Etienne Charles takes a musical deep dive


In Carnival – The Sound of a People 2.0, Etienne Charles takes indigenous music to a new level with a deep exploration of societal issues. 



by Franka Philip

Etienne Charles and his band of top notch musicians staged the world premiere of Carnival – The Sound of a People 2.0 for a packed Queen’s Hall on January 14.
A year ago, at the premiere of Volume 1, the audience experienced the range of indigenous sounds Charles had investigated through guest appearances that included the Laventille Rhythm Section, Black Indians, Tobago Tambrin Band, the Original Jab Jabs and pan icon Earl Rodney. This time, there were fewer guests and a deeper exploration of the music, what Charles described as a journey “into the themes of society and culture in Trinidad and Tobago”.

Carnival – The Sound of a People 2.0 featured seven new pieces, five of which were played in a first half that reflected the trumpeter’s self-confessed fascination with Devils. The piece Bookman aka Beelzebub, was dedicated to the memory of Benidict Morgan, who played the traditional Carnival character for many, many years on the streets of Port of Spain. Bookman is a heavy percussive piece and the sense of menace was ever present, especially with the use of the bass as a dominant instrument.

In his introduction to Imps, Charles explained that if a Trini asks, “Yuh is ah imps or what?” it usually means, “are you stupid?” The Imps are a part of our Carnival tradition, with their eerie papier mache masks, wings and keys to the underworld. The energy of this piece evoked for me, a picture of roguish youth frolicking and doing silly stunts, a badness that was not evil or menacing. It was my favourite piece of the evening and at its heart was a brilliant drum solo by the fantastic drummer Obed Calvaire.

Charles said he was moved by the story of the Baby Doll character and drew parallels in the plight of so many local youths who are growing up without fathers, falling into crime and getting killed at a young age. Baby Doll was a touching lament for those young men.

The first half was rounded out by Pay the Devil which is based on the driving Blue Devil rhythms. This piece saw Charles and guitarist Alex Wintz going at it hard in this appropriately aggressive piece.

Dame Lorraine opened the second half of the concert and it certainly captured the vibe of the beloved Lord Kitchener classic. In an interview for the Talk ‘Bout Us podcast, Charles described Dame Lorraine as “a jazzy Sugar Bum Bum”. This year, the Dame Lorraine was portrayed by Eric Nicholson who played up the sauciness of the character to the hilt as the very jazzy sections gave way to a calypso breakdown, a slice of bacchanal in the music.

When Charles was here in 2016, doing research for this collection of music, he became aware of the exploitation of performers in Carnival, “you can’t do research about Carnival and not notice there is corruption,” he said. This was what inspired the piece Overseer, which he described as, “a musical rant, social commentary without lyrics.”

The 34-year-old trumpeter has said he is intrigued by the devil characters in our culture and in fact, Carnival – The Sound of a People was based on an initial study of the devil characters that Charles started several years ago. During his three months of research in 2016, he spent a significant period in the hills of Paramin with the group 2001 Jab Molassies, the men who bring the Blue Devils to life. The result was a mesmerising piece of genius called, quite simply, Jab Molassie.
On the road, screaming Blue Devils approaching is scary enough – you could at least run for cover, but imagine being seated in Queen’s Hall and a Blue Devil singles you out for attention. One patron had that unnerving experience but it was par for the course, as the Devils made the auditorium their playground. Jab Molassie has also been made into a music video that was premiered at a session hosted at the IMAX a few days before the concert.

Carnival – The Sound of a People 2.0 had a happy swinging finale which shone the spotlight on drummers Wayne “Lion” Osuna, Everard “Redman” Watson and Obed Calvaire. Calvaire solo felt like a coruscating masterclass in drumming that left the audience in awe.

The music of Carnival – The Sound of a People 2.0 is accessible, enjoyable and should be heard more widely. This concert showed the spectacular evolution of Etienne Charles as a musician and his importance as a surveyor of our history and culture.

  • Franka Philip is the co-founder of Trini Good Media. She is a journalist who has worked across print, radio and online for more than 20 years.

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Etienne Charles
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