United By a Name: The Story Behind Etienne Charles’ “San Jose Suite”

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Between recording schedules, touring, and rehearsals, it’s not often musicians have the freedom to dedicate time to travel for the sake of leisure, much less research. Even so, trumpeter and bandleader Etienne Charles journeyed through Costa Rica, Trinidad, and California to explore a place all three areas have: a city known as San Jose.

With the support of Chamber Music America, he created the “San Jose Suite,” a music piece inspired by his experiences in each place and the people he met. Indeed his travels took him well into the past of these three cities to understand the history, culture, and musical traditions of each one. As part of Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant program, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Summer Fest will feature the world premiere performance of this brand-new commissioned work.

As Charles noted in our interview, “Going backward is the only way to go forward,” and he kept that in mind when creating his suite by studying the indigenous peoples and African Diaspora in each place, observing both populations’ influence on, and relationship with, music.

He explains the experience led to encounters with community leaders and cultural celebrations, which led to a greater appreciation for each city’s rich heritage. Traveling only with a photographer, he noticed the common thread with both populations. As he observed, “In each city, there was the presence of conquest, resistance, and community.” He observed that each population’s relationship with conquest made the presence of resistance stronger. As a result, there was an increased sense of community and culture.

In Costa Rica, Charles met with the Boruca, one of the country’s oldest indigenous populations. Despite Spanish colonization throughout the region, Charles noticed the Boruca are extremely proud of their ability to retain their culture. He experienced this pride firsthand at their annual festival, Juego de los Diablos. The celebration honors their resistance to Spanish colonization with a four-day depiction of Spaniards being chased off by the Boruca.

He recalls the ornate masks the community wore and a dance that symbolized the community’s victory over colonization. Charles witnessed music as an important part of the culture as well. “It is ritual based music, improvisational, and a central part of the Juego de los Diablos festival,” he adds.

In studying the African Diaspora of Costa Rica, Charles met with people in the Cahuita area of Puerto Limon. Located on the eastern coast of Costa Rica, this region was where Africans arrived in the late 19th century. Charles saw how Afro-Costa Ricans have maintained their own traditions through their food and dialect. Music from this area is also distinctly different from other Costa Rican music, as much of it carries calypso characteristics and features comparsas, lively bands that play during parades and celebrations.

Charles’ travels to Trinidad included visiting a shaman to learn about indigenous Arima Carib history. The shaman, Cristo Adonis, gave Charles “an oral history of the community and played sacred songs influenced by parang.” This genre of traditional folk music is generally known as seasonal Christmas music, where parang singers and musicians carol from house to house, dance, and enjoy food with neighbors.

Highlighting the African Diaspora experience in Trinidad, Charles recalls that the Cedula of Population in 1783, an edict which opened immigration to the island of Trinidad, brought many Africans as slaves, and some as planters. The culture they developed includes various rituals, both spiritual and secular, with folklore playing a key role in formal and casual settings. Music derived from this population includes steel-pan and calypso, which both developed from music slaves created for Carnival festivities. Over time, both steel-pan and calypso music have become popular throughout the world and are recognized as some of Trinidad´s greatest exports.

When Charles set out for San Jose, California, he arranged to meet with the Muwekma Ohlone tribe to focus on the indigenous history of the region.  The tribe is comprised of all the known surviving American Indian lineages native to the San Francisco Bay Area. Community leaders explained to Charles that despite resistance, they’ve been colonized over time – first by Spain, then by Mexico, and ultimately by the United States. One way to retain their traditions is through music, which Charles observed.

His study of the African Diaspora in San Jose included examining the events and people of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He spent a great deal of time with Harry Edwards, a central figure in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and they discussed the ways Tommie Smith and John Carlos were vilified for their Black Power Salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

“Now, almost fifty years later,” Charles points out, “San Jose State University has a statue of the alumni and Olympians in the middle of campus, and the men are revered as heroes for their protest to racism.”

As Charles looks forward to the premiere of “San Jose Suite” this August, he notes how his work parallels the approach of two other types of artists – painters and comedians. As a fan of New York abstract painter Max Spoerri, Charles describes his most recent work as something that will be a unique and personal experience for listeners.

Much like Spoerri, Charles translated his travels and the stories of the people he met into a colorful picture. “It has different chords, assorted shapes to melodic lines, and a range of grooves from dense to sparse,” said Charles.

Considering he views his role as musician and storyteller, he reveals he often studies comedians´ delivery methods. When composing music, he thinks about the most effective way to set up a story, to provide rhythm in order to get listeners interested and involved, and paces the story to music. He sees jazz as the music of hope, even in the face of adversity, and a tool for musicians and listeners alike to embrace others´ experiences. His experience traveling to the three San Jose cities was spirited, personal, and deeply meaningful –surely the music will be just as rich.

The World Premiere for Etienne Charles’ “San Jose Suite” will happen Sat Aug 8 at 3pm on the California Theatre Stage. He also performs that same day with his band Creole Soul at 6pm on the Umpqua Bank Stage. If you haven’t already, click here to purchase your Summer Fest 2015 tickets. For more information on Etienne Charles, visit etiennecharles.com.