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A fourth generation musician, trumpeter Etienne Charles has music in his veins. His eclectic style fuses American jazz with sounds from his native Trinidad, including Afro-Caribbean folk, calypso, as well as Indian classical. Renowned for his jazz prowess, he’s branching out in a way both familiar and entirely new.
- Etienne Charles composer and musician
Etienne Charles: “Folklore:”
Art Interactive – Etienne Charles and Mark Wiener:
MR. KOJO NNAMDICalling Etienne Charles a jazz musician doesn't really do him justice. Sure, he's played jazz from Lincoln in New York to Long Beach in California, and from Thailand to The Netherlands, played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to the Count Basie Orchestra. But in his own music, you will see his real passion. It's a passion for the music of his homeland, Trinidad and Tobago, that country that produces an elaborate mix of calypso and soca and steel pan and Indian music.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIPut it all with a dance beat together and with the trumpet of Etienne Charles, and you've really got something. Etienne Charles joins us in studio. He's a composer and trumpet player who, as I mentioned earlier, hails from Trinidad and Tobago. Etienne, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ETIENNE CHARLESThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDINow, first, let's sample a little bit of Etienne Charles' music.
NNAMDIWhat were we listening to?
CHARLESThat was a track called "Soucouyant," from my last record, "Folklore."
NNAMDIYes, "Soucouyant." Tell our listeners what soucouyant is in Trinidad. She sucks blood.
CHARLESSoucouyant is a ball of fire. Soucouyant flies through the night. And it's funny that in the French-Caribbean, they know what a soucouyant, but they have a very similar character, and, during the day, it hides in the skin of an old, grumpy lady.
NNAMDIWhy did you decide to make a tune about soucouyant?
CHARLESWell, I -- when I was -- well, anytime I'm writing music, I think about something that I remember from...
CHARLES...growing up. And folklore, the folklore stories were stuck in my head at this time. And so I wrote a suite about all the folklore characters. And soucouyant, of course, is one of the most popular and prevalent characters that have been portrayed in paintings and many written stories. So I had to write a song about it.
NNAMDIIn Guyana where I was born, they called it old higue.
NNAMDIYour uncle bought you your first trumpet at the age of 10. And, at least according to your official bio, you quickly became a neighborhood nuisance. What was it about the trumpet that you connected with?
CHARLESIt was there.
NNAMDIIt was there?
CHARLESIt was there. It was a trumpet. You know, it was -- you know, we -- there weren't many other things to be doing.
CHARLESSo I played the trumpet.
NNAMDIMusic's in your family. Your father plays in one of Trinidad and Tobago's best band, the Caribbean's best known steel bands, Phase II.
CHARLESYeah, he play -- he stops playing in Phase II in, I think, in the early '90s. But he played all through the '80s with Phase II. And before that, he was actually with Renegades in the '70s. And so I grew up listening to pan and playing a lot of pan. And that's the first -- that was the first influence for me.
NNAMDIYou also played cuatro, didn't you?
CHARLESYeah, I started -- I actually started playing cuatro only about seven years ago 'cause everybody else in the family knew how to play cuatro.
CHARLESSo I figured I had to know what I was doing on the instrument.
NNAMDIExplain to our audience what a cuatro is.
CHARLESA cuatro is a Venezuelan instrument. It's a four string -- four string is -- well, cuatro meaning four. And it is played a lot in parang and in a lot of rural music in Venezuela and Northern Brazil. In Guyana and Suriname, you find the cuatro going all across that northern part of the South American continent, as well as in Trinidad.
NNAMDIAnywhere you find a group of Trinidadians gathering, then they're going to sing parang. Explain what parang is.
CHARLESParang is a seasonal music about the nativity, about the birth of Christ. It's normally sung in Spanish.
NNAMDIYou will find a cuatro in that group someplace, usually, at that point. We're -- at least -- we're talking with trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Where did you get your formal training in the trumpet?
CHARLESI went to Florida State University for my bachelor's, and I went to Julliard School for my master's.
NNAMDIWhat decided -- what made you decide that you wanted to be a professional trumpet player?
CHARLESIt was something I grew up loving, music. And trumpet was my vehicle to connect to music. And so, when I was in my teens, I knew that I was very interested in it. And I went to a summer program at Berkeley College of Music in 2000. And that was the first time I had been surrounded by many, many, many, many -- about 5,000 -- young people playing music. And from that day, I knew I was going to be a professional musician.
NNAMDIAnd I go to Boston every summer to go to a couple of places where you hear the young people from Berklee who come there to play on the weekend at Wally's Café (unintelligible).
CHARLESExactly. Wally's and shipyard and...
NNAMDIThey come to play on the weekend, and you hear great, great music. And it doesn't cost a great deal. We're talking with one of the graduates of that program. Ten years ago, you were playing rock and roll, maybe some reggae. Today, you seem dedicated to keeping Trini or Trinidadian music and culture alive and growing. And I think some of that happens to do with your relationship with Ralph MacDonald.
NNAMDIRalph MacDonald is a great percussionist, who I always thought was born in Trinidad and Tobago. He wasn't?
CHARLESHe was born in Harlem. He grew up on 117th Street between 5th and 6th.
NNAMDITell our listeners who Ralph MacDonald is.
CHARLESRalph MacDonald is a three-time Grammy Award-winning percussionist, composer, song writer, producer. His track record is phenomenal as a composer, as a percussionist. He started out at age 16 in Harry Belafonte's band, and from there, took off writing songs. He wrote songs for Roberta Flack. He wrote "Just The Two of Us." He wrote...
CHARLESHe wrote "Where Is The Love" for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, which was a big Howard connection with D.C…
CHARLES...and so on. And he's been -- he's like an uncle to me. I met him when I was about 13 or 14 in Trinidad, just on the road on Phase II and reconnected with him when I moved to New York. And I've been on his -- we've just finished another one of his albums. And he's on my records and...
NNAMDIWhat I find amazing is that you point out Ralph MacDonald won three Grammys. He's well-known in musical circles in the United States, and people like me who thought he was born in Trinidad and Tobago realize now that he was actually born in Harlem. But he has, in a lot of ways, dedicated his whole life to the preservation of the culture of Trinidad and Tobago.
CHARLESExactly. Ralph has always pushed forward through the calypso vein and through Caribbean music simply 'cause his father was a calypsonian. His father was Lord Macbeth.
CHARLESAnd so back in the '50s and '40s in Harlem, every band, every calypso -- every band played calypsos.
CHARLESAnd Macbeth had his own calypso band, and they all play opposite Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunsford and Machito and Tito Puente's band. And so calypso was a huge presence in New York then, and you can actually hear the sounds and influences in styles like bebop that came out to Harlem in the '50s. And so Ralph was just always been about pushing that forward.
NNAMDIAnd, now, as a result of your relationship with him, in part, and the result of your own heritage in Trinidad and Tobago, you're continuing that tradition.
CHARLESI'm trying to push it forward.
NNAMDIWhy is that so important to you?
CHARLES'Cause you don't know where you're going to go unless you know where you come from. You know, history is one of our most precious assets, our history, our heritage, who we come from, especially, you know, after losing so much in the Atlantic Ocean. You know, what we've built over the last 200 years as a country, as a people -- we weren't a country until the '60s. But as a people, what we have built in terms of our sound and our culture and the vibrance and the energy, it has to keep pushing forward. And our island is so small that the only thing we can do is take it out to the rest of the world.
NNAMDIWell, Trinidad and Tobago became a country, as you say, got its independence as...
NNAMDIIn 1962. The country in which I was born, Guyana, got its independence in 1966. Before then, we were simply British-colonial territories. But enough of history and back to music. I'd like to play another cut from you. It's called "Douens." And when it's finished, you can tell our listeners what douens means.
NNAMDIWe're talking with trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago. That last cut we were listening to is called "Douens." What's douens?
CHARLESDouens, it is little demons. In a word, they're demons, child demons. The folklore is that when a child dies before having been baptized, it becomes a douen. And so a douen, the character of a douen, its feet are turned backwards, and it wears a long hat covering the face. And douens are simply playful, prankish characters, like a little annoying -- almost like goblins, in a sense. You know, they -- you always find them by the rivers and swamps 'cause they like freshwater crops.
CHARLESSo that's how you can always find where the douens are.
NNAMDIYour CD, "Folklore," started out life as a directed independent study project while you were still in university at Florida State. Tell us about that. How did it come about?
CHARLESWell, I was studying with Marcus Roberts.
NNAMDIHe was your teacher.
CHARLESHe was my teacher, great pianist. And he told me, he said, okay, you need to start writing music. And he said, when you write music, always write from the heart, write from -- home is where the heart is. So, therefore, you're writing from home, you know? So always have a sense of who you are and where you're from in your music. And from that, I started writing the ideas for "Folklore" down.
NNAMDI"Folklore" is based on some great characters from Caribbean legends like Mama Dlo, Papa Bois. Or how do you pronounce it? Papa...
NNAMDIBois. Bois. It's the French. Papa Bois. Who's Papa Bois?
CHARLESPapa Bois. Papa Bois is the father of the forest. You know, it's funny that you see all these environmental activist groups. And all we know from back in the day is Papa Bois. In a long time, we knew if you threw a bottle down, Papa Bois was going to come get it. That was long before we knew about all these different, you know, recycling and all these things. You knew to keep places clean.
CHARLESAnd he protects the animals from poachers. He's a half-man, half-deer, and his beard is full of leaves. He has a bull's horn to call out to people.
NNAMDIA little while ago, you and I were talking about the annual carnival in Trinidad and Tobago that takes place or ends at the beginning of Lent...
NNAMDI...every year. And you were saying that you haven't had a chance to go a lot in recent years.
CHARLESYeah, I missed the carnival. In the last 10 years, I missed eight.
NNAMDIBecause you were just working?
CHARLESWorking. I was in school, you know, and it would -- I would always end up with a midterm or some project due. The project would either be due on Ash Wednesday morning or be due carnival Tuesday. And so I had a huge carnival tabanca for a long time, but now...
NNAMDISee, you use words like tabanca. I had a huge carnival tabanca. That means an addiction of sorts...
NNAMDI...but it's usually applied to an addiction to a member of the opposite sex.
CHARLESExactly. Heartbreak. Heartbreak from not having what once was.
NNAMDIExactly, tabanca. Who influences your music most? Who are your -- who do you see as your strongest musical influences?
CHARLESAs for -- with respect to composers, I would say people like Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Horace Silver, Ralph McDonald, Charlie Parker. I mean, the list is long. Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Lord Kitchener, a man named Piggy Joseph, who wrote a lot of the tunes for Sparrow.
NNAMDISparrow is the King's Sparrow or the Mighty Sparrow...
NNAMDI...who is Trinidad's probably best known and longest reigning calypso...
NNAMDI...calypso Monarch. Why jazz?
CHARLESFreedom of expression in music.
CHARLESFreedom of expression in music. You can say what you want. You can play what you want. And it's a language. It's a language. It's a community. You know, we communicate to each other.
NNAMDIWell, it's my understanding that you're in town to hang out with some Caribbean-American teenagers, exploring music and more. Tell us about that.
CHARLESSo CAFE, the Cultural Academy for Excellence, is the group that has me here this week. I'm doing a residency with them.
CHARLESWe're doing a -- they're celebrating their 15th anniversary this weekend. And it's an afterschool program that happens on Saturdays, and they do academic work. They do theater. They do drama. They do music. So they -- it's an all-encompassing education, which I'm a big fan of because I grew up in that type of environment, not by schooling, just schooling, but with my extracurricular activities.
CHARLESAnd the kids are excellent. They play -- last night, we were rehearsing, and I made a couple of changes 'cause we arranged "Folklore," the music of "Folklore" for them to play on.
CHARLESAnd we made a couple of changes. And just like that, they had it. Boom.
NNAMDIThey picked it up.
CHARLESOkay. Yeah, yeah. Cool. Cool. Oh, you want to do C and A here? Yeah, yeah. Boom, boom. You know? And it's working their memory, and they can immediately adapt, which is what we need in terms of the professional world as well. And...
NNAMDIGot to say thanks to Ms. Green for that because she has...
CHARLESI know. Lorna is doing...
NNAMDILorna Green has been doing CAFE for the last 15 years. I've participated in activities with them in the past. And what she does with those young people is amazing. By the way, rumor has it that Positive Vibrations, the steel band of CAFE, has been practicing its own version of the theme music for this show. And we're going to check out that rumor. We'll see if the steel band version of our theme song really exists, and you'll hear it on the air either tomorrow or at least before June celebration of Caribbean Heritage Month ends.
NNAMDIYou should know, of course, that the last Saturday in June is traditionally the D.C. Caribbean Carnival, in which yours truly is a regular participant. So that'll be the last Saturday in June. But this Saturday is when Etienne Charles will be performing in the 15th anniversary concert for CAFE. And you can find links to the CAFE website at our website, kojoshow.org. Before you go, let's listen to some more.
NNAMDIThe music of Etienne Charles, his latest album "Folklore." Etienne Charles is a composer and trumpet player who hails from Trinidad. In our next hour, when we are discussing the pre-Colonial history of the United States, you'll hear more than you expect about the countries of the Caribbean and the role they may have played in the development of the United States. That's in our next hour with author Daniel Richter. For the time being, Etienne Charles, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
CHARLESThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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