This review was first published in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday on 10 December, 2019 as, ‘Charles sees Christmas our way’.
In a season of annual Christmas pageants and choral events that get local audiences excited, Etienne Charles’s return to the stage for the 2.0 version of his Creole Christmas celebration, subtitled Venezuelan Roots, on Thursday, 5 December, was a needed fillip for the entertainment options here in Trinidad and Tobago that seem to veer away from the contemplation of local art towards the experience of a festive adventure. However, in this case, the two are not mutually exclusive, but integral to showcasing Charles’s Caribbean perspective on the important music of, and music inspired by, the Christmas celebrations.
Quite literally, this concert presents the idea that people in Trinidad and Tobago are part of the wider Americas, and specifically in the Caribbean, they engage with music and the season not via the depictions on a Hallmark postcard or the co-opted Coca-Cola image of Santa Claus, but by the rhythms of musical collaborations from their past, by the celebration of old friends meeting and singing the songs and dancing to the drum beat that pulses in their veins informed by the African-Caribbean heartbeat.
Afro-Venezuelan parranda and Trinidad calypso were enhanced by the language of jazz with its improvisational intent, and by the recollection of a creole heritage that spans from New Orleans to Venezuela, to produce music and an event that marks in the capital city, a reconnection with native insights and an opportunity to define what the season is to a wider cross-section of the population. Folk and popular music, well played, became lynchpins to making this event a mainstay on the Christmas calendar.
That arc of musical influences from New Orleans to Venezuela via the Antilles, from jazz to parranda was provided to an eager audience by Charles and his top-flight musicians, especially the singers Betsayda Machado and Relator; parranda and calypso, two sides of the same coin that represents the songs of Trinidad Christmas. Local audiences know it when they hear it. The singers’ respective tunes were the sing-along anthems that marked high points in the patrons’ awareness that the concert was more than good feelings and light entertainment. This was festivity and finding the centre.
Machado is a one of a kind. An Afro-Venezuelan queen of parranda whose deep, seductive powerful contralto voice passionately conveyed to a receptive audience the potency of parranda, and also showed that the calypso, which was transplanted to Venezuela by local migrations decades ago, has a resonance that allows for familiar songs to become universal. Simply accompanied by cuatro, in the hands of a master Jorge Glem, and cajon performed by Charles, Machado proved to this reviewer that the Trinidad model of parranda (or parang as we call it here), with four or more beautiful female singers harmonising in a throaty high pitch, is not necessary to move people, and to effectively tell the story of an aguinaldo, a rio Manzanares, or a joropo.
Glem, by himself, also introduced the idea, murmured widely after the show, that his cuatro playing is on a different level than anyone else’s in Trinidad. DNA or practice — who knows what’s responsible? — but his agile fingering, strumming, and fretting made his solos and accompaniment veritable feasts for the ears. The Venezuelan roots of Trinidad’s creole Christmas, enhanced by the congas of Ernesto Garcia and the maracas of Clarita Rivas and Pascual Landeau, on the parranda “La Negrita Caridad”, were laid bare by the familiarity of the rhythms and the melodies that are part of our national consciousness.
Before the concert, Charles said of jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon that, “…nobody else can do what he does on trombone…I can’t wait for T&T to experience his artistry.” The wait was worth it. A number of tricks and effects were used by this consummate musician to amusingly make his trombone bray, bleat, whisper, but more importantly, to play the soothing yet joyful tone that guides marches and second lines in New Orleans jazz funerals. A jazz masterclass.
Notable that evening was the use of public domain material by Charles, including music recorded by Edric Connor and Lionel Belasco, and composed by Tchaikovsky. The latter’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was given a Caribbean “hip rotating” funky riddim that suggested, according to Charles, that the fairy was, “from Belmont and not from Russia.” Belasco’s valse, “Roses of Caracas” was played like a New Orleans funeral dirge with competing solos from the horn men, while the Haitian hymn, “Fraiche Rosée” was a music conversation piece between Gordon and Haitian-American saxophonist Godwin Louis. Jazz at its finest within the context of Antillean melodic joy.
Relator, despite a “senior moment” on one song, made his and Spoiler’s Christmas calypsos the new normal, and steelpan legend Earl Rodney caressed his double second pans to make a quiet duet with Charles on Nap Hepburn’s, “Tell Santa Claus”, a simple celebration of who Trinbagonians are. A highlight of the show was the medley of intimate Christmas ballad duets with pianist Sullivan Fortner; Gordon tenderly played “What Child Is This?”, Louis subtly rendered “Who Would Imagine a King”, and Charles blew life into “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” The collective audience consensus was that this was the song cycle of the evening, generating tears.
For over two hours, the audience, a mature set with a small percentage of Etienne Charles’s peers, were regaled by a Caribbean context of Christmas, from the sounds to the way he was dressed in colourful tropical caftan-inspired robes — matched only, as always, by the nattily dressed Louis — to the live parang lavway in the lobby at the end of the show with wine and cheese (that was the one concession to European tropes) as jorts to accompany the pressing of flesh between fans and artistes. Creole Christmas 2.0 ~ Venezuelan Roots was entertainment, but more importantly, for the large audience, it was a further enlightenment towards being proud of what local creatives can do and who they all are as a people, even at Christmas time.
© 2019, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved
- “Juliana” – Lionel Belasco;
- “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” – Tchaikovsky;
- “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” – based on Edric Connor;
- “Roses of Caracas Waltz” – Lionel Belasco;
- Betsayda Machado parrandas: “Cambio Futurista” and “La Negrita Caridad”
— Intermission —
- “Fraiche Rosée” (traditional Haitian hymn arranged by Godwin Louis);
- Christmas Ballad Medley: “What child is this” (Wycliffe Gordon solo), “Who Would Imagine a King” (Godwin Louis solo), ”It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (Etienne Charles solo);
- “Rio Manzanares” feat. Betsayda Machado, Jorge Glem;
- Calipso Medley feat. Betsayda Machado: “All Day Today”, “Isidora”, “Tolè Tolé” (Amba Cay La’ refrain) ;
- “Tell Santa Claus” feat. Earl Rodney;
- Christmas Calypso Medley feat. Relator: “Make a Friend for Christmas”, “Father Christmas” (Spoiler), “Christmas is Yours, Christmas is mine”.