From the liner notes to Trinidadian jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles’ new CD Folklore, set for release in June 2009
By John Stevenson
Gifted with a trumpet technique that draws on the melodic and technical resources of that instrument’s most renowned exponents, but yet retaining his own individualistic aesthetic, Etienne Charles also proves himself to be a peerless jazz raconteur.
With Folklore, he presents a suite of jazz-oriented compositions that address the sometimes neglected mythical heritage of the Caribbean region. Originating from tales handed down over the past four centuries from slaves who came from West Africa, the fascinating lore surrounding Douens, La Diablesse, Papa Bois, Mama D’lo, Mama Malade, and Soucouyant deals with a unique spirit-space that yields rich philosophical and cosmological insights into Afro-Caribbean heritage, and by extension, the human condition.
In parlaying the stories of these mythical characters into a meticulously crafted selection of rhythmic gems, nobody comes better prepared than Etienne Charles. Etienne cut his musical teeth in Trinidad, the cradle of calypso culture. The southernmost island in the Caribbean archipelago is also one of the region’s most astonishingly multicultural nations, boasting a rainbow-like array of peoples whose forbears derive from native Carib and Arawak stock, as well as Middle-Eastern, African, European, Indian, and Chinese heritage. Etienne’s mixed African, Spanish and French lineage mightily informs his oeuvre.
Folklore is a delightful introduction, featuring a Yoruba chant and an infectiously throbbing kalenda (stick fight) pulse. Etienne’s trumpet floats in airily alongside Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s guttural tenor saxophone obbligato. It sets the scene for Douens, with its vintage calypso feel. The tune refers to the faceless, genderless, child demons who roam the earth with their feet turned backwards. The Douens, analogous to Irish leprechauns and the Afro-Hispanic Douende creatures – have a predilection for sleight-of-hand trickery and prankishness.
Etienne’s bouncy trumpet refrain bears a close resemblance to the darting, sprightly nature of the Douens. It is an engaging tune enhanced by Schwarz-Bart’s incisive soprano saxophone solo, Milan Milanovic’s sparkling comping and Ralph MacDonald’s percussive colours. The theme for Dance With La Diablesse, Luques Curtis’ arco bass and Obed Calvaire’s roiling drums, suggests an air of menace that continues throughout the composition.
The modal treatment lends a distinctive dramatic tension to one of the most fearsome characters in Caribbean folklore – a diabolical female possessed with a human leg and a cow’s hoof, immaculately concealed under a snow-white dress. The manipulation of the traditional lavway motif offers more in the way of intrigue and drama in Laja Who?, an extended composition continuing the story of La Diablesse, but from a more percussive and improvisatory standpoint, throwing Etienne’s expressive and articulate trumpet solo into the spotlight.
The folk character of Mama Malade is the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth. She is also reputed to utter the sound of a crying child. The composition’s subdued tone, together with Etienne’s plaintive flugelhorn notes, lend to the tune a markedly evocative quality. Also analagous to the Soukougnan in Guadeloupean folk culture, and the succubus in European mythology, the Soucouyant is an older woman who flies through the night as a ball of fire entering homes through crevices to suck the blood of men, shedding her skin in the process. In their interpretation, Charles and company similarly conjure up images of yet another of the most malevolent characters in Caribbean folk history. The double-time, percussion-heavy treatment in both jazz and calypso styles, adverts directly to the physical speed with which this being traverses the earth in search of her hapless victims.
Mysterieuse, features the pleasingly balladic soprano saxophone and trumpet work of Schwarz-Bart and Charles. It is a ‘chilled-out’ musical reverie, suffused with a balmy sense of introspection. This laid-back groove also flows into Mama D’lo, the quintessential Caribbean jazz portrayal of the “Mother of the water”, a figure represented in European mythology as a mermaid, and which survives in West African riverine and coastal cultures as Mami Wata. Mama D’lo, with her serpent-like body, is generally viewed in complimentary terms as a protector figure whose wrath should not be incurred. Etienne’s sotto voce steel pan gives it a fittingly haunting invocation.
Santamanite, a corruption of the phrase sans humanite, is an infectious piece moulded along the lines of the classic Trinidadian motif. The term is used as a clincher in an extemporised kaiso verse. The track features Etienne doubling on trumpet and on the cuatro, a traditional four-stringed lute popular in Trinidad and Venezuela. The cuatro, bass fiddle and horns evoke a sense of nostalgia. MacDonald’s distinct conga style and Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe’s outstanding tenor steelpan cameo are definite highlights.
Papa Bois is viewed as the most benevolent figure in Caribbean folklore. As guardian of the forests, he roves across vast tracts of sacred land, sometimes in the form of a deer, at others, in dishevelled clothing. When he appears in human form he is an old man with leaves growing out of his beard. Known for freeing animals from traps and for driving hunters away from the forest, you could say he is an environmental patron saint of sorts. The hypnotic and polyphonic interaction of acoustic bass, percussion, drumset and piano on this track is suggestive of a land thickly forested with bonhomie and hopes for a brighter future.
Folklore is in many respects a landmark effort. Importantly, it gives a poignant sense of validation to the folk aspect of Caribbean society – an aspect through which our collective African identity is renewed and celebrated. It also underscores our need to enthusiastically embrace prodigious talents such as Etienne Charles, who lead the way in musically curating vital works in our socio-cultural and spiritual heritage.