Etienne Charles Triumphant At The Tabernacle With Timely Blend Of Defiance And Celebration



This venue has deep historical resonance for black music in Britain. It has been a nerve centre for community activism in the West Indian community, a hub for the Notting Hill carnival, a fact denoted by a large plaque dedicated to Claudia Jones, one of its co-founders, and a forum for black culture and politics in general. All of which is duly reflected by the on-stage repartee of the America-based Trinidadian trumpeter-vocalist-percussionist Etienne Charles. His introduction to every piece is bolstered by anecdotes that charm and shock in equal measure. Before playing one of the highlights of the gig, 'Speed City', Charles draws attention to the picture in the corridor of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two African-American sprinters banned for making the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and points out that the over-achieving Athletics Department in San Jose they represented was also shut down by way of sanction. The song has an appropriately high tempo, a rhythmic synthesis of funk and house, and a stinging theme from which Charles and tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael draw punchy, pugnacious solos, creating a blend of defiance and celebration that galvanizes a thoroughly responsive audience.

Taken from Charles' current album, The San Jose Suite, the song is a leitmotif for his artistic identity, insofar as it casts astute composing and arranging against a political backdrop that could not be more relevant to the times in which we live. Without missing a beat Charles calls out the Windrush scandal and leads the band in a spirited rendition of 'My Landlady', a biting observation on the bitter realities of housing for blacks in post-war Britain by Lord Kitchener, one of the defining figures of calypso, from whom Charles draws great inspiration. Since his 2009 debut, Folklore, he has been one of the most progressive of contemporary Caribbean musicians, primarily because of his deep immersion in the work of his forebears and desire to stretch tradition towards modernity without weakening its foundation. This is an impressive concert insofar as Charles has a local pick-up band with which he has had precious little rehearsal time, but the cohesion of the ensemble carries the performance through the inevitable moments of hesitation due to the relative unfamiliarity the players have with the material, which networks a wide range of idioms from the black diaspora. Drummer Rod Youngs and double-bassist Alex Davis have the requisite bounce on the calypsos and harder 'one drop' groove on the dub, while Dominic Canning shows an assured touch on the Fender Rhodes. However, it is guitarist Shirley Tetteh, noted for her work with Nérija, who makes some of the most telling contributions of the night. Her wah-wah technique is sufficiently robust to underline the percussive implications of much of the writing, but it is the beautifully understated, shadowy, almost ghostly nature of her chording, where the notes breathe very gently into life to form a kind of vapour trail around the beat, that is decisive. Softness is strength.

On the sensual love songs, such as Bob Marley's 'Turn Your Lights Down Low', which segues neatly into 'Waiting In Vain', the blend of finesse and fire is superb, though it is Charles' teasing vocal on The Mighty Sparrow's 'Jean And Dinah', full of the spiky irony apposite for a tale of prostitution and the sly corps-a-corps of capitalism and colonialism, that has us rapt. It is a moment for head, heart and feet.

Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo by Richard Denney