Caribbean trumpeter digs deep in ‘San Jose Suite’

The title of Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles’ latest album “San Jose Suite” is a reference to his international studies of San Jose, Costa Rica; San Jose, California and of his island home in a northeastern town formerly known as San Jose.

The three San Joses are the backdrop to a deeply moving document of history and struggle that draws from a diversity of musical experiences and refuses to shy away from tough topics sometimes political in nature.

Charles, 33, is performing in University of Miami’s Festival Miami on Tuesday, Jan. 31. But before delivering a deeply moving performance with his band Creole Soul, he sat down to talk about his musical influences, politics and how they both fit into the world of jazz music.


You are performing on Jan. 31 in the “Jazz and Beyond” Series in Festival Miami. What is it about your music that places it into the “beyond” category?

The first step of it being “beyond” is we play mostly original music  — the fact that we fuse different music together, which is essentially at the core of Jazz. At the earliest part of jazz you heard fusion from different styles — whether it was music from the Caribbean or the African diaspora. So I guess we keep pushing that. What we do is not your usual — the tunes that we arrange are not tunes that are familiar. We’ve definitely gone in different directions many times.

That’s the irony of it because people think that fusion styles are a modern thing but that’s been a part of the music since its inception.

What kind of person did you have in mind when you were making “San Jose Suite?” What makes the perfect listener or audience?

I had the people that I studied that were in my mind — my research subjects. 

In Costa Rica I had the Boruca people. (Like one of the songs on his album). So each song is about the people I studied. Also in Costa Rica were the Caribbean people who went to Costa Rica in the late 19th Century. — They are fascinating people; they are one of eight indigenous people left. They are one of the last people who make their own textiles and they have this fascinating ritual, Juego De Los Diablitos, that they do every year and they get in these beautiful masks.

In Trininad, the indigenous people. I was definitely learning. It was eye-opening any time you learn about your own people. It was enlightening but it was also humbling. You learn about the good stuff but you also learn about the bad things. It’s both.

Any audience that comes to have a good time and is able to disconnect from what they had going on before and are able to do what the music tells them to do, that’s my idea of a perfect audience. People who submit themselves to the music. That’s the best way for me to put it.

I’ve seen people review your trumpet playing using the word “purist.” Do you think that is accurate? And could you explain what that means for someone who is unfamiliar or new to jazz?

What is a purist? A lot of times people refer to a purist as someone who sticks to a particular style and they see that as the highest grade. I’m far from a purist, with respect to the trumpet I play in many different styles because you’re speaking, you know. With jazz the lines are ever evolving. I tend to go where the wind is blowing. Wherever we go, we go.

What other instruments do you play? Explain what instruments were critical to your musical masterpiece “San Jose Suite,” which is an account of auditory experiences of the Caribbean.

I’m a trumpet player. I play a little percussion. I love the piano and a little bit a steel pan, as well. I just dabble. I started (playing trumpet) when I was 10. My uncle gave me a trumpet. My parents didn’t force me to practice. I was always in love with music the sound of music and I think the trumpet was my vessel to music. Yea, I had to work at it and I still have to work at it everyday. It’s a daily grind.

Most importantly is the drums because that’s the marquee to the African experience and the African diaspora. The bass, you have to have. Guitar is a good one — the way it punches. It’s a very rhythmic instrument. Piano for me for harmonic textures and color. And the horns that’s the makeup of San Jose Suite. Every instrument in my band is a voice. Every instrument has a voice, has a vocal element and that’s how I write to it.

 A trumpet, as a person, is a person with many moods. Which ever mood they have they are definitely able to express it whether being loud or soft. Very emotional, can go in any direction — and always an element of surprise.

I write in a vocal way. So there’s always melodic content to each instrument in my group.

Your album has also been called political in nature. How is your music a cultural document and what political messages are central to “San Jose Suite?”

In terms of the cultural document I think all jazz records are cultural documents, especially if they have original music on them and I say that because jazz is having a dialogue with society as it is, not as it was or what it wanted to be.

The sound of “San Jose Suite” was a study of colonialism and it was also a way for me to say as an artist from having studied what is and what was: Not much is different.

You look at the Civil Rights movement of the 60s that got black people to vote and you look at now with the Black Lives Matter movement there are so many similarities. There are differences but there are also similarities. Those were my observations, the research was a study and the “Suite” was what I learned, me talking about what I learned. So you had slavery back then all the way up to the 1860s and in Trinidad up into 1962 (when the country became independent from Britain), but there are now people being trafficked. It’s like it (slavery) was almost rebranded. One of my research subjects for the “San Jose Suite” was someone who was formerly trafficked from their childhood and into their early adulthood and once I learned the numbers, it was really astounding.

To turn it into the music now, I thought of the moves and the colors and the grooves. I thought about context and time. So in the 60s we started using electric and other things. If something was abstract,  I tried to make it very abstract. If something was vivid I tried to make it very vivid.

How does Miami fit into your music?

Miami is a big part of my music because it is one of the biggest immigrant hubs in America and I’m an immigrant and so I connect with the immigrant experience very heavily. And I’m from Trinidad and I have family there (in Miami). I have a strong connection to the Cuban culture, the Puerto Rican culture, the Dominican culture. In college at the salsa bars we played salsa, meringue, dancehall — all kinds of stuff. I love me some Haitian music and I studied a lot of people in Haitian music so it’s a big part of my stuff.

And Miami is all that and more.