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Shout of Light: How Composer and Trumpet Master Etienne Charles Moves from Diabolic Resistance to Liberated Joy on Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol I
The devils started it.
Trinidad-born, Julliard-trained trumpet player and composer Etienne Charles was fascinated by Jab Molassie, the blue, fire-breathing carnival characters, and the people who become them for Carnival. He went to the village of Paramin on Carnival Monday, to watch them compete–only to dive in and start playing the biscuit tin along with them, getting himself splattered with blue paint.
“The men and women who play Jab Molassie are really down-to-earth people. Yet they transform into these demons, these vengeful spirits,” reflects Charles. “It replicates hell and suffering, and reminds us of our troubled past as a people, the atrocious acts perpetrated against us,” during slavery, when punishments included being boiled in molasses. Using the sights and sounds he and his team recorded in Paramin, Charles translated the fire-breathing intensity, the devious, infectious biscuit tin rhythms into an intellectually intriguing, funky piece.
This, and other encounters with the figures, beats, and people that power carnival inspired Charles to leap into an epic, profoundly rewarding project, Carnival: The Sound of a People. Volume One explores the past and present of carnival on his island homeland. Charles crafts original works reflecting the qualities of several key characters–the voluptuous Dame Lorraine, the noble Moko Jumbie–and the people who invoke them every year. He also unpacks the history of musical ensembles associated with the season. Tracing the evolution from bamboo percussion groups to steel band, Charles points out the defiant response to the banning of skin drums by British authorities in the 1880s. (the “Ordinance” that kicks off the “Black Echo” suite)
Using video as well as audio allowed Charles to engage powerfully with both musical elements and evocative visual moments, and he wove both into the pieces as he composed. “I went a lot deeper with this project. Each piece is differently composed, depending on the subject,” he notes. “I had time to pay attention to every detail.”
Though the results are deliciously nuanced, the pieces emerged with remarkable ease. “The music just came out. I’ve never had a project when the music came out this quickly. I got to work things out on the trumpet, on the drums, on the piano,” recalls Charles. I have all these different influences and sources to draw from and actual people I could “call,” members of his family and friends around the island.
Charles’ family, like many in Trinidad, had been intimately involved in carnival activities since he could remember. He had played in school carnival bands and was eventually drawn to the steel pan, playing with Phase II Pan Groove throughout his teens. He went on to gain a formal education in trumpet and in jazz, seriously engaging with African diaspora music around the Caribbean. He began to turn back to Carnival in his homeland, thinking hard about the many manifestations of parody, critique, rage, and joy carnival enabled.
Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship, Charles traveled to communities across Trinidad. He spent time meeting, hanging out and playing with, and documenting the work of costume makers, musicians, dancers, and performers.
Most welcomed his curiosity and involvement, though the group that inspired “Black Echo IV: Iron” asked if he wanted to use recently recorded samples of their raucous, unforgettable instruments. “I told them I was recording people. If i used samples, it wouldn’t be connected to the ancestors,” says Charles. They eagerly agreed to do a session. “Once they jumped on board they told me about the melody that goes through the iron when they play it.” This melody forms the backbone of the piece, migrating from a field recording of the ensemble into an ingenious horn section.
For “Black Echo II: Tamboo” and “Black Echo III: Bamboo”, Charles translates the fuguing rhythmic lines and call-and-response vocals of bamboo percussion ensembles into a multifaceted bassline that picks up the rhythms and melodies they suggest. To capture the full feeling of the ensemble, he placed one mic in the center of the group and recorded the sounds that weave through the tracks. “It’s a sound most people have never heard, have never seen,” says Charles. “I came at it as if it were a first discovery. I wanted to get that wonder, the first time I heard that band. I asked myself what I would play if I didn’t know the culture, if I wasn’t part of the family.” Charles wrote the bass line, then harmony behind it and spaces for improvisation around it.
Though “Freedom” is the last track, Charles explains, “it’s very important. It’s the reintroduction of the skin drum. When it comes back, we can really celebrate freedom. From my study, carnival is a celebration of freedom and who we are. My aunt charged me with the task of figuring out a way to replicate the joy in carnival. It can be dark but in the end, it’s very bright. For me, the album moves from dark to light. Freedom is a shout of that light.”
Charles has taken that task very seriously, bringing back the tradition of big, bold brass bands that once held down major carnival parties. The tradition faded, as large ensembles are expensive, so Charles took matters into his own able hands and started We the People, a mas (carnival celebration) band. “I thought, I’m going to come on a truck with a brass band playing vintage calypso and soca,” he recounts with a smile. “We did it and people loved it. Carnival happens on the street, after all, and we’re taking it back to to the basics, which is the music.”