Etienne Charles’ Creole Christmas returns the native gaze to local audiences.
Derek Walcott in his Nobel lecture back in 1992 posited a view of how tourists see the Caribbean: “Winter adds depth and darkness to life and literature and in the unending summer of the tropics not even poverty or poetry…seems capable of being profound because the nature around it is so exultant, so resolutely ecstatic, like its music. A culture based on joy is bound to be shallow.” The tourist gaze has been described by some as the dominant way of observing or making sense of the world. Etienne Charles clearly is not going in that direction.
In his movements around the world, Charles has been a leader in situating the “native gaze” to his music by channelling the “new colours, new textures, and new motifs” of his creole soul, his Caribbean spirit into a collaboration with and celebration of the New World music called jazz. Tonight, we celebrate the reflection and return of the native gaze to local audiences in need of an antidote to artificial snow.
Charles has journeyed back home with his band of Yankees (no pejorative meaning implied) to do that necessary collaboration with island favourites, collaborations of culture, language, ethos that spark an improvisation of mood, spirit and music.
The cuatro, the signifier of parang, a music we call our own, in spite of its origins in Bolívar’s land, is in the hands of virtuosos. Jorge Glem and Robert Munro, a Venezuelan and a Trinidadian, have equally mastered the instrument within their respective home countries. Etienne Charles has utilised their skills to re-imagine Tchaikovsky’s music from the Christmas-themed ballet, “The Nutcracker”. The strum and ‘thrang’ of the cuatro strings (a Walcott joke on Sturm und Drang), the onomatopoeic sounds of plucked nylon transform a Russian ballet into a parang jam.
The obvious tension inherent in transcribing Russian melodies into a sound we know as our own is eased by the benevolence of the musicians on the album Creole Christmas, and on the stage. Audiences can genuflect at the genius of David “Happy” Williams, Clarita Rivas and Stanley Roach. The double-bass doubling as a box bass, the shac shac, the creole violin; the rhythm and melody of a Christmas lavway are given significance. Charles has made sure of that.
Our music is on the same page as the tunes for ballerinas and hot gospellers. “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is a shared experience by us all as we give joy to the Nativity. “This Christmas” bubbles with the excitement of a sing-along of epic proportions.
Relator is a modern Caribbean troubadour. Not the ancient wandering minstrel, but a working calypsonian who in addition to singing about food prices, celebrates in original song a meaning of Christmas that is closer to our shared existence in these hot latitudes.
A French Antillean can juxtapose musically with a Venezuelan and a Trinidadian holding down the bottom can keep the beat with his American counterpart. Charles’ view of the creole soul, so aptly reflected in his last album of the same name, encompasses wider spaces for our collective interaction.
The creole canon of seasonal songs is replete with references to the idea that this is a time not for warm woollen mittens and sleigh rides, but for the celebration of our favourite things. Friendship, local humour, picong and scandal, sharing and caring, the absence of a kind of gaudy materiality are given equal time with the truer meaning of Christmas.
The native gaze is turned inwards as we see and hear the result of a confident musician challenging notions, challenging structures, challenging ourselves to see and hear beyond the boundary. The Caribbean, the “other America” is his homeland, despite him having a US zip code, and this journey home, beyond metaphors, is to guarantee that the illimitable influences here are ultimately reflected there.
Etienne Charles has mined the depths of our collective culture and crafted a tribute to the influence that the “unending summer of the tropics” has on a whole range of songs from the holiday songbook. He came back home because he had to. To be that secure and that confident in the idea of a creole Christmas celebration, a return was inevitable.
Read this and other stories and articles in the current issue of Jazz in the Islands.
© 2015, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.