Etienne Charles is a business savvy, multi-talented musician who recently released a very successful album, Creole Soul. I caught up with him in Ann Arbor before his hit at Kerrytown Concert House, the intimate venue that’s a re-purposed Victorian home close to the almost-famous Zingerman’s Deli. We spoke about the usual “10 Fingers” questions, and in celebration of the release of his fourth album, we got a little bit more in depth about his influences, family, friends and school of thought.
Usual 10 Fingers:
1. What music did you listen to today?
Soul Cavern by Charlton Singleton. It’s a brand new record that just came out by a trumpet player from Charleston, South Carolina. He’s a good friend of mine.
2. What is your favorite music to dance to?
Calypso, soca, reggae and salsa.
3. What is your favorite music to listen to if you need to relax?
If I need to just chill, I don’t listen to music. If music is playing then I’m focused on what’s going on, no matter how chill that music is. But Shirley Horn is my “relaxant” but I’m still always thinking about what’s going on.
4. What was the first album you bought that you couldn’t stop listening to?
Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival. It’s a great record, I still bump it in the car.
5. What music was being played around the house when you were growing up?
Everything. Calypso, reggae, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Miami Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan, and whatever was hot on the radio. My dad had the records because he was a DJ, so he would also play the records in the house. A lot of American music too, a lot of Stevie Wonder. One of the first songs I ever remember hearing was “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Any time I hear the introduction to that song, I’m taken right back to when I was like 3 years old. Also, Marvin Gaye. He was also big into Colombian music like Carlos Vives.
6. What is one thing a mentor has told you that has stuck with you, and that you continue to remind yourself of?
Own your music. Make sure that you come out in your music, make sure that what makes you feel goes into your music and that where you’re from and what you are has a big part in the music. Many different mentors have told me that. Ralph MacDonald has told me that, Marcus Roberts has told me that, Monty Alexander told me that. Put a lot of “you” into it, because that’s all you have. We can only be us, and the sooner you connect with who you are and what has shaped you, the more comfortable you’ll be as your musical self. Own your stuff, really own your stuff. It’s a tough industry out there.
7. What song was stuck in your head today?
8. Name a few musicians that you’ve never seen live, that you want to see. (alive or dead)
Lord Kitchener. Mighty Spoiler, he died way too young. He was kind of like the Charlie Parker of Calypso music. Marvin Gaye. The original Temptations. Rafael Mendez. Armando Peraza. Harry Belafonte. Tito Puente’s orchestra. One of my biggest regrets is, I was at a band rehearsal in Trinidad the night that Tito Puente played in Trinidad at this festival, and I was in a rehearsal. Then, Tito Puente passed away soon after. I would have loved to see them play their version of Tito’s Odyssey.
Ella: Yes! I remember how excited I was to learn you were related to Stokely Carmichael.
Et: I also wish I could have seen D’Angelo’s Voodoo band live. I wish I could have seen Miami Sound Machine live around 1988. I saw Lauryn Hill’s band the year she won the Grammy. I would have loved to see Miles Davis first quintet live and the second quintet live. I would have loved to see Bach sit down at the organ and improvise for three hours. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall listening to that or going to St Mark’s in Venice and hearing great composers. MONK. THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET. FIVE SPOT.
9. What have you learned in the past few years as a teacher, about teaching, that you wouldn’t have learned without the “on-site experience”?
Clarity is everything. Patience. Clarity. Patience. Support. Support your students through this journey of discovering the magic of music. It’s not always just about music either, because music is a part of life, so there is more than just the music too, at times.
10. Who is a young musician that we should be looking out for?
Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s son Ezra just started playing trumpet, today. And he sent me a video, and he’s gonna be burnin’. On drums, Mark Whitfield Jr, Joe Dyson. On bass, Josh Crumbly, Russell Hall. Piano? Victor Gould and Chrisitan Sands. But to me, these guys are my generation. Kayvon Gordon, who’s a great young drummer in Detroit. Max Boiko on trumpet. Marcus Howard sounds really good too, alto. I mean there’s a ton of smokin’ young cats out there, just check out the program here at MSU! I heard this guitar player in St Lucia, he’s 13 or 14 years old and he learns everything he plays on YouTube. He played for me this reharmonization of “Oh What A Friend We Have In Jesus” and he didn’t know what any of the chords were, he just learned it by watching someone play it on YouTube. Everyone knows Cecile, Cyrille, everybody knows Brianna Thomas. Charles Turner.
Beyond the normal “10 Fingers” questions:
1. When did you create your record label, what’s it called, and why did you decide to create something independent?
I created a record label in 2006, it’s called Culture Shock Music. I created it because it’s the only way to put out a record if you don’t have a record label behind you. I created my own label to put out my first recordings, and coming out of Florida State I didn’t have people to manage me or boost interest. So, normally a manager will take you and invite record labels to come to your gigs, or invite the A&Rs to come to your gigs. There’s a famous story about George Butler signing Wynton to a Columbia deal after hearing him at Keystone Corners. But, that didn’t happen for me. So I did a record that was a project for school, and I put it out as a record.
I learned a lot of those ropes from Marcus Roberts and Ralph McDonald who both released a lot of their material independently. And you asked why? Because 20 years down the line you still can sell your records and own the music and get 100% of the returns as opposed to a small fraction which people call “royalties.” But most people don’t see those. I was talking to a really good friend of mine, a great musician, and he told me he got a tiny fee to do his first record for a label and it’s his best selling record. It’s a serious thing too, because just like when you asked about my mentors, it really is about owning your music. Musicians for many years have been victims of this business. There are two worlds in the music industry, and we’re in the world that makes this music happen. We should have a big stake in it.
2. Do you think that enough people, especially young musicians, utilize the opportunities they have to create their own companies, non-profits, or to market themselves? What is some advice you have about getting yourself and your work into the public’s eye?
I don’t think anyone uses all of the resources that they have at their fingertips. A lot of times people don’t know about them, but every city has companies that help businesses get started. They help you put a business plan together and organize your taxes. Being American makes life a lot easier. A lot of people don’t understand that if you’re not from this country it’s much more difficult to start doing real business. You could go and incorporate tomorrow! And if I were you, I’d go do that!
First what you have to do is make your product good. And by product, I mean your music. Work on your band’s sound. Work on your concept. Work on it to the point where you know why you want your music to sound the way you want it to sound. Get your favorite people to play your music with you. Play with people that are willing to take the time to make your music get better. A lot of people will just show up, get paid and leave. Get people who are dedicated to making the music grow. Then, that will naturally fall into the public’s eye. Especially with YouTube.
Stuff goes viral very quickly. Scooter Brown discovered Justin Beiber on YouTube. Develop your craft as much as possible, so that not only can you have your stuff together, but so your sound is desirable to other people. Then you’ll be busy working. Think about if you’d rather write music or play other people’s music. I think a lot of musicians think that they have to write music, and I think a lot of musicians think that they have to play standards. Neither one is true. You can do either one. But actually choose what you want to do. Listen, transcribe and analyze what you want to do.
Someone once said to me, “You need to find somebody who loves making money as much as you love making music.” Because that way, you just get to focus on your craft, while someone else is being just as artistic as you, but they’re being that artistic about selling you.
What I focus on is listening to music, sitting at the piano, learning stuff, and figuring out what I like. Then I figure out how to play it. Don’t deal with the art of selling it if you don’t have to. You want to spend your time listening to records and practicing. And strolling in the park.
3. You’ve also been on 16+ albums as a side man. This means you’ve been able to meld your identity to fit into other people’s ideas, and that you have been able to grasp onto what their visions are. What advice do you have for others trying to develop an ability to understand where other musicians are coming from, and to play someone else’s vision without losing the integrity of their own musical identity?
That’s a great question. Variety is the spice of life! I’d also say, and this is from Obed Calvaire, he’s on a few of my records, he was talking to this young drummer at Dizzy’s and he told the drummer “Always play the gig.” As a sideman, that means know what your bandleader wants. The records I’ve done as a sideman are all completely different. In the moment, it comes down to your ability to be a sensitive musician and know what’s going on. It’s not about being caught up in what you do, it’s about being caught up in what’s going on around you musically and putting yourself in there. It’s about being on a team. If you’re just thinking about what type of dunk you’re gonna do when you get to the end zone, that’s not what gets your team the win. (YES HONEY. TELL’EM.) It’s about feeling it out.
Some people tell you exactly what they want you to play. Ralph MacDonald was like “I want you to give me some Trini sh*t,” or “I don’t want you to give me Trini sh*t or things like that. You have to constantly be studying what’s going on around you, and know what the band leader is about. Know what that person is about. Know their music. Music is a people art, so if you get to know the person really well, you’ll get to know their music really well. Ben Williams is one of my best friends, so I know where he’s coming from with his music. You are asked to be a sideman because the leader wants your sound, but your sound in that group might be completely different than what you have been doing normally anyway.
4. If you could describe each of your albums in one word, what would they be (and you’re obviously not allowed to use the title of the albums!).
Culture Shock: Reaction
Folklore: Looking back
Creole Soul: Now
5. If someone enjoys your style of writing, what are five other albums they should listen to in order to better understand your influences?
David Sanchez, Melaza
Thelonious Monk, Misterioso. Actually, just get the Complete Riverside Recordings.
Stevie Wonder, Music of My Mind. Actually, any Stevie Wonder record.
Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Sone Ka La and Abyss
Marcus Roberts, Deep in the Shed
Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth & More Blues and the Abstract Truth
I’m a composition nut so I listen to a lot of music for the writing. And then I listen to the cats while we’re playing, and I write based off of what they’ve played.
6. If someone enjoys your style of playing, what are five other albums they should listen to in order to better understand those influences?
Miles Davis, Cookin’ Relaxin;
John Coltrane, Blue Train
Freddie Hubbard, Ready for Freddie
Frank Sinatra, Might as well be Swing
Count Basie, Lil ol’ Groovemaker & Chairman of the Board
Viento de Agua, Materia Prima Unplugged
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
All kinds of ish!
7. What old-school caribbean vocal artists would you suggest for someone to listen to who is interested in hip-hop’s vocal tradition and roots?
In regards to freestyle, that’s called extempo. Lord Pretender, The Growling Tiger of Calypso, Mighty Spoiler, Lord Superior, Black Sage, Big B, Attila the Hun, Lord Executor, Relator & Gypsi. Also Bunji Garlin is a modern extempo beast.
Then, for vocal arts and their ability to phrase I’d suggest Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener, Mighty Terror, Ella Andall and The Baron. He probably has the sweetest voice. And that’s just Trinidad! So you go to the rest of the Caribbean and you have the griots from Martinique like Ti Raoul, Ti Emile, Elisabeth Kontomanou, & Jacob Desvarieux, and in Jamaica you’ve got Lord Flea, Peter Tosh, & Bob Marley.
8. We’ve had a few post-big-band-rehearsal, YouTube surfing, aren’t-you-supposed-to-be-writing-for-your-senior-recital, yeah-but-i-found-a-recording-of-the-first-synthesizer! but-Qtip-produces-jazz-records, but-Busta-has-such-good-diction! discussions about hip-hop and you once said “you can’t talk about someone like Busta differently than you’d talk about Charlie Parker or any other jazz musician.” Can you explain to the readers what you meant by this?
People like Busta, people like Bunji Garlin, people like Q-Tip, what they’re doing while they’re freestyling, I am amazed and fascinated by. We’re doing it with notes, but I am fascinated by them doing it with words. The rhythmic complexity of what they’re doing is mind-blowing to me. It’s sophisticated, and the wording lines up in a groove. So what I was talking about is, lining up improvised rhythms and words is very similar, or even the same, to what someone like Charlie Parker did in a sense. Every time an emcee comes out with a different style, the music changes.
So like when Busta came out with these fast fast rhymes, it was crazy! My cousin hipped me to that when I was 7 or 8. The fact is, the common denominator is rhythm, and for some reason it’s losing it’s importance in our music. People seem to not focus on groove, and by groove I mean, swing, I mean syncopation, locking in. If you were to make good rhymes into drum solos, it’d be happening. You put notes to it, and it’s happening. You know, a lot of jazz vocalists do it: they put lyrics to Bird solos. And, those guys grew up listening to jazz, calypso and reggae. I mean, you know that your favorite emcee is of West Indian heritage. And you know that, my favorite emcee is of West Indian heritage. Along with most people’s favorite emcees.
9. You teach at a University that holds very tight to a strict jazz tradition. We learn standards, we play in big bands, we go to jam sessions. What traditions do you try to follow with your music, and where do they come from?
I am trying to deal with a bunch of different things because I am influenced by a lot. I’m a jazz musician so I interact with the band, and when we improvise we are playing with each other. I am from the Caribbean, we have a heavy call and response tradition in our music. So, when I write, I write with a lot of call and response. Those two things are the main ingredients, but I’m also heavily rooted in root-grooves from around the diaspora. To me, they’re fascinating. After having drums banned, and then still end up with traditional rhythms and grooves, it makes sense for me to use those. These instruments were banned, but the grooves still survived. We should be using them. It makes sense that you should incorporate grooves, because it all swings. It all has the lilt to it. I also pay respects to my elders, I play the music of Thelonious Monk, I play the music of Horace Silver, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. That’s what we do in the big band. Thad Jones. I keep up as many of the traditions as I can. Digging and going backwards? You always find a way to go forward.
10. You live and work very far away from home, and have friends in many different locations, a lot of whom travel as well. How do you keep in touch with them? What advice do you have for musicians who have started traveling or have recently moved to a different city, who are now far away from home, in a new environment or constantly going away and coming back?
Staying in touch is easy now. We’ve got Facebook. We’ve got Skype. moving to America 11 years ago. A phone call home was very expensive. we didn’t have Skype. It seems like ages ago! There was one person in my dorm with an iPod. It was the beginning of the whole mp3 craze, but anyway. To keep in touch? Facebook, call people, Skype. Keep in touch with the people that you love, and that you keep an interest in.
And, some advice for young musicians who are starting to travel or who have moved to a new city to try to gig: save your money, you never know when a rainy day is going to come. Always have some that you can dig into in case there’s an emergency. Take care of yourself, exercise, eat well and socialize. Music is a social art form, and if you’re not seen you’re not heard. Go out and listen to music, because you will be inspired by your peers. Every time I’m in New York, I’m listening to my peers. I’m of course inspired by the legends, mentors and icons, but I’m also just inspired by my peers, also, the guys that are coming up. Completely absorb what’s around you, and get in to your environment. You’ll learn a lot.
Pace yourself. So many people complain about not getting any gigs, but that’s okay, you’ve only been in town for a year. Give it time.
11. What role do your friends and family play in your music?
I write tunes about my people all the time. “The Folks” is about my parents. I listen to feedback from everybody about music, and I’ll never forget about this tune we did on Folklore called “Laja Who?” Before we did it on the record, we performed it at my graduate recital for Julliard and at the time that was my brainchild composition. So I asked my mom what she thought and she said “It sounded really complex.” Which could mean, she didn’t like it or that it was too cerebral. So I take advice from everybody.
I have tunes that I’ve written about my little nephews that I haven’t recorded yet, but that I have. I’m a family guy, I hung out with my parents this weekend. Being around my family, and being a part of that environment, of course that’s what’s going to influence my music. The records they played with I was 3 or younger, are the records that are the most influential to me now. My sister, who used to do all of these dance concerts with all of the shango drummers, got that sound stuck in my head. The sound of djembe and djundun, the sound of steel band.
My family is a family of characters. It’s fun when we get together, everyone has their different personality, and it inspires different things. It’s a family affair.
Until next time,
Chip, sisters. Chip.
– Ella Campbell –