Etienne Charles is a musician who believes in and lives by a tradition that is grounded within his creole soul. The blood that runs through his veins carries the DNA of a Caribbean life infused by Spanish, French and African ancestries all within a modern music industry milieu that recognises art, folk and commercial music with equal importance.
On Thursday, Charles will again engage with a local concert audience, this time at the 1,200-seat Lord Kitchener Auditorium at NAPA in Port of Spain for his Creole Christmas 2.0: Venezuelan Roots. His goal is to revisit the original idea of finding the Caribbean perspective to the annual Christmas celebrations and its music, but with the twist of wider collaboration with musicians steeped in the language of improvisation and the knowledge of traditional music from this region.
An important revelation by Charles was that part of his heritage is his ancestry from Venezuela. “At the core, musically, one part of my heritage that I haven't seriously explored as an arranger, composer and improviser is that of my ancestry that comes from Venezuela,” Charles said in a conversation before the concert in Trinidad. He added that, “I've also been seriously checking out the Afro-Venezuelan traditions, parranda, merengue, joropo, valse etc.”
His collaborations are thus noteworthy, in that they allow local audiences to engage with the best of their respective crafts without diluting any chauvinistic appeal for “we own ting.” For this concert, Charles will be having on stage with him, singer Betsayda Machado, “the voice of Venezuela,” percussionist Daniel Prim and Venezuelan cuatro virtuoso Jorge Glem. Charles explains, “Betsayda brings a new dimension to the show. She is the voice of her people. I hear and feel the ancestors present in her music. Her voice dances and lifts both band and audience.”
He adds, “By digging deeper into the Afro-Venezuelan folk tradition of Parranda, we're exploring another formidable canon and tradition of Christmas music. It has been fun learning from people like Jorge and Betsayda through their music about it.” In 2015, the programme for Etienne Charles’s Creole Christmas album launch concert — 1.0, if you will — read, “we celebrate the reflection and return of the native gaze to local audiences in need of an antidote to artificial snow.” That positioning the music of the season within the prism of improvised joy and native impulses is what makes Charles distinctive here in TT.
Distinctiveness aside, Charles is building an expanding local audience that is both attuned to our local stories and traditions and willing to discover the new. Fresh new arrangements of the Christmas classics and songs from Relator, Spoiler, Lionel Belasco as well as Tchaikovsky and the American songbook are on the cards and to achieve this goal of discovery is to bring the finest performers from around the world for his concerts.
Charles notes that, “this band is special, with Grammy winners and world-class musicians from New Orleans, Georgia, Oakland, NYC, Venezuela, Israel and of course TT. This concert is a reunion. This concert is family, love and fellowship through music. The energy of the Christmas season in TT is palpable and I can’t wait to celebrate with so many amazing musicians, and from our history there are so many Christmas songs that come from here, so, there's always something to learn.”
One of those musicians who Charles is depending upon to build this audience is his mentor Wycliffe Gordon, “an incredible musician, composer and ambassador for this music. Nobody else can do what he does on Trombone,” Charles notes with assuredness. “I've been trying to bring him to TT for years, but our schedules never aligned, until now. I can't wait for TT to experience his artistry.”
Charles represents the artiste who falls in line with the policy vision of governments here for local artistes to become global. He has travelled and performed on all the continents, he has recorded widely, he has put into the public consciousness the idea of TT native music, culture and folklore being ripe for intelligent and accessible commercial engagement. And with this concert and the subsequent tour in the Americas — and the planned recording of the concert and its music for future sales — the message of the creole Christmas will gain ascendency in the wider Americas still beholden to warm woollen mittens and sleigh rides.