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Chris Trinidad: Diaspora, Cultural Identity and The Spirit

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Chris Trinidad: Diaspora, Cultural Identity and The Spirit
Chris Trinidad photographed in the studio by Tarik Kazaleh

One of the most fascinating aspects of listening to music of Chris Trinidad, a young Canadian composer and bass guitarist now living on the West Coast of the United States – is being awestruck by its eloquent originality. One is in a constant state of wonder about Mr Trinidad’s compositional language and dialect, which subscribes [quite naturally] in its own melodic and rhythmic inflections. It’s clear that his music partially informed by the cultural topography resulting from the peripatetic nature of a musician’s life. In fact one feels compelled to say – even proclaim – that Chris Trinidad’s creative spirit has been on an elegant, restless and relentless mission to define cultural identity not just for himself, but musicians almost always bear the heaviest burden in order to find and lift this Holy Grail of a people, Mr Trinidad seems to do so for the whole Filipino diaspora.

However, the voice of Mr Trinidad’s music comes from a much deeper place and this aspect of the art is wholly informed by the seemingly infinite nature of the human diaspora, from whence has sprung many an artist quite, literally, beyond category. It is hardly pedantic to assume that one must use etymology – and that too, Greek etymology – to ascribe voice [and tone of voice] and stylistic idiosyncrasies to explain away why Mr Trinidad is so unique a musician within the dispersal of his bass-guitar-playing tribe. But Mr Trinidad’s music is nothing if not the voice of a characteristically – and proudly – Filipino composer and virtuoso bass guitarist expressing his unique cultural identity.

Chris Trinidad in Studio – photo by Tarik Kazaleh

Mr Trinidad’s music is unique in every sense of form and function by virtue of the fact that he grew up embracing the cultural ethos of the Catholicism of Spanish Colonialism. Its [Mr Trinidad’s] music became indelibly inflected thanks to his abiding love for early-Christian Monophony as well as Black American Music – the former following the harmonic strictures proscribed by the early-Church and practiced in European monasteries, and the latter diametrically opposed to rigidity and relying almost completely on polyphony and improvised invention. All of this – in Mr Trinidad’s case has been uniquely sculpted by closely-guarded Filipino ethnicity. So herein lies the rub:

The term diaspora is derived from the Greek verb διασπείρω (diaspeirō), I scatter, I spread about which in turn is composed of διά (dia), between, through, across and the verb σπείρω (speirō), I sow, I scatter assumes especially precient meaning in the case of Chris Trinidad’s music because it is where the composer’s fascination of pre-Christian monophony comes from. In Ancient Greece the term διασπορά (diaspora) hence meant scattering and was inter alia used to refer to citizens of a dominant city-state who emigrated to a conquered land with the purpose of colonisation [as was the case of the Spanish Catholic missionaries who boarded colonial ships en route to The Philippines], to assimilate the territory into the empire.

Again, in the case of Mr Trinidad’s music – and because he is deeply inspired by the spirituality of Catholic-Christian theology – the whole idea of diaspora assumes greater significance. In fact, it is not over-estimation at all to go as far back as Scripture to discern the deep implication of the term diaspora on Mr Trinidad’s creative psyche. After all [the word] was first used in this original sense when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek; the first mention of a diaspora created as a result of exile is found in the Septuagint, first in the Book of Deuteronomy [28:25], where we find the phrase ἔσῃ ἐν διασπορᾷ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς βασιλείαις τῆς γῆς, esē en diaspora en pasais tais basileiais tēs gēs, which in translation mean “thou shalt be a dispersion in all kingdoms of the earth.”

And because the well-spring of Mr Trinidad’s creativity is Scripture, the Book of Psalms assumes great significance as a foundation for his songs. With reference to the not-so-mildly prophetic nature of Mr Trinidad’s music here’s an extract from a psalm, the meaning of the following phrase makes for deep and frequently underlying thematic content. That would be the following extract taken from Psalm 146 [147].2, wherein this phrase occurs: οἰκοδομῶν Ἰερουσαλὴμ ὁ Kύριος καὶ τὰς διασπορὰς τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ ἐπισυνάξει, oikodomōn Ierousalēm ho Kyrios kai tas diasporas tou Israēl episynaxē, translated to mean “The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts of Israel”.

Chris Trinidad by Pacific Ocean – photo by Pia Vela Trinidad

This diaspora has been a recurring theme in Mr Trinidad music. When he re-located to the West Coast of the USA in 2008 he did so by his own admission as a Filipino-Canadian [from Vancouver, British Columbia who “grew up… in a country where multiculturalism is celebrated”. But he was always conscious – if not first and foremost then almost concurrently as an artist who experienced profound epiphany during the Advent season, “that time in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar that anticipates the Christmas season”, which in theological terms is a celebration that recalls the birth of Christ, The Son of God and Redeemer of the World. This is reflected in the soaring nature of the music of his first full-length album, Certain Times, the music of which lifts its proverbial voice in praise of Advent themes: Peace, Joy, Hope and Agape [which Ancient Greek ἀγάπη (agápē), meaning “the highest form of love, charity” and “the love of God for man and of man for God”. These virtues have, quite literally, driven all of the music Mr Trinidad has created and released thus far.

This is noteworthy even from Mr Trinidad’s earliest recordings; that uncommon gravitas noteworthy from [the fact that] it is the voice bass guitar that leads songs of praise contained in the central work of, for instance, his album, Certain Times, the apogee of which is a suite of the same name. The celebratory nature of the music is further tempered by glorious low register tone textures of the baritone saxophone. The magical harmonies and rhythmic propulsion comes from the stellar pianist Alex Conde and drummer Aaron Kierbel who round out the quartet that creates a steady and joyful noise throughout. Mr Trinidad’s music here is overtly informed by baroque counterpoint, which is a clear doffing of the proverbial hat to kind of oratorios that were most celebrated in the baroque era, most notably by Joseph Haydn and Johann Sebastian Bach.

The themes explored on this album were further expanded on Mr Trinidad’s next – and more orchestral-conceptions – on Changing Tides. The album first introduced us to his larger ensemble comprising saxophonist Reggie Padilla, trombonist Jamie Dubberly, trumpeter Miguelito Valdés, flutist Evan Francis, guitarist Alex Hand, pianist Christian Tumalan, drummer David Rokeach and percussionist José Sanchez. The bassist and composer revealed that the inspiration for the repertoire on both albums [mentioned above] came from a spiritual dimension that would become central to his artistic conception in the music to follow.

Subla Neokulintang [album cover]

The term diaspora means everything to Mr Trinidad’s artistic vision and conception. Consequently it is woven vividly into the entire fabric of the music itself. The composer and bassist laid down a marker for his conception with his beguiling and highly exotic repertoire on his album Subla Neokulintang. Bringing masters of deeply traditional music from the Philippines – the late Danny Kalanduyan, an elder statesman of Filipino cultural history, Bo Razon, a guitarist and percussionist playing traditional Filipino instruments, Frank Holder, who is [essentially] a Latin-American percussionist but who made the transition to Filipino instruments and joined the bassist to create one of the most bewitching albums of music, quite unlike anything one had ever encountered before. The surprises, when they came, were highly effective and discreet. Mr Kalanduyan and Mr Holder helped transpose the gamelan-like riffs from the traditional babendil to the bass guitar and back again, and whose pizzicato harmonics created delicate curlicues of bass lines underpinning what sounded like modern bluesy laments.

Chris Trinidad conducting – photo by Lawrence Haley

Mr Trinidad estimated that the biggest challenge to executing this elegant music was “working with the idiomatic tuning of the traditional kulintang which is not set to the western “equal temperament music” of various western music eras. Perhaps equally challenging would have been melding tone-textures produced by [western] instrumentation {bass guitar, other guitars and cymbals] with the Afro-Peruvian cajón. Close-knit phrases from each of the musicians – eminently virtuosic on individual traditional [Filipino] and instruments that are better-known for making music elsewhere in the world – developed from single mystical phrases throughout making for music that launched into broodingly percussive tumbling grooves – the like of which you may never had experienced before.

The two releases from Chris Trinidad that followed, Chant Triptych I and Chant Triptych II [recorded in 2016 and 2018] are what perhaps many of Mr Trinidad’s inner circle of musicians may find hardest to come to terms to, much less listen to, just as many of Mr Trinidad’s most ardent listeners might. But they play an important part in the composer and bassist’s musical vision. On the face of it both contemporary excursions in monophony might pass for a fascination with Gregorian Chants. Perhaps there is a deeper and fairer manner to explore both of them. Musically-speaking: what manner of post-Jaco Pastorius would dare to explore the instrument as more than a rhythm instrument that often traps virtuosic players into gratuitous adornments while soloing? Moreover, Mr Trinidad’s attempt to examine the form of monophonic music in a modern [polyphonic] context using Brian Eno and Robert Fripp as touchstones is remarkable.

Chris Trinidad’s Chant Triptych I [album cover]

It is the employment of a modern, electrified instrument as the voice of Annunciation in praise of Creation that is what’s being celebrated; an altogether remarkable endeavor by any artist [indeed, human]. Mr Trinidad makes no secret of the fact that the music of both discs came from a spiritual place – to be exact, from his education at the hands of the De La Salle religious order. However, the collision of the spiritual and the secular in an ocean of monophony is truly remarkable. On Chant Triptych I, the “reflections” of Brother George van Grieken, FSC are propelled aloft in near perfect balance with Mr Trinidad’s the well rounded “bass voice”. Together the music emphasizes with a sensuous quality that realm of music where the sacred and the secular collide.

The monophonic adventure continued in the following Chant Triptych II, in which Mr Trinidad’s music brings the teachings of the 17th century education and mystic Saint John Baptist de la Salle full circle as Mr Trinidad recreates something that John McLaughlin’s powerful ensemble Shakti did. There are others who inspired the creation of this music – from Chris Speed and Ornette Coleman, to percussion colourist Dan Weiss, John Zorn [with the saxophonist’s Masada series] and the inimitable oudist and composer, Rabih Abou Khalil.

However, beyond the blurring of musical borders that creates and separate various diasporas in our earthly migration Mr Trinidad’s meditation [on Holistic aspects of diaspora are brought to life in a bravura performance, combined with acute sensitivity over matters of pacing and light and shade. All of this soars within the fleetness of tempo, touch and lush intimacy by Mr Trinidad together with the other musicians involved – guitarist Alex Hand, accordionist and melodica player Colin Hogan, [Latin] percussionist Mario Salomon and the Indian-American multi-instrumentalist Neelamjit Dhillon.

Mr Trinidad’s 2019 recording – Chris Trinidad y Con Todo – might seem like a creative “blip” in his oeuvre that has been discussed in the context of this feature rooted in the artistic vision of the composer-and bassist’s journey; the historical and peripatetic movement and settlement unique to his Catholic-Christian Filipino-Canadian-American diaspora. But listen more deeply and the connection between the influence of Spanish colonization of the Philippines followed by the [later] socio-economic, and political late-American emerges in a manner that suggests his music is fed by a giant tap-root. The repertoire [on this album] seems to explode and this fallout ensues – a fiery musical adventure from what seems like heat from the nuclear corona of the very sun that nourishes our planet. Moreover, In the context of human dispersal this music is quite brilliantly interpreted by like-minded musicians who have dug deep into their own sources of human – and therefore artistic – migration.

The outstanding performers included pianist Christian Tumalan, percussionists Carlos Caro and Colin Douglas, and horn players – trumpeter Bill Ortiz, trombonists including the great Jeff Cressman and Jamie Dubberly, tenor saxophonist Tony Peebles. Also present and giving of themselves in an altogether memorable manner is the very special virtuoso violinist Anthony Blea and flutist Tod Dickow. The vocalists include Juan Luis Pérez and Christelle Durandy, an artist of uncommon abilities that fortuitously, are no longer being kept hidden anymore.

Chris Trinidad y Canción Tagalog [album cover]

Perhaps the most significant music conceived of by Mr Trinidad was put down on record in 2020. The album Canción Tagalog is a companion piece [in more ways than one] to his 2014 album entitled Subla Neokulintang. The repertoire further expands on the theme of Filipino diaspora, but while the earlier album was exploratory in many ways, the sophistication of ideas and execution of these in composition, improvisation is remarkable. At its heart the music imagines how the collision of African-Spanish colonial society and the Filipino-Spanish colonial one. And yet, who would have thought that son and danzón could be re-imagined as traditional Filipino waltz-time kundiman? It is this breathtaking manner in which diaspora and the broader effects on such a mighty dispersion would – and, indeed, do have on society to which an artist belongs.

The remarkable Bo Razon puts aside his Filipino percussion and interprets Mr Trinidad’s music on Afro-Cuban bàtá drums and the trés. The effect is spectacular, to put it mildly. Also joining in the epic musical odyssey is percussionist Raphael Geronimo, David Lechuga, Reggie Padilla, Mary Grace Del Rosario and Reggie Del Rosario, Raquel Berlind. They are also joined by Carlos Caro and John Calloway – both towering figures on the US West Coast Latin-Jazz scene. The ethereal beauty of this music and that of Subla Neokulintang – both written using the Tagalog dialect – is a feast for the senses. A third recording which will feature music from the same [or similar] wellspring is due out shortly and so it would make much more sense to dig deeper into this music separately.

Clearly Mr Trinidad is on to done exploring regions of music where no one else has gone before. At the heart of it all is a meditation that dwells in complex aspects of the historical reservoir for the diaspora of the Filipino-Canadian-American [as he like to call it] and the culture that has resulted from the effects of a myriad iterations of the dispersal. No matter where the music will take him next [who can tell?] one aspect of his artistry remains certain: a cascade of musical surprises will ensue.

Video: Chris Trinidad y Canción Tagalog – Sampaguita

One cannot help but conclude this essay with an observation from the celebrated Homi Bhabha, a towering figure in his own [Parsi-Indian-British] diaspora. Dr Bhabha reminds us that “Postcolonial civil societies are profoundly cosmopolitan, having weathered the incursions and impositions of ‘international’ cultural and market forces prior to encountering their own nationalistic moments… That is precisely Frantz Fanon’s point when he argues that, despite global inequalities and injustices, it is difficult to act ethically in the national interest without taking a larger view on international well-being.”

If that thought seems divorced from the idea of Chris Trinidad evoking his Filipino-Canadian-American culture resulting from seemingly endless dispersion, consider this historical fact: everything “…born of The Enlightenment, can encourage curiosity about understanding of differences in the world; that difference has always been and has left its mark on works of art from every culture; and that by promoting understanding of these basic truths about culture and history” as museums and their collections, for example, do [James Cuno, Museums Matter, The University of Chicago Press, 2011].

Likewise the music various diasporas such as this Filipino-Canadian-American musician not only encourages tolerance of a disparate humanity, one that does not have to look or sound or dance like another to be recognised for the celebration of the only humanity to which all belong. And this is also the key to immersing oneself in – and embracing – the music of Chris Trinidad.

Deo gratis

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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