Etienne Charles

I love the trumpet,

Etienne Charles reflects. “It’s an instrument to call to peace, to love, and to war. It’s the clarion call.” Sounding far older than his young years, Etienne Charles is deeply philosophical and knowledgeable—with an encyclopedic grasp of history. He is an old soul, has a warm knowing smile, and although a college instructor and an accomplished jazz musician, he is only in his early 30s.

Last year, Etienne Charles was awarded a grant to compose an original piece of music. And so he was been working on a suite in three parts, each part inspired by a different “San Jose”: in Trinidad, Costa Rica, and California. He and his band will debut this new work at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest in August.

The focus of the piece is the effect of conquest and colonization on indigenous peoples, as viewed through the lens of these three cities. “The running theme is conquest and resistance. What happens with conquest? Who suffers, and who gains?” Charles asks. “The concept of community is so strong. Even with suffering, communities continue. Some can thrive naturally, and some cultures are severely repressed.” Is there laughter in conquest? Etienne Charles answers without missing a beat, “For somebody.”

Charles’s music is typically informed by his travels to other countries, his feel for other cultures. And this suite is no different. He has met with the indigenous peoples of the two counterpart cities, observed their traditions, studied their history and their music, sometimes lived with them. These experiences are the inspiration behind each note. “I can tell the stories of the indigenous peoples without lyrics, just as a painter can paint without words.”

In Trinidad, he met with the townspeople and with a traditional medicine man. But Charles also has personal experience with Trinidad: he grew up here, in St. Joseph. And so he has personal experience as well with how conquest controls the history later recorded in books, the history taught in the schools. “Growing up in Trinidad, the slave rebellions were not included in our school curriculum.” The hidden history survives instead in the music. Much of the music of Trinidad can be tied to Venezuelan folk songs (parang), overlaid by a strong African influence. Charles uses the history of the people as a way into the music, and the music as a way to explore the history. His baseline, his rhythms, his melodies—all evoke the heartache, the struggle, the triumph.

In Costa Rica, he traveled widely, though his focus was on San Jose, still the capital of the country, still the city with the strongest ties to the colonial empire. He lived among the Boruca, one of the last surviving indigenous groups in Costa Rica, while they prepared for their Juego de los Diabolitos, an annual four-day festival in which the people don ornate wooden masks to reenact the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The long segregation that was imposed on the people of Costa Rica by their European conquerers—not lifted until 1949—meant a long isolation of the native culture, and so it was largely preserved. Even today the local culture is predominantly West Indian, as can be seen in the food, the music, the customs, the dialect.


Because of its place in the high-tech industry, Charles calls California’s San Jose a “modern day gold rush.” But history, past and modern, plays a role in the suite. There’s San Jose’s growing gentrification and the equally burgeoning homeless problem. And San Jose’s role in the civil rights movement, mute testimony of which can be seen today in the statue at San Jose State University of the two Olympic medal winners, former students, who raised their fists high in the air in solidarity with the movement during the medals ceremony in 1968. And further back, the Ohlone Indians, our own indigenous people, subjugated by the Spanish mission culture.

Despite the suffering inherent in these histories, the approach Charles takes is inspirational. He does not dwell on the darkness. His compositions are woven of resistance and hope—in the form of Calypso, mask art, a festival, a protest. “It is about the hope,” he says with a slow, wide smile. “The beauty to me is the community. The concept of community can stay strong in the face of adversity—that is why this jazz piece will be.”

Blues, he explains, is eternal optimism in the face of adversity. For Charles, there is hope in the fact that the people have survived, despite the many efforts to destroy them or their culture. This is the spark from which he will build his San Jose Suite.

Mark your calendars for the world premiere of this new piece as part of the Summer Fest lineup, Saturday, August 8, at the California Theatre Stage.

Learn more about Etienne Charles here:
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San Jose Jazz

Summer Fest 2015

Aug.  7-9, 2015


Written by By Anna Bagirov

Photography by Daniel Garcia

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