Etienne Charles is a connector of styles, a fusion of cultures, and most importantly an visionary of groove music. Bringing together his own influences on his latest record entitled ‘Creole Soul’ entailed not only digging into his own roots, but also the roots of those artists who inspired the very development of his style. We sat down ahead of the 7/23/13 release of ‘Creole Soul’ to break down the concept behind the record and discuss Etienne’s own path. Check it out below and be sure to head over to LPR on 7/23 for the release show!
At what point did you really start the process for Creole Soul?
I started writing the material for Creole Soul in 2010. I’ve been writing music with the same concept for about six years—since I started writing my own original tunes. It’s not a concept that I thought about; it’s a concept based on who I am and what I’ve been with. The bass is very important in my music—I listen to a lot of steel pan, calypso, and reggae. I write with just bass and the counterpoint of the horns.
Creole Soul came from my realization that I hadn’t written original music really since 2008. So I was like, “Okay, let me sit down at the piano and start writing some music.” At the time I had been listening to a lot of field recordings from different parts of the Caribbean and I had been listening to a lot of Motown, Stevie Wonder, Thelonious Monk, and Horace Silver. The first tune that I wrote for this record I believe was “Roots,” and then after that I wrote “The Folks,” and then the tunes started trickling in one-by-one. With “The Folks,” which is about my parents, I was really trying to find ways to connect my parents to the music and to paint them as people through music. It’s about being from the diaspora and the constant search for who you are based on where your people came from—that’s what “Roots” is about. That’s also what “Creole” is about, but “Creole” is about a journey through that.
Break down that word “creole” for me as it means to you.
“Creole” to me means a world within a world. It’s like, we all have these worlds within us. We are one world, but we are one of many different worlds. I’m Trinidadian, but being Trinidadian means that I have many different cultural influences as well as many different influences based on my bloodline. So there are two levels to it—who you are based on the blood that runs through you and then there is who you are based on the identity you connect with based on the environment that you’re around. So for me, “creole” is that. When I think about music, I think about all of the elements that make music one. It’s hardly ever pure. You even go back to European classical music and even with that they’re using the motifs from folk songs. And when it comes to food, you think about creole food and you think about a place like New Orleans with things like jambalaya—a lot of people don’t even know that the implementation of sausage in gumbo and jambalaya is from a German tradition.
A lot of people think of ways to separate things and differentiate, but for me, it’s all about being one. That’s where the concept of “creole” came from. It’s the same with languages. Languages have changed over time. Spanglish is such a big thing in America, but that’s a creole concept right there. In Trinidad we mix French, English, and Spanish. All my friends named Paul growing up were called Pablo. My uncle Peter is Pedro. My grandfather Etienne, who I was named after, is known as Fretienne, which is Patois for “Brother Etienne.” So at one table you’ve got French, English, and Spanish being spoken. It’s about everything being fused. I grew up with that and now I think about the music like that. I approach everything the same way.
You covered artists like Bob Marley and Thelonious Monk on the record. How did they fit into this concept?
To me Thelonious Monk is the perfect example of being creole based on his environment. He was born in North Carolina, moved to New York when he was a young child, and moved to a Caribbean neighborhood. The song “Ruby, My Dear” is about a West Indian Woman. All of his friends growing up were West Indian and when I listen to his melodies, I hear that calypso bounce. Then he hung out in Harlem, another strong Caribbean neighborhood. It was clear that it was a big influence on him. I read the book that Robin Kelley wrote on Monk and it’s very clear that he was a part of the Caribbean community.
Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” number one is just a classic tune. But actually, “Turn Your Lights Down Low” is not a reggae groove, it’s only a kind of a reggae groove. It’s one of those flow-reggae-ballad types. If you listen to the original recording, it’s basically a backbeat tune. The whole concept of Bob Marley’s music is a creole concept—he’s bi-racial, he’s all about his culture, and he’s immersed in all of these different types of music. There’s doo-wop in Bob Marley’s sound—just listen to the harmonies. If you listen to his early hits like “Simmer Down,” you hear that. It’s not that he was thinking about it either, that’s just how it is.
Mighty Sparrow is the same concept. Sparrow was probably one of the greatest calypso singers to ever live. That song “Memories” is about dedication to people who have died. Every culture has a way of doing that. As a singer, he was heavily influenced by Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Ella Fitzgerald. He had this African-folk-storyteller creole going. You hear that in his voice.
Then with “You Don’t Love Me,” I had heard that first as a Dawn Penn tune. But that was actually her cover of the Willie Cobbs tune that was based on a Bo Diddley tune. That is old-school blues. It’s always about fusing the cultures together.
With what I do, I’m trying to fuse two of my biggest influences in Monty Alexander and Marcus Roberts. Marcus Roberts comes from a deep-South gospel blues background and then Monty is from Jamaica. So it’s like a reggae beat with me heavily comping Marcus Roberts and his arranging styles.
What most excites you about releasing this record?
I’m looking forward to just getting to play it because it’s fun to play and can go anywhere. I’m also looking forward to seeing how people react to the music. It’s a lot of different things—jazz, reggae, calypso—and I want people to get up and dance to it. But the record took a lot out of me in terms of writing this music and conceptualizing it. So I’m definitely looking forward to presenting it to everyone.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)