Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 22nd 2017 Contents Sunday, January 22, 2017 guardian.co.tt
sunday arts B31
In the heat and heart of
the Carnival fete season,
Etienne Charles will al-
low us to imagine what creole
intelligence sounds and looks
like. On January 27, he will debut
and preview at the Queen's Hall
selections of his newest extend-
ed piece, a planned three-CD
length oratorio called Carnival:
The Sound of a People.
Charles shared some of the new
work with me before the show.
The work locates the musical re-
sponse of Afro-Caribbean people
within this island space to the cir-
cumstances of slavery, colonialism
and freedom. Adoption, adaptation
and incorporation of the cultural
traditions rendered with an ear to
the broader musical tradition of the
Americas, jazz, has allowed Charles
to produce music that recognises
local audiences' penchant to move
to rhythm, and a global audiences'
willingness to discover and be awed
by the brilliance of New World Af-
Errol Hill, in his book The Trini-
dad Carnival: Mandate for a National
Theatre, wrote, "Carnival is incon-
ceivable without music."
Music is indeed a central pillar of
the Trinidad Carnival.
Charles, with the award of a 2015
fellowship from the John Simon
Guggenheim Memorial Foundation,
was allowed to research and explore
the music of the Carnival, the can-
boulay and J'Ouvert, the drum
dances, the sacred and secular music
with the call-and-response led by
the chantwell, and other African
cultural survivals in the Caribbean
from pre-Emancipation to present.
He embedded himself in the
communities that retain the tradi-
tions of the blue devil, the jab jab,
the black Indian, and in the gayelle
of the stickfighter to capture the
rhythm and song of the kalenda
and the caliso.
In modern times, Trinidad Carni-
val has inspired plays, original dance,
prose from our best playwrights,
choreographers and authors. It has
also created and inspired music that
seeks to translate the emotions, the
history and the psychology of the
people and their dreams and actions
as players on this grand stage called
The catalyst for composition for
Carnival: The Sound of a People
was different from his recent San
Jose Suite. The broad quest was
condensed to focus on the specific.
Observations of the wider Amer-
icas, its people and communities,
gave way to capture and reaction
to the sound and vision of a people,
in real time, unravelling the "multi-
plicity of cross-cultural influences"
that drive this nation and this region
to make a mas and make a music.
Resistance and persistence, in this
case, is specific to that impulse of
ours to mimic and to parody imposed
order, and to absorb, re-enact and
create the theatre that honours the
indestructible courage of ancestors.
"I have hours and hours of field
recordings that I had to sift through.
I wanted the real s--t; to see it and to
fuse the sounds with the sights and
the history to make music," Charles
said in a private message to me last
These hours of field recordings,
this raw ritual music, serves as a
bed for the new improvisations
that Charles layers. This melodic
addition is not to be construed as
cultural appropriation, but part of
our hybridisation process of music
creation in the Caribbean.
The method of composing new
music over original music from a
source was explored by Paul Simon
on his classic Graceland album; mu-
sic based on a "rhythmic premise."
Like Simon, Charles went back to the
United States to record with some of
the most gifted jazz musicians in-
cluding Grammy winners Ben Wil-
liams on bass and David Sánchez on
The work on Carnival continues.
"Fourteen movements of the suite
have been recorded, eight more to
write...only gonna be able to play 11
in Trinidad for time sake," Charles
Juxtaposition of native Carnival
culture with the jazz response is
intriguing. Charles notes that he
"wanted to be cerebral, but rooted
in the folk element while being as
vivid as possible with the harmonic
'We have plenty stories to tell'
Among the new improvisations
garnered from the sound of the drum
is the four-part Black Echo.
Charles says it represents "the
European attempt to suppress our
communication and black musical
expression." It is the African-Car-
ibbean response that also illustrates
the evolution, in Trinidad, of the
The first movement is the Banning
of the Drum with the resultant initial
tumult mirrored in hard bop musi-
cality. The second movement is on
the Tamboo Bamboo, which was the
local response to banning the drums.
The third movement celebrates the
Iron Bands, the precursor to the fi-
nal movement, the Steelbands, the
"audacity of the creole imagination."
There are many more musical
stories like this that illustrate and
signify that the creole imagination
was more than audacious; it was de-
termined never to be suppressed or
forgotten. There have been dozens of
books and scholarly articles as well
as hundreds of postgraduate theses
and a few journals written about
Trinidad Carnival, its history and
psychology, the design of the mas,
its relevance, its music.
In this music, Charles has encap-
sulated a meaning of what and why
we continue to do this thing called
Carnival that is more entertaining
and enlightening than dry words in
a thesis can capture. Music has that
power to educate if we are willing to
allow ourselves to listen and absorb
the elements of rhythm and sublim-
inal messages beyond sound.
Charles says, "It tells the story
and we have plenty stories to tell,
everything we didn't learn in school
that we should have." This is a grand
subject, an opus writ large.
Carnival: The Sound of a People
adds to that Carnival story collec-
tion as an antidote to the trivia that
sustains an industry. It addresses
what is becoming a problem with
the society at large: the dumbing
down of art to fit a Carnival men-
tality that suggests that how we wine
is more important than what we are
Etienne Charles recognises the
balance between art and artefact,
between materiality and memorabil-
ia, and responds with a daring that
fits a new vision for native music.
VS Naipaul wrote a large book on
the subject of Trinidad, The Loss of
El Dorado, which when published
was criticised by the literary editor
of a very important paper in London
who told him that he "only should
have written an essay because it
wasn't a big enough subject." Nai-
paul wisely noted that his critic was
"a foolish man".
West Indian men and women of
art and scholarship also deem fit the
subject of Carnival to be worth more
than an essay. Our Carnival must be
writ large. In that important way,
Etienne Charles, the chantwell with
a horn, with the forthcoming con-
cert and album in the future effec-
tively covers Trinidad Carnival, its
traditions, the diaspora response and
the people who make Carnival our
gift to the world.
Nigel A Campbell is a jazz
critic and events promoter.
An opus writ large
Nigel Campbell meditates on selections from
Etienne Charles' Carnival: The Sound of a People
Etienne Charles, at right, front,
recording "Slim" and the
Moruga Bois drummers.
PHOTO COURTESY MARIA NUNES
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