Carnival. The Sound of People Madly Clapping. Concert Review

Etienne Charles on stage in Toronto, photo by Maria Nunes

Etienne Charles in Toronto

Carnival. The Sound of People Madly Clapping Volume 1

By Stephen Weir with notes from Ken Bruzual
Trinidad born jazzman Etienne Charles proved the old adage never listen to the Rumour Mill. Word on the street earlier this month was saying that his big venue concert was going to be cancelled because of slow ticket sales.   Although not a total sell-out thanks to Caribbean Camera support Charles’ concert turned out to be hottest ticket in Toronto last Friday night.
Described as one of the most “exciting young jazz artists today” Michigan based Etienne Charles, launched the new “Jazz at the George Series” at the George Weston Recital Hall (the Sony Centre’s North York Theatre).  Charles, his five sidemen, a guest pan player and three costumed performers, also used their first Toronto performance as the North American launching pad for their brand new CD Carnival, the Sound of A People Volume 1.
Charles, who holds a master's of music degree from Juilliard and teaches at Michigan State University, was in Trinidad in 2016 studying and recording that nation’s musical Carnival traditions. The new CD is a mash-up of these audio recordings with his jazz band performing Charles’ carnival themed compositions. Many of the songs on that CD formed the basis of the Toronto concert.
If nothing else the 35-year trumpeter, percussionist and Calypso singer proved to Toronto’s jazz community (and his loyal Canadian Trini fan base) that he is one hard working, dedicated performer and a brilliant Carnival historian. 
His Toronto appearance didn’t begin with a blast from his trumpet, but rather with a chalk talk about the centuries old musical traditions of his birthplace.  For an hour he held court with a very supportive audience covering a sweeping review of Trinidad music beginning with the development of bamboo stalk instruments in 1864 when the British outlawed the playing of drums to the creation of carnival music.  Etienne’s choice of three top pioneers of our mas culture are Lionel Belasco, George Bailey and Lord Kitchener” reports Caribbean Camera contributor and Calypso expert Ken Bruzual who covered the talk.
Sister!  Photo by Maria Nunes

When the lights were dimmed in the 1,000-seat theatre, Charles took to the stage with his band.  Godwin Louis, his alto sax player won an instant cheer from the audience for his sartorial splendour.  He was dressed in a tailored blue plush suit that glowed in the spotlight.  The second mammoth round of applause came when Toronto drummer Larnell Lewis was introduced.  He is one of this country’s most in-demand jazz drummers. Lewis has garnered international status with his recent work with the three-time Grammy Award winning band, Snarky Puppy.
Guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist James Francies and bass man Jonathan Michel rounded out the initial crew on stage.  Before too long traditional carnival costumed performers (including his sister Abby Charles as the Fancy Sailor) joined the band, along with guest Toronto pan master player Mark Mosca.
Charles is a versatile musician, he alternated between the trumpet, the drums and a homemade corrugated steel bang box.  He was also a talkative host, discussing the roots of his music and his connection with Toronto. The American based Trinidadian trumpeter has strong connections with Canada.  In the audience was his Canadian uncle who gave him his first musical instrument, and his parents who flew up from Port of Spain to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary with him.
In the lobby after the show photo by Maria Nunes

The two set, 90-minute concert was fast paced until the show’s end, when Charles played a slow composition in memory of the many Caribbean musicians who have passed over the past year.
During his soulful lament, Toronto actress, director and storyteller Rhoma Spencer dressed as the Agent of Death, and walked in front of the stage just before the band finished the show and left the stage.
That was my crowning moment, “ noted Rhoma Spencer.  “ I walk(ed) in as the Agent of Death during the playing of Memories for those who died. I bowed before him and exeunt in the mystery of my appearance. It was awesome. No mention of me nothing. Just the mystery of the character appearing down the aisle and out. Loved it!”
The performer did have one more surprise for the audience. He showed them he could sing too.  When the Mighty Shadow died in October, Etienne Charles said that he was “grateful for all his music, his voice, vibe, energy and brilliance. We’ll celebrate you on the road this year.” He did just that closing the show singing a Shadow song while the audience stood, clapped and danced in the aisles.
A couple days after the show, Charles sent along pictures to the Caribbean Camera from the Toronto concert taken by Maria Nunes. He also “wrote thank you
TORONTO. Love and gratitude to all who came out to the theatre Friday night. Big up to the band, cast and crew!!! Special thanks to my family who came to support and help out. It takes a village”.


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