WHEN trumpet player Etienne Charles was growing up in Trinidad, a rare rice was growing on the island, too. Hill rice, with origins tracing back to West Africa, was plentiful throughout the U.S. for a time, but after World War I, the crop had all but vanished. The last of it is in Trinidad, planted by freed slaves from the Lowcountry who were granted Trinidadian land and freedom by the British in exchange for fighting against their masters in the War of 1812.
Charles never knew his neighbors as Georgians, or former slaves. He simply knew them as “Merikans.”
“They were no longer Gullah down there,” Charles says. “They were Americans. I’d known all about these Americans, but never really known they were Gullah and from Coastal Georgia. I didn’t put the two things together.”
Hill rice is just one of many links between Trinidadian and Gullah culture that Charles is exploring for his Savannah Music Festival-commissioned work, Gullah Roots. In a one-time-only double bill with Charleston Gullah musical group Ranky Tanky, Charles will explore the Afro-Caribbean connections to Gullah music.
As a composer, band leader, arranger, and Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies, Charles has preserved his native culture of Trinidad and fused the sound with American jazz’s rich history. Most recently, the 20-something released a record exploring the ties of his islands to calypso and Haitian voodoo music, stirring rocksteady, reggae, belair, kongo, and Motown into the pot. As a scholar and celebrated player, Charles dives deep into his research when creating one-of-a-kind works that meld cultures.
It’s not the first time he’s explored Gullah history.
“I had written a piece for a big band a few years ago commissioned by the Charleston Jazz Orchestra,” Charles explains. “Charleston the city certainly has Gullah elements, but that piece was not specifically about Gullah—I wanted to dig in and do some homework on the people.”
Savannah’s own Pinpoint Heritage Museum was a strong source of inspiration, as well as many books and DVDs.
“I was meeting with people—museums, cultural leaders, just meeting them, getting their stories and connecting them with the people’s history as opposed to just what you read in the books,” he says.
The more he learned, the more ties Charles found to home, like the Gullah tradition of beating a stick on the ground during ring shouts.
“In Trinidad, we use bamboo sticks and sing very similarly,” Charles says. “The music is very similar—the beat, call and response. It’s a very vocal music, similar to our music as well.”
Yet Charles’s arrangement doesn’t feature any singing.
“One challenge is taking a normally vocal musical tradition and turning it into an instrumental piece,” he says. “I love a challenge! Horn players are already mimicking the voice, trying to sound like we’re singing. It’s lots of melodic lines, trying to tie into Western and North African traditions as well.”
In his typical style, Charles has employed other genres into his Gullah Roots work, showing the far reach of Gullah’s influence.
“The roots of Gullah culture created roots in other cultures,” he says. “When you think of modern American culture, you think Motown, swing, jazz. Think of people like James Jamerson, a legendary bass player on many Motown records. A lot of people don’t know he was from Edisto Island, South Carolina.”
He’s finding inspiration in the energy and spirit of Gullah life, longstanding customs and tradition.
“One of the movements is about Watch Night,” Charles explains. “That was a New Year’s Eve tradition—they still do it along down in Georgia through that area—where they get on their knees, heads on the pew, for the countdown all the way back to December 31, the night before the Emancipation Proclamation. It goes into a shout.”
Charles witnessed Watch Night firsthand at a service led by Music Festival alums the McIntosh County Shouters.
“The way I’ve constructed the piece so far is based off of different cultural points and its ties in history and tradition,” he says.
After the welcome challenge that Gullah Roots has provided, Charles will continue to find new musical stories. Savannah Music Festival is always a refreshing event for the trumpeter.
“It’s always a high point of my year,” he says. “It’s nice and warm and the city is so well laid out....and being a lover of vintage architecture, to be in a place where it’s preserved and maintained, it’s always inspiring to get a taste of that old style. It’s also just a reminder of the good and bad parts of history. I’ve made great friends in Savannah, so I’ll be kickin’ it with the peeps and see some Gullah folks in my home away from home.”