CARIBBEING’s Shelley Worrell interviews Etienne Charles


Check out the full interview on the Lincoln Center site. Trumpet player, composer, and music professor Etienne Charles—”known for blending a variety of musical traditions into his own signature style”—will premiere a work commissioned by Lincoln Center at the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, January 3, 2019. In advance of the show, cultural entrepreneur and CARIBBEING founder Shelley Worrell interviewed Charles who spoke about his influences, latest projects, and the role of artists in society. Here are excerpts:

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. [. . .]

Read full interview at

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