It’s carnival time in Toronto
Jazz artist Etienne Charles taps roots for bold new project
Etienne Charles grew up with the sights and sounds of carnival in and around his childhood home in Trinidad and Tobago. But it was in the decidedly chillier climes of Toronto in the company of a certain uncle that he heard the music that would set him on course to becoming one of the most exciting new jazz composers and performers on the planet.
Charles brings his most ambitious musical project to date,
to the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Nov. 16.
“When I was little, my sister and I and my mom went to visit my uncle in Toronto,” says Charles. “He pulled out a sax and played it for us, and he let me try it. And from then on, I was hooked on making sounds. That same uncle gave me a trumpet many years later, so yeah, Toronto has a big role to play in my becoming a musician.”
But, back to Trinidad and Tobago, where carnival, an annual festival that dates back hundreds of years, incorporates numerous artistic traditions, always centred in music.
Three years ago, Charles, who is also a professor of jazz studies at Michigan State University, got a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to compose a suite of music inspired by carnival, and he returned home to immerse himself once again in this tradition.
He travelled across the country, meeting and recording artists on the streets and used these sessions to inspire and inform the album.
“It was always about introducing them and their sounds and their traditions, and then showing my musical reaction to it as a composer and improviser,” says Charles. “It is really a dialogue.”
Charles has made a wonderful habit of taking musical traditions from the past and putting a modern jazz spin on them, as demonstrated on his latest (and fourth) album,
“A lot of people want to focus on what’s new, but the thing is there is nothing really new,” he says. “In music, as a composer, I am way more inspired when there is a story or an event or a series of events. Like, with carnival, there is just such a rich tradition that has so many different influences and is always evolving because it is a dialogue with a society over more than 200 years.”
Indeed, as Charles points out, one could actually trace the history of Trinidad and Tobago through carnival.
He intends to showcase some of that history for Torontonians this month, who will get the first taste of the carnival suite of music but also get a look at some of the incredible costumes and dances that characterize the festival. Charles will also screen some original videos that showcase the musicians and events from his field recordings in Trinidad and Tobago.
“You’re going to hear the music and see some of the costumed performers onstage dancing with us, so people can see what inspired the composition,” he says.
Etienne Charles celebrates his Trinidadian roots with new album