Savannah Music Festival veteran Etienne Charles returns to Savannah with the world premiere of a special concert, commissioned by the festival, which explores the roots of Gullah/Geechee music and its connection to Afro-Caribbean music.
Charles and his band will be paired in a one-time-only double bill with Charleston’s Ranky Tanky for two shows April 1. Ranky Tanky shares the music of traditional Gullah culture through their own modern arrangements.
Throughout his career, Charles — who is originally from the West Indies island of Trinidad — has evolved into an ethno-musicologist of sorts, exploring the diverse and rich history of African culture in the Americas. For the first time, he will delve deep into the roots of Gullah culture.
The Gullah people are the descendants of enslaved Africans who settled on the Sea Islands, which stretch from North Carolina to north Florida. After the Civil War, they lived mostly in isolation, which allowed for their culture and traditions to be preserved.
Charles was commissioned in 2012 to write a piece called “Holy City” for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which included Gullah stylings, but his Savannah Music Festival concert will be the first to uncover, in depth, the rich history of the Gullah and Afro-Caribbean music.
“I wanted to do something that just dealt with Gullah culture,” Charles said. “Specifically, about the roots of Gullah, the West African, and the Caribbean similarities. On top of that, Gullah’s roots in American culture. There are lot of parts of American culture that come from Gullah traditions. I wanted to tie all of that into a piece.”
Savannah is possibly the most natural home for this work. Charles spent time at Pin Point Heritage Museum in Savannah and in McIntosh County while conducting research for the piece. He felt a natural kinship between his native West Indies home and the Lowcountry, but through his research, began to find connections that were almost lost to history.
Perhaps the biggest connection between the Caribbean and Lowcountry came in a small, unexpected package. Charleston’s B.J. Dennis, a Gullah chef, was in search of a particular type of rice brought over from Africa that he believed had been lost. While visiting Trinidad, he discovered hill rice, which had originally been grown by Africans in South Carolina and Georgia.
During the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Great Britain, the English had enlisted the help of Africans with the promise of freedom and land ownership in return for fighting. Several Gullah people were recruited to fight for the British. After they won the war, they were given lands in British-owned Trinidad. They became known as Merikins.
Along with the rice, Gullah music and community traditions had in parts been transported to various areas of the Caribbean. It is the connections between these places, spurred by the African diaspora, that has inspired Charles to reconnect these traditions though music.
His original composition will have four to five movements and run about 50 minutes. He will explore different stories, using drumming patterns and styles inspired by the stories and musical influences he has found between the two areas.
In one movement written about the tragedy of Igbo Landing on St. Simons Island, where captive Igbo people committed mass suicide to avoid slavery, Charles learned Igbo rhythms from a master drummer to incorporate into the piece.
Along with being bandleader and trumpeter, Charles will also act as a percussionist throughout the concert.
“My favorite part is getting to meet people and learn about them and connect with people and see them operate in their rituals,” Charles said. “That’s the real gem. Seeing how black people all around the world find ways to keep communities and rituals going in the face of all different types of adversity. That’s what the blues are: eternal optimism in the face of adversity. That’s why I see that as a one of the common threads of the diaspora.
"The real joy is to see people and meet people and connect with them. And immediately realize the similarities between the way gathering happens and the music happens, and the way music is not just one thing. The music is a very community effort.”