Etienne Charles and his Latest LP, Carnival: The Sound of a People

For his latest LP Carnival: The Sound of a People, Etienne Charles goes to the direct source of his sound to explore the invigorating sounds of the Trinidad Carnival. One of the most compelling and exciting young jazz artists ushering the genre into groundbreaking territory is trumpeter/bandleader Charles. Born in Trinidad and having graduated from Florida State University’s and Juilliard University’s jazz programs, respectively, he is Associate Professor of Jazz Trumpet at Michigan State University. Charles has performed with a range of musicians from Roberta Flack, Rene Marie and David Rudder to Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Mandel, the Count Basie Orchestra and Maria Schneider. In order to delve into his mindset, we caught up with Charles to explore his approach to capturing the essence of the island.

Congratulations the release of your album, Carnival: The Sound of a People. What does the traditions of the Carnival mean to you?

For me, Carnival in Trinidad & Tobago is a dialogue that society is having with its past and present, through a fascinating hybrid of artistic disciplines to create one massive highly impactful display. Certain sounds trigger a transformation from ordinary to extraordinary. It really is something special to see and participate in.

How do you convey the emotions which the Carnival evokes through your music?

Our goal is to evoke the emotions that people feel the first time they see something, or the first time they see something in a long time.  The music channels the energy of the ancestors. As a composer my main tools for creating moods are melody and harmony.

Photo credit: Jason Henry for The New York Times

You seem to have gone straight to the source for the album, did you approach your composing with a different structure? 

For certain movements of the suite I used different approaches. Specifically for Iron & Bamboo, the goal was to highlight the sonic character of those instruments, so I had to manage my use of the overtone series and harmonic spectrum to make that possible.

The title ‘The Sound of the People’ tells us that you have approached music as something that is collectively shared, how important is it for people to have a sound which they can share within their culture?

Sharing sound is one of the key elements of communication. It’s essential to community building and strengthening. Music is a crucial element us as people to be reminded of our humanity.

The album also contains a snapshot of Caribbean history, how did you approach this in order to convey the message in your music?

I studied the history in literature as well as in aural form. Essentially, I wanted to tell the people’s stories, the stories that may not have been published.  I went beyond to make sure the music showcased the people who made it and how historical events may have influenced these musical forms.

Which elements of the Carnival do you channel when performing live?

We’re definitely trying to cause that transformation, from self to super self. The energy of the Jab Molassie is powerful, I try to emulate their screams and rhythmic shouts across the band. With Dame Lorraine, I’m celebrating the sashay and sassy walk of one of the oldest characters, using bass and drums was a natural fit for the start of that tune.

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