Trumpeter Etienne Charles Connects Jazz and J’ouvert

The Trinidadian musician tells us how freedom and folklore inspire the music of Carnival.

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Mar 12 2017, 5:00am

The raucous festivities at Carnival may seem like the last place one would expect to hear the sounds of jazz. However, if you listen closely to VICE's new documentary "Brooklyn's Dirty Masquerade," the sweet trumpet of Etienne Charles sets the tone for reporter Wilbert L. Cooper's cultural immersion into the lively Flatbush street festival known as J'ouvert. With a commanding blow of his horn, the Trinidadian immigrant guides Cooper on a journey from Flatbush fetes to streets filled with multicolored masqueraders basking in the glory of their independence.

Although Charles likes to preserve the traditions of Caribbean Carnival from the steelpans to playing mas, the improviser also managed to modernize the music of the century-old street party with what he calls "Creole soul." By exploring the rhythmic African cadences of Orisha chants to the contagious and vibrant beats of Caribbean soca, Charles's trumpet tells the story of a prideful people who live in harmony with their history. I spoke with the 33-year-old artist recently to learn not only how his melodic oration gets crowds on their feet, but also how a generation's worth of storytelling is hidden beneath the flamboyant sounds of Carnival.

VICE: How does your Trinidadian heritage impact your music?
Etienne Charles: My music's a reflection of me, so everything that I grew up hearing is in my music. I grew up in Trinidad, so all the sounds of Trinidad are in my musical DNA. My parents are big into Carnival. My dad used to play in a steel band, and my mom plays mas every year, which means she puts on a costume and goes into the street, so that's always been a big inspiration for me.

Calypso and soca are traditionally played at Carnival. How do you incorporate jazz into the celebration?
Calypso documents the happenings of Carnival. They are songs that tell a story and incite a certain type of fun. Soca is a high-energy music that you normally hear at fetes. It's the music that you use to dance through the streets for Carnival. It's a really rich tradition of music. Jazz is the core of music that incorporates African rhythms, improvisation, and a certain type of vocal expression. The music of the Caribbean has that as well. It's very easy for me to incorporate the sounds of Carnival into the sounds of my music. The reason it sounds weird is because you're thinking of jazz as American music and Carnival as a Caribbean thing. But they naturally feed into each other—the art forms are very similar.

Describe your experience performing at Carnival in Trinidad this year.
For Carnival, I put a band on a truck and went out and played all through the streets. This year, the theme was "We the People." We went out into the street and about a thousand people followed us. Before that, I was working on a large piece of music called, "Carnival: A Sound of a People," in which I wrote about all of the different traditions of Carnival and all of the different performers in Carnival.

Why does freedom play such a huge role in Carnival?
I've been living [in the US] for 15 years, and I don't think there's any nationwide celebration for the end of one of the most brutal institutions on the face of humanity. But we in Trinidad celebrate it in a huge way because it's life for us. We were given life because of this. Slavery is death. Freedom is life. By nationally celebrating it, even with all of our different histories and different backgrounds, we come together. It's our defining national ritual. For me, it's a really magical thing. That's why improvisation is so important and the costume portrayal is so important, because all of those things help me to tell whatever story you want to tell.

Which songs were used in the VICE piece, and what are they about?
The songs used were "Papa Bois" and "Folklore" from my album Folklore. Papa Bois is a folklore character. A custom we have in Trinidad is storytelling that comes directly from the African oral tradition. Through that we were able to communicate the stories that were told from our ancestors. The character is some sort of fusion of a half-man, half-animal, almost like a Supreme Being or a guardian. Papa Bois is Creole for "father of the forest," and he's normally half-man, half-deer, and he's the protector of the animals in the forest. He normally has a horn that he blows to call out to distract hunters. "Folklore" is based on an old Orisha chant. It's a special one because the faith of Orisha is one of the few things we have intact from Africa that we have in Trinidad. It tells the whole story of the folklore tradition. It gives me a lot of power knowing our history.

Is that what you experience at Carnival—people who know their history?
Not only that, but they do their part to continue to pass it on to the next generation, or even just the people who come to see it. Carnival is about freedom. It's about celebrating the freedom to live, freedom to do what you want. So seeing the music give the people the power to do what they want is most rewarding. The music reminds people of the freedom that Carnival is about.

Check out more  Etienne Charles's music on his website.

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