“There’s this whole rhetoric about how this culture is dying. I never paid attention to that, and I didn’t believe it,” says Trinidad-born trumpeter Etienne Charles.
But it wasn’t until Charles returned home to delve into the exuberantly creative cultural explosion around Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival that he fully realized just how wrongheaded the doomsayers are. Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he spent almost three months exploring different manifestations of carnival music, dance and vivid street theater, experiences that inspired the music on his gorgeous 2017 album “Carnival: The Sound of a People Volume One” (Culture Shock Music).
Charles presents the West Coast debut of the project Thursday Feb. 28 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center and Friday at the SFJazz Center, where he’s been spending time lately as a recently minted member of the SFJazz Collective. Much like the Collective, the stellar Creole Soul sextet highlights the Caribbean currents woven into the foundational fabric of jazz, influences that are often minimized in historical accounts of jazz’s origins.
Creole Soul includes Haitian-American alto saxophonist Godwin Louis, a rising force on the New York scene little heard in the Bay Area as yet; bassist Reuben Rogers, who hails from St. Thomas; and New Orleans pianist Sullivan Fortner, a recent Grammy Award winner for his collaboration with Cécile McLorin Salvant on “The Window” (Mack Avenue).
Guitarist Alex Wintz, a compatriot of Charles’ from Juilliard, and drummer Jamison Ross, a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour band, round out the ensemble (Ross takes over the drum chair from Haitian-American SFJazz Collective drummer Obed Calvaire).
“I love working with musicians who understand the aesthetics of Caribbean music, who understand the rhythms,” says Charles, 35. “The Spanish tinge that Jelly Roll Morton talked about is the Caribbean lilt. Sullivan is from New Orleans, which is the northernmost part of the Caribbean. Jamison is living in New Orleans. When I put bands together, the groove comes first.”
Part of carnival’s enduring power is that way it channels and frames cultural practices that West African peoples brought to the Caribbean when they were transported there to work as slaves. By allowing for the overthrow of racial and class hierarchies, however briefly, the celebrations supercharged the music with “a higher purpose,” Charles says. “It’s supposed to take people out of their daily reality.”
Traveling back home to immerse himself in Trinidad’s carnival culture lifted Charles out of the intensive academic track he’d been on for 15 years. After studying with pianist Marcus Roberts at Florida State University, he earned a graduate degree at Juilliard and now works as an assistant professor of jazz studies at Michigan State. He hadn’t been back for carnival season since he was a teen, when his experience of the celebration focused playing in steel bands.
“I knew that process start to finish,” he says. “The other traditions I had to dig in and study. I met with all these different people, instrument makers, costume makers, spoken word artists, musicians, martial artists. It showed me how strong the traditions are and how they’re thriving.”
Along the way, he joined the ranks of the Jab Molassie, dancing with the cobalt-blue-painted, fire-breathing carnival characters. He traced the evolution of bamboo percussion groups – which still perform – after British colonial authorities banned skin drums.
For the SFJazz performance, the concert includes videos shot during carnival and special guests from Trinidad, such as Steffano Marcano, a legendary Jab Molassie, and Tracey Sankar, an award-winning carnival fire breather.
“I want people to be able to see characters they may not have seen before,” Charles says. “The Jab Molassie dance has not been codified, and it’s 200 years old. It brings a street element to the music, a complete raw and authentic element to the presentation. It’s a result of freedom, and it hasn’t been put in a cage.”
While carnival culture thrives, other Trinidadian traditions have faded. In the week following his California performances, Charles returns to Trinidad to perform with a calypso brass band playing vintage songs that he transcribed from 1930s-40s recordings. Dismayed when he didn’t see any brass bands parading, he decided to revive the tradition himself, hiring a truck and a group of musicians.
“The first two years I did it was just my band,” he says. “It’s an extension of this project. This year there are three brass bands on the road. A generation of people who never saw music made live are experiencing this. They’d see a DJ push a button. But we’re driving around the streets, and every boy and girl can see and feel the excitement of a brass band.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
ETIENNE CHARLES & CREOLE SOUL
When & where: 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; $31.50-$36.75, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org
Also: 7:30 p.m. Friday March 1, SFJazz Center’s Minor Auditorium, 201 Franklin St., S.F. $25-$50, 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org