Etienne Charles – Carnival: The Sound of a People (Concert Review)

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Etienne Charles

On the evening of November 16, 2018, Trinidadian native, amazing trumpet player, recording artist, bandleader, composer, arranger and educator Etienne Charles brought to Toronto his most recent project, Carnival: The Sound of a People. It was the  first concert of the Jazz at the George Series, a new jazz series presented by Sony Centre for the Performing Arts at the George Weston Recital Hall (Toronto Centre for the Arts). It was also the premiere of Carnival: The Sound of a People (the recording) in North America. Mr Charles has close connections to Canada, he has family in Toronto. It was his Canadian uncle the one who introduced Etienne to the trumpet in his early years.

Carnival: The Sound of a People is an epic musical endeavour of profound dimension. It’s a fascinating artistic statement that goes deep into the roots of Trinidadian culture, into Afro-Caribbean history. It celebrates the identity, the survival of a people through music and dance, through traditional manifestations of sarcasm and rebellion against the oppressors, but also of joy and struggle for freedom, all of this kept alive in the carnival festivities.

Etienne Charles - Carnival - The Soul of a People
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The concert was more than music, it was dance, popular traditions, street artistic manifestations, including carnival costumed performers who joined the band on stage. Mr. Charles’ sister Abby Charles was dressed up as the Fancy Sailor, a traditional character during the carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago. From the liner notes on the album (Carnival: The Sound of a People Vol 1) which I bought that night after the concert, I extract the following: “Funded by a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, Charles travelled to his homeland, Trinidad & Tobago in 2016, making audio and video field recordings of some of the richest traditions of carnival to inspire his compositions. The music of this album reflects his encounters with the people. Their defining sounds and stories, as well as the history of carnival, one of the most fascinating, dynamic traditions of the Americas.”

Etienne Charles and his band performed most of the music from the album: Jab Molassie, Dame Lorraine, Moko Jumbie, three movements of the micro-suite Black Echo, as well as other compositions from his previous recordings. On Carnival: The Sound of a People Vol 1 Etienne Charles continues with his writing and compositional style, working around important, historic themes, with extensive research, field recordings (audio and video), the kind of projects an ethnomusicologist always dreams of working on.

The Band was integrated by Etienne Charles on trumpet, congas and percussion; Godwin Louis on alto sax; Alex Wintz on electric guitar; James Francies on piano; Larnell Lewis (from Toronto) on drums; Jonathan Michel on bass, and guest Mark Mosca on steel pans and barril (he’s also from Toronto).

We were all delighted to see Mr. Larnell Lewis as part of the band. He’s a well-known Torontonian award winning artist, acclaimed for his work with Michael League and Snarky Puppy. Other highlights of the night were the participation of another Torontonian of Trinidadian descent, Mr. Mark Mosca, a master award winning steel pan, percussionist. The traditional costumed performers played a very important role adding the theatrical and carnivalesque athmosphere to the show, specially the Blue Devil character, who was screaming as a mad man (or devil) dancing swiftly and moving all over the stage. Toronto actress, director and storyteller Rhoma Spencer dressed all in black representing Death made an appearance in front of the stage as Mr. Charles and his band interpreted the tender ballad “Memories,” a rearranged old calypso by Winsford Devine that pays tribute to people who have recently passed away. People who Mr. Charles have known, like steel pan, percussionist Ralph MacDonald, one of his former teachers and one of his biggest mentors.

Attending the show were Etienne Charles’ parents, who flew all the way from Port of Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago, to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary with him.

All in all, a magnificent show, highly educational and entertaining, with a profound cultural, historical message.

Photographs by Atael Weissman – click on the images to enlarge
(see full gallery on our Facebook page)

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