘ramas [Panorama championships] back to back in ’87 & ’88. I remember when the yard was just the street and the shed. I started playing tenor maybe when I was 9 or 10. By the time I was in Fatima [College] I’d be playing on the road J’Ouvert morning, carnival Monday and Tuesday with Phase. My parents were very serious about schoolwork so I didn’t get to play for panorama until I had finished O’level exams. Then I was really hooked. Pan is therapy you know. Panorama time, you see people you don’t see for the rest of the year. I remember one of the senior tenor players, would take all his vacation time to be in the Panyard all day to show people their parts if they missed something. He’d also help out doing all kinds of odd jobs around the yard. I’d always take the tune from Darcy because we’re both left-handed. I’ve also been a big fan of steelband arranging for years. Not many people know this, but I can sing note for note – quite a few Boogsie arrangements:  ‘I Music,’ ‘Pan Rising,’ ‘Woman Is Boss,’ ‘Fire Down Below, ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Birthday Party,’ Mind Yuh Business,’ ‘Misbehave,’ ‘Bradley;’ as well as All Stars’ ‘Woman On De Bass.’

“Pan is probably the most important part of my musical foundation. It teaches you two very important things; to memorize music and to play with strong rhythm. Where else in the world do you see 120 musicians (sometimes 150 at practice) playing 10 minutes of arranged music together from memory?  Not a piece of manuscript in sight!  Playing pan also taught me to keep the melody going through your arrangements. (Jit, Bradley, Robbie, Boogsie, Halfers [Anise Hadeed], Tony Williams and Andy are all great at that style).”

WST – Like the steelpanist, you are a storyteller in the traditional sense. It is one of the bases of your music. How and why have you maintained this approach when so many other young musicians have taken a different path?

Etienne – “I like stories. They connect to all ages. I’ve had a chance to hang with many of my favourite musicians and one thing I really enjoy besides playing music with them is just hearing them tell stories.  That’s the way our tradition gets passed on. That’s how we get to know our ancestors. Pan, Calypso, American improvisational music, the majority of it (or at least the good stuff) is in the aural tradition.  So when we play it must be a story. Especially since most tunes we play have a story to them already.  Part of it is really knowing the tune and even doing a bit of research to get some perspective. It also connects you to generations that came before. Recording Congo Bara; I just thought it was a beautiful melody. Came to find out Congo Bara was a great stick fighter, former slave and activist. I even learned the lyrics!  When I write I always try to put a story in the tune as well. ‘Folklore’ was about putting music to stories and improvising based on them.”

WST – Steelpan – and by extension the Steel Orchestra and Panorama – has maintained its “calypso” roots and storytelling tradition. “Do Something for Pan,” “Trini,” “Calling Meh,” are self-explanatory tunes and storylines that were embraced by the steelpan music community globally. Why have the modern forms of calypso – soca, raga soca, island-pop and the like, seem to have lost this storytelling aspect?

Etienne – “I don’t think all the forms have lost the storytelling element. It’s just that there are a LOT of songs focused on hyping up carnival. So the songs are about activity. That’s not a new thing though, but the older songs maintained a story about carnival: Kitch’s ‘Mama Dis Is Mas,’ ‘De Road,’ ‘Miss Harriman,’ ‘Miss Tourist,’ ‘Batty Mamselle,’ ‘After Carnival;’ Sparrow’s ‘Panman,’ Blueboy’s ‘Rebecca,’ Stalin’s ‘Ah Feel To Party,’ Rudder’s ‘Madness,’ ‘Bahia Girl;’ Tambu’s ‘Jump up,’ Scrunter’s ‘Sing In She Party;’ Crazy’s ‘Drive it;’ Arrow’s ‘Roll Back,’ ‘Party Hopping’ and many, many more are examples.

“Some modern calypsos that I remember are definitely stories (Dollar Wine, Bashment to Carnival) – great story, Big Truck, Big Belly Man, Flood on de Main Road, Dr. Cassandra, Mr. Fete, Vibes Cyah Done but I guess most of those are old songs now! I’m getting old! Of course we still have strong socio-political commentary songs in the Tent which are great stories, but most of the popular radio stations play the hype soca.  So a lot of good stuff falls through the cracks. There’s a lot less actual human music on the new tracks (almost all programmed beats, synth pads and loops, no horns, even synth Pan).  But then carnival on the whole has changed, not just the music. Luckily we still have Pan.”

. . .

WST – Max Roach was a big supporter of the steelband fraternity. This writer was fortunate to have been the engineer on a project that Max was producing with “Boogsie” as the focus. Max told WST that “Boogsie” reminded him of “Bird” and he, Max, was very interested in passing that torch from our ancestors to him, “Boogsie.” Do you think Boogsie understands who he is, and what he represents in the greater scheme of things?

Etienne – “Boogsie is one of the greatest musical minds the world has ever seen. I’ve always known him as a giant of music. I’ll never forget the first time I met Wynton [Marsalis] and told him that I was from Trinidad. His response was “Do you know Boogsie?” Boogsie definitely has created a sound for himself and for Phase. He’s also influenced a generation of arrangers coming forth now. When I listen to Silver Stars, I hear Sharpe. I don’t know if Charlie [Bird] Parker understood then, his significance on the modern movement of improvisational music.”

WST – Two of the greatest percussionists to ever walk the planet were seriously involved and had great respect for the steelpan instrument, the music and movement – Max Roach and Ralph MacDonald. Does the Pan movement understand who these men were, why they are important and what they had?

Etienne – “Both men came from Caribbean communities in North America and they knew the significance of Afro-Caribbean creation and it’s contribution to American Music and music of the world at large. I can’t speak for the Pan movement as a whole, but I know what these men did for Music and for civil rights. They’re also two of my biggest musical inspirations.”

WST – Tell us about Kaiso? And what’s next?

Etienne – “’Kaiso’ for me was a chance to seriously explore and showcase the many different musical possibilities of calypso music. I was always blown away by the beauty of the melodies. ‘Kaiso’ gave me a chance to shine light on these tunes that I feel are standards. It also reminded me that this music is loved all over the world and we have to keep playing in whatever way we can – folk, improvisational, steelband arrangements, orchestras, etc.”

The interview appeared originally at

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