Etienne Charles - scholar, musician, jazz standout- speaks on Pan, Panorama 2012 and more

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST Steelband Panorama 2012 logo

A WST Exclusive

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, panist, assistant jazz professor, performing and recording artist Etienne Charles shares his overall thoughts on Panorama - its past, present and future...


“So many people have never set foot in a panyard...why? Because of the stereotype. The steelpan culture is one of the most fascinating subcultures of the Afro-Caribbean experience and should be treated as such. The music is the anthem of the experience, and, on a larger scale it reflects a significant part of our history and artistic growth as a nation. This year we celebrated and mourned, that's what the music will do as well.”    Etienne Charles

WST - Folks who are now getting hip to Etienne Charles identify you as a trumpet-playing jazz musician. But you also have a serious Pan allegiance. For those who don’t know about this - bring them up to date on your Pan background.

Etienne Charles
Etienne Charles

Etienne - “I basically grew up in Phase II's pan yard as my dad and uncle were in their second pan (double second) section. I remember when they won 2 'ramas [Panorama championships] back to back in '87 & '88. I remember when the yard was just the street and the shed. I started playing tenor maybe when I was 9 or 10. By the time I was in Fatima [College] I'd be playing on the road J'Ouvert morning, carnival Monday and Tuesday with Phase. My parents were very serious about schoolwork so I didn't get to play for panorama until I had finished O'level exams. Then I was really hooked. Pan is therapy you know. Panorama time, you see people you don't see for the rest of the year. I remember one of the senior tenor players, would take all his vacation time to be in the Panyard all day to show people their parts if they missed something. He'd also help out doing all kinds of odd jobs around the yard. I'd always take the tune from Darcy because we're both left-handed. I've also been a big fan of steelband arranging for years. Not many people know this, but I can sing note for note - quite a few Boogsie arrangements:  'I Music,' 'Pan Rising,' 'Woman Is Boss,' 'Fire Down Below, 'Breakdown,' 'Birthday Party,' Mind Yuh Business,' 'Misbehave,' 'Bradley;' as well as All Stars' 'Woman On De Bass.' 

“Pan is probably the most important part of my musical foundation. It teaches you two very important things; to memorize music and to play with strong rhythm. Where else in the world do you see 120 musicians (sometimes 150 at practice) playing 10 minutes of arranged music together from memory?  Not a piece of manuscript in sight!  Playing pan also taught me to keep the melody going through your arrangements. (Jit, Bradley, Robbie, Boogsie, Halfers [Anise Hadeed], Tony Williams and Andy are all great at that style).”

WST - Like the steelpanist, you are a storyteller in the traditional sense. It is one of the bases of your music. How and why have you maintained this approach when so many other young musicians have taken a different path?

Etienne - “I like stories. They connect to all ages. I've had a chance to hang with many of my favourite musicians and one thing I really enjoy besides playing music with them is just hearing them tell stories.  That's the way our tradition gets passed on. That's how we get to know our ancestors. Pan, Calypso, American improvisational music, the majority of it (or at least the good stuff) is in the aural tradition.  So when we play it must be a story. Especially since most tunes we play have a story to them already.  Part of it is really knowing the tune and even doing a bit of research to get some perspective. It also connects you to generations that came before. Recording Congo Bara; I just thought it was a beautiful melody. Came to find out Congo Bara was a great stick fighter, former slave and activist. I even learned the lyrics!  When I write I always try to put a story in the tune as well. 'Folklore' was about putting music to stories and improvising based on them.”

WST - Steelpan - and by extension the Steel Orchestra and Panorama - has maintained its “calypso” roots and storytelling tradition. “Do Something for Pan,” “Trini,” “Calling Meh,” are self-explanatory tunes and storylines that were embraced by the steelpan music community globally. Why have the modern forms of calypso - soca, raga soca, island-pop and the like, seem to have lost this storytelling aspect?

Etienne - “I don't think all the forms have lost the storytelling element. It's just that there are a LOT of songs focused on hyping up carnival. So the songs are about activity. That's not a new thing though, but the older songs maintained a story about carnival: Kitch's 'Mama Dis Is Mas,' 'De Road,' 'Miss Harriman,' 'Miss Tourist,' 'Batty Mamselle,' 'After Carnival;' Sparrow's 'Panman,' Blueboy's 'Rebecca,' Stalin's 'Ah Feel To Party,' Rudder's 'Madness,' 'Bahia Girl;' Tambu's 'Jump up,' Scrunter's 'Sing In She Party;' Crazy's 'Drive it;' Arrow's 'Roll Back,' 'Party Hopping' and many, many more are examples. 

“Some modern calypsos that I remember are definitely stories (Dollar Wine, Bashment to Carnival) - great story, Big Truck, Big Belly Man, Flood on de Main Road, Dr. Cassandra, Mr. Fete, Vibes Cyah Done but I guess most of those are old songs now! I'm getting old! Of course we still have strong socio-political commentary songs in the Tent which are great stories, but most of the popular radio stations play the hype soca.  So a lot of good stuff falls through the cracks. There's a lot less actual human music on the new tracks (almost all programmed beats, synth pads and loops, no horns, even synth Pan).  But then carnival on the whole has changed, not just the music. Luckily we still have Pan.”

WST - Last year you were one of the hosts for the Carnival TV broadcast of Panorama.  How did you like that gig?  Will you be doing it again?

Etienne - “I was really nervous about being on TV but I had a blast once the bands started playing.  It was my first time in the stands for Panorama finals since 1999! Of course I had been on the drag jamming (my favourite part of 'Rama). The bands played great. Valley Harps was something to remember, Invaders and Exodus also gave really stellar performances in my opinion. I will be doing Panorama coverage again this year.  Check us out!”

Iman Pascal
Etienne Charles & panist Iman Pascall

WST - When Steel Talks (WST) gave you a passing grade as a host in our Panorama review - but we were not so kind to your other two co-hosts, LOL. As you know, Pan is serious business. You’ve got to know your stuff. What kind of feedback did you get?

Etienne - “I got good feedback for the most part. Someone said I didn't know anything about music!  Moreover I was honored to even be considered for the Carnival TV gig.  Looking forward to doing it again. Shout out to the Carnival TV crew!”

WST - What would you like to see changed in the Panorama format?

Etienne - “Honestly, with true high art there should be no competition. I'd like to see arrangers get to arrange for more than one band again. That really helps to push the creativity forward. Panmen and Panwomen should also be allowed to play for more than one band. I mean did Quincy Jones only arrange for Basie?  Or Gerald Wilson only for Lunceford?

“I'd also like to see Pan players receive WAY better compensation for nights upon nights of hard work. I know Pan is a labor of love but seriously.... Next thing is Panorama is THE biggest steelpan spectacle in the WORLD, for some reason outside the Pan fraternity it's not as well known as it should be. Everyone knows the steelpan, now everyone should be checking out the 'Rama.”

WST - The late Max Roach told When Steel Talks on several occasions that Pan (Panorama) belongs on a world stage.  Is it on that path, is it there? Where, exactly, is Pan - from your perspective?

Etienne - “It does belong on the world stage, I totally agree.  And it is definitely on path, I mean I was in Nigeria and heard a steelband. But as the Mecca we need to be more on the ball about exporting our bands. [With regard to where Pan is -] Pan is still in the 'potential energy' stage.... there is loads that could be done.”

Max Roach
Max Roach

WST - Max Roach was a big supporter of the steelband fraternity. This writer was fortunate to have been the engineer on a project that Max was producing with “Boogsie” as the focus. Max told WST that “Boogsie” reminded him of “Bird” and he, Max, was very interested in passing that torch from our ancestors to him, “Boogsie.” Do you think Boogsie understands who he is, and what he represents in the greater scheme of things?

Etienne - “Boogsie is one of the greatest musical minds the world has ever seen. I've always known him as a giant of music. I'll never forget the first time I met Wynton [Marsalis] and told him that I was from Trinidad. His response was "Do you know Boogsie?" Boogsie definitely has created a sound for himself and for Phase. He's also influenced a generation of arrangers coming forth now. When I listen to Silver Stars, I hear Sharpe. I don't know if Charlie [Bird] Parker understood then, his significance on the modern movement of improvisational music.”

WST - Two of the greatest percussionists to ever walk the planet were seriously involved and had great respect for the steelpan instrument, the music and movement - Max Roach and Ralph MacDonald. Does the Pan movement understand who these men were, why they are important and what they had?

Etienne - “Both men came from Caribbean communities in North America and they knew the significance of Afro-Caribbean creation and it's contribution to American Music and music of the world at large. I can't speak for the Pan movement as a whole, but I know what these men did for Music and for civil rights. They're also two of my biggest musical inspirations.”

WST - Tell us about Kaiso? And what’s next?

Etienne - “'Kaiso' for me was a chance to seriously explore and showcase the many different musical possibilities of calypso music. I was always blown away by the beauty of the melodies. 'Kaiso' gave me a chance to shine light on these tunes that I feel are standards. It also reminded me that this music is loved all over the world and we have to keep playing in whatever way we can - folk, improvisational, steelband arrangements, orchestras, etc.”

WST - What is your take on all these new changes (young arrangers) in the 2012 panorama?

Etienne - “I think it breathes new life and energy into the sound. I'm a big fan of young arrangers like Andre White, Marlon White and Duvone Stewart. Especially since they've done their homework. It's a great way for them to learn from the masters. It also helps to extend the legacy; Sharpe and Ray Holman were both very young when they started arranging for Panorama.”

WST - Is there any possibility of us seeing you in the arranging forum?

Etienne - “I've already done a few arrangements for steelpan and am currently working on more, but on the Panorama forefront... I don't know.”

Invaders Steel Orchestra
Invaders Steel Orchestras Performing at Panorama

WST - Has Panorama stagnated the growth and creativity of the Pan musicians, or has it allowed music that we would have never heard, come to the forefront?

Etienne - “Well like I said before the concept of a competition seasonalizes the artform. A great steelband should be a great steelband all year round, they should be touring like any other big band, performing repertoire. A steelband should be a lucrative business. Being a Pan soloist or composer/arranger shouldn't be the only ways to make a living off of this instrument.”

WST - What do you listen for in a Panorama piece?

Etienne Charles and Ralph MacDonald
Etienne Charles, Nadirah Shakoor & Ralph MacDonald

Etienne - “Introduction: does it introduce the tune or is it just a cookie cut intro; to me some of the best intros groove hard from the start... Examples are All Stars' "Curry Tabanca," Fonclaire's "Pan By Storm," Phase II's 'Birthday Party' and 'Fire Down Below' and Invaders' "High Mas."

“I listen for Creativity - fragmentation of the melody. How much can the arranger do with the tune and recorded arrangement - the more the better. Switching tonal centers, moving from major to minor or elsewhere.  I listen for harmonic devices used in transitional sections. Tension and Release, Call and Response.

“How dramatic is the arrangement? Does the arranger use compositional/arranging elements to highlight the theme/lyrics of the tune. Orchestration & Counterpoint (not putting all the action in the frontline...give the bass, cellos and guitars some).  How interesting are the jam sections...(very important to me)...  What kind of chord changes are we dealing with? Grease, soul, rhythmic accuracy as a group. Level of difficulty in parts.....How tight are the parts. Tempo, groove.  Engine room/rhythm section?

“Ending: does it end the tune?  Does the ending recap some of the elements of the arrangement? I hear too many of the same endings. I listen for dynamics and blend. What changes were made between semis and finals. did the band sound get bigger, richer? Tuning. Notice I didn't mention presentation... too much focus on that stuff nowadays.  Let's hear some fresh music.

“My question is what are the judges listening for?”

WST - What’s the cultural significance of Panorama music?  Should the music attempt to reflect, rebuke or reshape the society?

Etienne - “You mean Pan tunes? Or the arrangements? Panorama is the perfect example of a continued struggle for acceptance. So many people have never set foot in a panyard...why? Because of the stereotype. The steelpan culture is one of the most fascinating subcultures of the Afro-Caribbean experience and should be treated as such. The music is the anthem of the experience, and, on a larger scale it reflects a significant part of our history and artistic growth as a nation. This year we celebrated and mourned, that's what the music will do as well.”

WST - Contrast Boogsie, Bradley, Jit and Tony Williams, both musically and culturally?

Etienne - “Great question!

“Jit - musically he's clean, precise and clever. One thing that always stood out for me with Jit's sound is that he knows how to contrast frontline and background. He also knows how to bring the background to the frontline. He's done some beautiful soli for the celli and guitars.  All those Kitch tunes he did: 'Mystery Band,' 'Guitar Pan' - and when he did Baron's 'Somebody.'  Part of it, though, is Jit always chose great tunes that he knew he could bring out the beauty.  Renegades, under Jit, had a powerful tenor sound; their frontline always sounded huge. Big up to Duvone Stewart who was a key part of that tenor section and Soca Brumant driving the engine room.

“Bradley:  knew how to use dynamics, simplicity and space to his advantage. Case in point - 'High Mas' for Nutones. You hear melody throughout. It's perfect from a thematic context as well. When do we hear hymns in Carnival?  J'Ouvert! He has that J'Ouvert tempo grooming throughout. There's loads of fragments throughout as well. But this arrangement is significantly different to something like 'In My House' or 'Picture On My Wall.' Each time Bradley lets the tune sing through. He also made sure there was always blues in the sound - a key part of his touch.

Phase II Pan Grooove at Panorama
Phase II Pan Groove performing at Panorama.  Arranger: Len “Boogsie” Sharpe

“Boogsie:  the master of the jam. One thing Boogsie always has is a funky bass line and an interesting way of using the backgrounds. I remember Pat Bishop once saying that Boogsie put the sound of the streets in his music. I'll say Boogsie keeps today in his sound while maintaining strong traditions. He is clearly influenced by the Kitchener tunes of the 60's as well as Tony Williams. You hear it in his bass lines and phrasing. He also uses loads of modern improvisational language in his frontline and backline solos. For me the beauty in Boogsie, Bradley and Jit, is hearing the contrast between the background and frontline. Boogsie Sharpe will put some crazy line on top and answer it with some "Kitchesque" line in the celli, guitars and bass. Arrangements that come to mind are 'Dis Feelin Nice,' 'Misbehave,' and 'Pan Rising.'  Sharpe and Bradley also have a way of taking elements from the recorded arrangement and flipping it in the least expected way. Sharpe took the horn part from 'Mind Yuh Business' and looped it in the bass.

“Tony Williams....genius. You can hear his influence on everyone....and he was definitely ahead of his time. His sound characterizes the St. James/Woodbrook sound out of which you hear the influences on Ray Holman, Boogsie, “Halfers,” [Edwin] Pouchet, [Brian] “Bean” Griffith and others... bouncy tenor lines with a healthy contrast of syncopated lines with smooth lyrical rolling passages. He definitely kept the bass engaged in various ways throughout his arrangements, punctuating melodies as well as accenting some of the more syncopated melodic phrases. You could tell that melody ruled his concept as well as some funky counter-lines. The amazing part of Tony Williams is not only his musical contribution but his contribution to the development of the instrument. Indeed one of the greatest musical and scientific minds.”

WST - If you could change one thing about Panorama, what would that be?

Etienne - “I'd take away the competition aspect of it.”

Panorama 2012 Steelband Competition

WST - You’re (your outlook) the bridge between our musical past and the future. You, more so than many other young musicians, are cognizant of how it all come together - Kaiso is a perfect example. You are to be commended for that. When you listen to the radio are you worried about where we are going?

Etienne - “It's important to bridge our musical past and future... I don't believe in ONLY dwelling in the past. We need to play the music of today... but the musicians of today need to know, study and respect what came before. That's the only way to grow in the lineage. Otherwise we lose what people fought and died for.”

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