Interview by Eric Sandler, Photos by Jati Lindsay —
The title of trumpeter Etienne Charles’ new album Creole Soul refers to the mixture of influences on the project and his own ethnically diverse background as a Trinidadian. Though the base of his sound is in jazz, Charles’ music includes influences from the French, Spanish and English speaking Caribbean as well as North America, from Haitian Creole chants and blues to rocksteady, reggae and calypso.
To celebrate the launch of the LP, Revivalist, in partnership with LargeUp, is bringing Charles to New York’s Le Poisson Rouge for an album release show on 7/23. Ahead of the LPR apperance and CD release, Revivalist’s Eric Sandler sat down with Charles for a conversation about the inspiration at play on Creole Soul.
At what point did you start the process for Creole Soul?
I started writing the material in 2010. I’ve been writing music with the same concept for about six years—since I started writing my own original tunes. It’s a concept based on who I am and what I’ve been with. The bass is very important in my music—I listen to a lot of steel pan, calypso, and reggae. I write with just bass and the counterpoint of the horns.
At the time I had been listening to a lot of field recordings from different parts of the Caribbean and a lot of Motown, Stevie Wonder, Thelonious Monk, and Horace Silver. The first tune that I wrote for this record I believe was “Roots,” and then after that I wrote “The Folks.” With “The Folks,” which is about my parents, I was really trying to find ways to connect my parents to the music and to paint them as people through music. It’s about being from the diaspora and the constant search for who you are based on where your people came from—that’s what “Roots” is about. That’s also what “Creole” is about, but “Creole” is about a journey through that.
Break down that word “creole” for me as it means to you.
“Creole” to me means a world within a world. We are one world, but we are one of many different worlds. I’m Trinidadian, but being Trinidadian means that I have many different cultural influences as well as many different influences based on my bloodline. So there are two levels to it—who you are based on the blood that runs through you and then there is who you are based on the identity you connect with based on the environment that you’re around. So for me, “creole” is that.
A lot of people think of ways to separate things and differentiate, but for me, it’s all about being one. That’s where the concept of “creole” came from. It’s the same with languages. Languages have changed over time. Spanglish is such a big thing in America, but that’s a creole concept right there. In Trinidad we mix French, English, and Spanish. All my friends named Paul growing up were called Pablo. My uncle Peter is Pedro. My grandfather Etienne, who I was named after, is known as Fretienne, which is Patois for “Brother Etienne.” So at one table you’ve got French, English, and Spanish being spoken. I grew up with that and now I think about the music like that. I approach everything the same way.
You covered artists like Bob Marley and Thelonious Monk on the record. How did they fit into this concept?
To me Thelonious Monk is the perfect example of being creole based on his environment. He was born in North Carolina, moved to New York when he was a young child, and moved to a Caribbean neighborhood. The song “Ruby, My Dear” is about a West Indian woman. All of his friends growing up were West Indian and when I listen to his melodies, I hear that calypso bounce. Then he hung out in Harlem, another strong Caribbean neighborhood. It was clear that it was a big influence on him. I read the book Robin Kelley wrote on Monk and it’s very clear that he was a part of the Caribbean community.
Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” number one is just a classic tune. But actually, “Turn Your Lights Down Low” is not a reggae groove, it’s only a kind of a reggae groove. If you listen to the original recording, it’s basically a backbeat tune. The whole concept of Bob Marley’s music is a creole concept—he’s bi-racial, he’s all about his culture, and he’s immersed in all of these different types of music. There’s doo-wop in Bob Marley’s sound—just listen to the harmonies. If you listen to his early hits like “Simmer Down,” you hear that. It’s not that he was thinking about it either, that’s just how it is.
Mighty Sparrow is the same concept. Sparrow was probably one of the greatest calypso singers to ever live. That song “Memories” is about dedication to people who have died. Every culture has a way of doing that. As a singer, he was heavily influenced by Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Ella Fitzgerald. He had this African-folk-storyteller creole going. You hear that in his voice.
Then with “You Don’t Love Me,” I had heard that first as a Dawn Penn tune. But that was actually her cover of the Willie Cobbs tune that was based on a Bo Diddley tune. That is old-school blues. It’s always about fusing the cultures together.
I’m trying to fuse two of my biggest influences in Monty Alexander and Marcus Roberts. Marcus Roberts comes from a deep-South gospel blues background and Monty is from Jamaica. So it’s like a reggae beat with me heavily comping Marcus Roberts and his arranging styles.