Skip to main content
Trinidad & Tobago: Heritage to Musical Resistance

Trinidad & Tobago: Heritage to Musical Resistance

By Diana Rita Cabrera Hernandez

Chantal Esdelle, a musician from Trinidad & Tobago, organizer of cultural festivals in the Caribbean, is Managing Director and Founder of The Ethnic Jazz Club, a company dedicated to providing Caribbean Jazz Musicians performing in the region and the diaspora with performance and recording opportunities and to present Caribbean jazz patrons with opportunities to enjoy and support jazz recording and performances. Chantal is, above all, an educator and a social activist.
Caribbean music is the result of a widespread fusion of cultures. How do you assess its current level and its promotion within the region?
In each island we have several genres of musical expression and these forms are given varying degrees of promotion. The styles associated with festivals and events that draw large crowds, particularly locally, are given the most attention. In Trinidad and Tobago this is evidenced by the attention given to soca music in terms of radio air play, musical awards and artist recognition (including honorary degrees) and even the music licensing is tailored to suit soca music air play during Carnival. This is because soca is the driving musical force behind Carnival, the largest festival in Trinidad which is celebrated with fetes (parties), mas, steel band festivals and performances. In order for the festival to be financially successful soca is played on the radio, used for advertisements, particularly for alcohol, and presented in large free lunch time public concerts. The subject matter is usually about the dancing and manner of carnival.
Kaiso, or calypso as it is referred to internationally, which has a richer musical and historical base and is the root of soca, kaiso jazz, Trinidadian rock, rapso, and the fuel for most local compositions, songs and other styles, including east Indian chutney, is not promoted in the same way. It’s derivatives, as listed above, experience even more of a challenge in seeking avenues for exposition. They experience little air play as the stations and programs that promote them have to compete with both North American fare and soca music.
My particular concern lies with kaiso jazz, Trinidad and Tobago’s main contribution to Caribbean Jazz since most jazz festivals tend to feature North American musicians and lean towards local artists that do covers of North American material or compositions styled after US music and musicians.
Globalization as an economic and social phenomenon has an undeniable impact on the countries’ cultural processes. What do you make of the role music plays in preserving cultural heritage?
Because of colonialism, genocide, slavery, indentured labor, a significant version of our story in the Americas was not written by us, not written at all, discredited or destroyed when it was written. Music, therefore, has been the way in which much of our story in the Americas has been recorded; through sound and song. It is crucial that the full length and breadth of our musical heritage be audible and accessible to our people. We need to internalize it and use it as a reference as we continue to create and represent our selves through sound.
You’ve got a long career as a promoter of Caribbean jazz, especially in Trinidad & Tobago, but also in Cuba and the U.S. What’s your opinion about Caribbean jazz and Cuba’s role in its development?
Caribbean Jazz uses our heritage (kaiso, beguine, guaguanco, reggae) as a base for improvisation, exploration and creativity. The result is a unique, pulsating, interesting and inviting example of jazz music. Cuban jazz is at the forefront of the style. It is included in almost every noted jazz festival’s line up and has been strong enough to be the central attraction of the Cuban Jazz Festival compared to other festivals in our region that depend on the pull of U.S. acts. At the same time the Festival del Fuego is dedicated to the Caribbean, the Havana Jazz Festival makes space for jazz from the Caribbean and Latin America and La Zorra is the first jazz club in the region I know of to feature solely Caribbean Jazz every night of the week for such an extended period of time. Having two recognized festivals and the international reputation of featuring good music from our region makes Cuba central to the exposition of Caribbean Jazz music.
There is also still some radio focus on Caribbean jazz in the form of Radio Taino where other jazz stations and their Caribbean Jazz programs, like my program which is still looking for a new station “home”, have been forced to close down.
The thing that makes Cuba’s role most definitive is its willingness to invite and to dialogue and to include its Caribbean brothers and sisters, as my group and I experienced in performing in the Havana international jazz festival in 2004 and 2014 and as I experienced as a guest on Radio Taino on several occasions.
What projects are you currently involved in?
My biggest project at the moment is the EJC’s Jazz Studio. The studio is a small jazz club where my company, the Ethnic Jazz Club (EJC) presents Caribbean Jazz. This June we close our second season. We have featured artists from Trinidad and Tobago who are based abroad, Trinidadian jazz maestros and guests from the Caribbean, including Cuba. With just one, one day out door event that features four or five artists in Trinidad and the Tobago Jazz Experience which features mostly R&B, reggae and soca presentations at the Studio are central to the survival and continued development of Caribbean jazz music and musicians in Trinidad and Tobago in this period.