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Stumbling up the dim staircase at Smalls and into the late-January midwinter chill, it was difficult to tell what year it was. Melanie Charles had just finished her set downstairs, a jazz-heavy collection of originals and covers closing with Nancy Wilson’s “Save Your Love for Me.” Charles let ghosts into the room, channeling Billie, Ella, and Nina with equal verve. If it weren’t for the two guys chatting loudly about cryptocurrency and venture capital at the bar, you could have easily felt yourself drifting backwards a decade at a time.
Charles, 29, is a Bushwick native who grew up playing church music, learning piano from her congregation’s organist, Michelle McCoy at Holy Trinity Baptist Church. She joined the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, trained as an opera singer all through high school, and was prepared to devote her life to the medium, but, during a mandatory vocal consultation with a Juilliard instructor prior to her final audition, she came face to face with the entrenched racism of the classical music world.
“I told the teacher that I like jazz and that I liked opera and church music — that I liked a lot of different things,” Charles said. “And the teacher said, ‘You know, you’re a black girl. You should probably sing jazz.’” Charles took the hostile advice and ended up in the New School’s jazz program, where she flourished. “It worked out even though this teacher was really discouraging and negative, but I’m happy that I took her advice and ended up falling in love with jazz.” Charles eventually joined the tightly knit — and fiercely orthodox — New York jazz fraternity as a college student. (She joked that the “jazz police” would have raided the place if she didn’t play a more traditional set at Smalls.)
The lines between jazz and other forms of music have always been particularly bright. Even for artists as rarefied as Herbie Hancock—an artist whose jazz bona fides are as strong as they come—there’s a certain otherness to their work outside of the genre. (Hancock’s Head Hunters is a classic, but it is a pop or fusion classic, not a jazz one.) That barrier is starting to show some holes, though, and Charles is part of a growing community of artists who see jazz as a starting point rather than a purpose unto itself.
By the time Charles graduated from the New School in 2010, she was looking for something different. “I felt like, you know, I wanted more sound,” she says. “I started getting involved in the beat scene and I noticed that a lot of beat makers in the scene were using SPs” — a type of sampling device made by Roland — “which is what Madlib uses. I was like, ooh, there’s something about this sampler that’s rooted in tempo culture, but if you use it a certain way you can sort of arrange and create on the spot live.”
You can hear the influence of that scene bleeding into the music she’s making now. “Be on My Side,” the slow-burning closer to Charles’ 2017 release The Girl with the Green Shoes, shares a bloodline with Madlib’s Shades of Blue or J Dilla’s jazzier production credits: A sultry, static-flecked sample of Buddy Miles’ rendition of “Down By the River” buzzes in the background. Miles croons “Be on my side/I’ll be on your side” like some a spectral lounge lizard incarnation of Neil Young; Charles summons the spirits of Erykah Badu and Syd Bennett. In other places — “PETTY,” “Midnight,” — you can hear her collaging her musical DNA into jazz-studded multi-instrumentalism and dipping a toe into the experimental. Fusing that many genres can often guarantee a muddied sound, but there’s an uncanny cohesion to Charles’ music, her wandering threads braided into something strong as rope.
About halfway through her debut EP, Charles swan dives into minimalism, taking her Haitian roots with her. Charles’ mother grew up in Haiti, and the island nation has been taking a more central role in her compositions and thinking. “Damballa Wedo” is more chant than song. Charles switches over to singing in Creole with a spare sample for her backing track: An acoustic guitar, a note or two of bass, Charles’ own voice repeating “C’est bon, c’est bon dieu” over and over again, her Bs softly bouncing along, giving the song a hypnotic rhythm. (There is a lot of Malian artist Oumou Sangaré in Charles.)
The song is an homage to Charles’ burgeoning interest in Haitian Voodoo. (Damballa Wedo is a god of creation in the Voodoo tradition, represented by a white serpent and responsible for maintaining cosmic balance.) “The day-to-day practice of Voodoo is really rooted in community, it’s rooted in music and rhythm,” Charles says. “The last ceremony that I went to, there were six drummers with six different drums that all had different pitches, and they would take turns switching back and forth between different drums. They sang songs and danced. It was all to conjure the spirits and so, if the spirit wasn’t coming, it was time to change the song, you know? I thought that was amazing.”
Charles is aware that Haiti and Voodoo — an anglicization of the Creole word “voudou” — have certain associations stateside. Charles’ mother, who moved to New York in her 30s, is a devout Catholic and was weary when her daughter began investigating her ancestral traditions. “I told her, ‘Mom, for me it’s art. It’s answers to questions that I didn’t even realize I had before I started going to these ceremonies.’” (Charles is helping her mother record her first album at age 65. She describes it as a “fusion of gospel” and “Haitian rhythms.”)
Charles feels that it’s on her and the other children of the Haitian diaspora to fight those stereotypes. We use “voodoo” when we want to talk about zombified economic policies or black magic. It’s a religion of cursed dolls and hexes and rolling bones, rather than born out of a conflation of African animist traditions and Catholicism. (Voodoo gods are syncretic with Catholic saints; for example, Damballa Wedo is often represented by Saint Patrick.)
“Haitians specifically are very proud,” she says. “We were the first to be free, so we have this pride, and we know our culture. It wasn’t erased. When we’re looking back to find ourselves, especially those of us who are first-generation, it’s like, now’s the time. We’re all in our 30s, and so this is the time when we’re like, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?’ We’re able to trace that back easily.”
Charles visits Haiti regularly and has been watering her blooming interest in voodoo through attending rituals and speaking with adepts, as well as plumbing the depths of Haiti’s music traditions. “A lot of [Haitian songs] are a cappella that were passed on by oral tradition,” she says. “I want to have those rituals as part of my musical texture. … I’ve been taking some of these traditional melodies and stories and arranging them in different mediums. There’s a lot of traditional folk songs from Haiti that are gorgeous and are not well documented.” She’s been recording the musical elements of ceremonies and sampling them in her music, attempting to construct a collage that builds upon Haiti’s traditions.
This isn’t uncharted musical territory. Jazz, R&B, and hip-hop — each of which you can hear in different measures from Charles — are all influenced by West African rhythms, and voodoo ceremonial music draws a direct line back to communities abducted by slave traders. But few have expressly connected Voodoo to their compositions: Dr. John’s “Gris Gris” refers to a protective amulet, and the superstitious howls from blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins about “mojo” and “spells” can be rightly inferred as Voodoo — or at least “hoodoo” — references; Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, with an apparently straight face, called the band’s album Reflektor a “mashup of Studio 54 and Haitian Voodoo.” Charles is attempting to update those traditions by bringing historical context, as well as her personal heritage and contemporary tastes, into the studio. The early results are stunning.
On Charles’ last trip to Haiti, a voodoo priest told her she was protected by two gods — out of respect for the religion, Charles wouldn’t reveal which two — and that made sense to her. She had always been liable to say yes to whatever came her way, but dangers never presented themselves. “When the priest told me that, I said, ‘Oh that’s what it is,’” she says. “It’s been there all along.” She’s now focusing on bringing some of the oral traditions from Haiti to the States, and galvanizing the considerable musical talent among children of the diaspora. “It’s our job to go back and sort of say, ‘Hey, we want to help and we are on your side because we’re Haitian too,’” she says. “I think that it begins with the art, with the music. A sense of humanity and safe space, and that would change this perspective and the dialogue and the feeling of what it means to live in Haiti.”