|Etienne Charles with 'Slim' and the |
Moruga Bois drummers. © Maria Nunes
|Recording Desmond Noel, Rato and sons. |
3 generations of Bois Drummers. © Maria Nunes
Charles: “I have hours and hours of field recordings that I had to sift through. I wanted the real shit; to see it and to fuse the sounds with the sights and the history to make music.” These hours of field recordings, this raw ritual music, serves as a bed for the new improvisations that Charles would layer. 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; music based on a “rhythmic premise.” Like Simon, Charles went back to the United States to record with some of the most gifted jazz musicians including Grammy winners Ben Williams on bass and David Sánchez on tenor saxophone. The work on Carnival continues: “Fourteen movements of the suite have been recorded, eight more to write...only gonna be able to play eleven in Trinidad for the sake of time.”
SIDEBAR: The inescapable destiny of comparison
When asked about his current predilection to the long form suite, Charles responded by saying: “Compositions, that's how you engrave your name in history. I mean, I'll still play covers live and maybe record a few, but composition puts you in the books. Not always gonna be called the “Insert Title Here Suite”, but for historical stuff it works. To date, Charles has composed Folklore in 2009 and the just-released San Jose Suite as musical suites.
There are many more musical stories like this that illustrate and signify that the creole imagination was more than audacious, but was determined never to be suppressed or forgotten. There have been dozens of books and scholarly articles as well as hundreds of post graduate theses and a few journals written about Trinidad Carnival, its history and the psychology, the design of the mas' and its relevance, its music.
In the music heard as a preview to the upcoming live performance, Charles has encapsulated 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 subliminal 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 collection 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 mentality that suggests that how we wine is more important than what we are wining to. The balance between art and artefact, between materiality and memorabilia is recognised and Etienne Charles responds with a daring that fits a new vision for native music.
A parallel anecdote: 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.” Naipaul wisely noted that his critic was “a foolish man.”
West Indian men and women of art and scholarship—Andrew Carr and Andrew Pearse, Errol Hill, JD Elder, Peter Minshall—also deem fit the subject of Carnival to be more than an “essay.” Our Carnival must be writ large, not as a snippet. In that important way, Etienne Charles, the chantuelle with a horn, with the forthcoming concert and album in the future effectively covers Trinidad Carnival, its traditions, the diaspora response and the people who make Carnival our gift to the world.
- A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian published as, "An opus writ large"
©2017, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.