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Wednesday, February 26,2014

‘You’re coming to my house’

Etienne Charles brings MSU jazz students, profs to Trinidad

by Lawrence Cosentino
Anyone who spent Michigan’s sub-zero week from Jan. 26 to Feb. 2 in the green hills of Trinidad is bound to get envious looks.

MSU jazz trumpet Professor Etienne Charles had a lot of reasons to take a delegation of 43 students and jazz faculty to the island where he grew up. The 75-degree weather was a bonus.

“I wanted them to see where I’m from, how I live,” Charles said. “I wanted them to see Trinidad and I wanted Trinidad to see young musicians that play on a really high level. It’s not something you see much of down there, at least in jazz.”

The MSU jazz musicians spent the week teaching, learning and giving concerts all over the island. They played at schools and orphanages, gave Trinidadians a rare taste of live jazz and basked in the steel pan calypso that rings out over the island.

At two orphanages, St. Mary’s and St. Dominic’s, many kids had never heard jazz before, although some of them sported T-shirts featuring Charles’ chart-topping album “Creole Soul.”

MSU drum student Judson Branam said the trip reminded him why he plays music.

“The kids started out quiet and apprehensive,” Branam said. “As soon as we started playing, everything opened right up. They asked questions, told us how they felt.”

Charles visits his parents a few times a year (his song “The Folks” is dedicated to them) but this time he brought company.

“Every single person on that trip was inside the house I grew up in,” Charles said.

The party spilled out into the lawn, next to the lush garden his mother tends, munching Trini bites like bake and shark sandwiches.

The students played at Fatima College, Charles’ alma mater, where he caught up with his old music teacher. Later in the week, Charles took the group to hear the Amoco Renegades, one of the oldest steel bands in Trinidad, and Phase II, the band Charles played in back in the day.

“They got to see how I learned to play music,” Charles said. Trinidad’s panyards are open-air lots where steel pan orchestras rehearse and play, ringed by metal frames that send the tintinnabulation of hundreds of steel drums into the air.

“The place is filled with bass, tenor and multiphonic pan drums in different sizes and shapes,” Branam said. “Hundreds of people come and played. It sounded huge.”

Branam came home with a pair of custom Renegade pan mallets and, more important, three new friends: Trinidadian drummers he met and jammed with between rehearsals.

“I’d show them jazz stuff, American rhythms, and they showed me all these calypso grooves, soca-grooves, different bell patterns,” Judson said. “I learned a lot from them.”

Many of the MSU students have stayed in touch with their Trinidadian contemporaries.

Some offer lessons via Skype. “We share drum videos, talk about life, just kick it over the Internet,” Judson said.

It’s prohibitively expensive for young Trinidadian musicians to study abroad. Scholarships are rare and the visa process can be Byzantine.

“It’s hard to even take a vacation,” Charles said. “So, as my mama says, if you can’t take Mohammed to the mountain, you take the mountain to Mohammed.”

Some of the travelers’ fondest memories involve food. Branam was hooked on Trindad’s famous “doubles” — two deep-fried corn tortillas wrapped with chickpeas and various sauces for less than a dollar. The pizza at Buzo’s was a revelation, even for the globetrotting MSU Professors of Jazz.

“We’ve all been to Italy, New York, Chicago and that’s some of the best pizza in the world,” Charles said.

On the last night of the trip, the MSU and UTT bands combined for a climactic concert at the Port of Spain’s new flower-shaped concert hall, the National Academy for the Performing Arts. Saxophonist Diego Rivera led his student octet in a set of Thelonious Monk arrangements before the big band took over.

“We played Thad Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, a good old MSU concert,” Charles said. Finally, at the request of the U.S. Embassy, the big bands of both schools joined for a swing dance version of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” (The embassy’s public affairs office helped to fund the MSU trip.)

The Big Band flashback evoked calypso-loving President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 visit to Trinidad, immortalized in the calypso tune, “FDR in Trinidad.” The extra big band made an extra big sound.

“I don’t think I ever heard a live jazz Big Band in Trinidad,” Charles said. “It’s rare. People were taking it in because it’s something new, even though it’s something old.”

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