Serge Sainte Rose is a Martinique-born composer and pianist heralded for his versatility and vivid storytelling ability …
These unique qualities were on film display during his fittingly titled concert From Britain To The Caribbean And Back.
In this insightful conversation, the composer shared the inspiration behind his latest work, his upbringing in Martinique and the importance of creating safe spaces for Black people to enjoy classical music.
Please introduce yourself…
Hello! I’m a pianist, composer and music producer from Martinique and I’ve been living in London for the last 16 years.
Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now?
Full, although less hectic than 2 weeks ago (in the run up to my concert)!
Congratulations on your concert! I had the pleasure of being in the audience and I was captivated by it’s sound and message. I noticed that you were in the audience too. Are you able to fully switch off and enjoy watching your compositions coming to life or do you approach the experience with a more critical eye?
When I watch a concert, I’m usually very critical and I generally find it hard to switch off – even more so with my own music, and especially if it’s being performed for the first time.
One of the standout features of your concert was that it sought to tell the story of the slave trade in it’s entirety (the pain, struggle and liberation), instead of focusing on enslavement and life on the plantation as Hollywood tends to do. Why did you approach the story in this way?
It’s impossible to tell hundreds of years of history in 1 hour 30 minutes of music, but I wanted to say as much as I could in honour of my ancestors. For the audience to appreciate their story, I wanted to include as many different elements as possible: how the slave trade started, the pain, struggle, hope and the fight for freedom. Also, what happened after the abolition of slavery. I wanted the audience to be immersed in the full story.
Throughout the concert there were multiple languages being used for the songs and spoken word pieces (Creole, English, French and Spanish amongst others), which made the overall experience feel full and well rounded. What inspired you to incorporate all of these languages rather than take the easier route of sticking to one?
All the Caribbean Islands share similar histories. The concert tells the story of the Caribbean people, therefore I wanted to include the main languages that are spoken throughout the region, so that all Caribbean people in the audience would feel a connection to their Island and their ancestors.
Classical music and the rhythms and sounds of the Caribbean are not often heard in the same room, but everything meshed together so seamlessly on the night. Did you find that these sounds naturally complemented each other or was it a challenge to achieve the final outcome?
I’m a perfectionist, so it was a real challenge for me to blend styles at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Music is a universal language, but the words within it still need to go together. I really wanted to find a balance, so that it’s neither a classical concert with a bit of Caribbean spice, nor a Caribbean music concert with some classical flavour, but something where both have an equal place.
When you first picked up the flute as a child in your native Martinique, did you ever think that it would take you this far, in terms of travelling the world and being able to financially support yourself?
No. When I started playing flute, I probably wouldn’t have imagined living in London and travelling around the World. However, when I started to consider a career in music, I was very ambitious and certainly wanted to be a successful musician – probably the same as 90% of all musicians!
I’ve heard you say that Michael Jackson is one of your biggest musical influences. Given that he was predominantly known for his vocal abilities and dancing prowess, and you are celebrated for your composition and mastery of instruments, this might catch a few people off-guard. Could you explain the ways in which his style has influenced yours?
I always admired his innovative ideas, passion and attention to detail. As well as his fantastic song writing. Musically, what probably influenced me most were the brilliant hooks, the cutting-edge production, and the countless details found in the music.
Classical music is often portrayed as being elitist and only open to a select few. How were you able to find your place in this space and are you keen to create environments where people from more diverse backgrounds can enjoy classical music too?
I haven’t found my place yet. As a composer, this is the beginning of my journey (career-wise). I am, however, very ambitious! And yes, I am very keen to create environments where people from more diverse backgrounds can enjoy classical music. This is also why I made the concert, to broaden the perception of what classical music is and make it more accessible.
Given all that you have accomplished so far in your career, what’s still left on your musical bucket list?
Having my music played at the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall!
GETTING TO KNOW YOU …
A book you have to have in your collection?
That’s difficult, there are so many good books! Recently I’ve been re-reading The Name Of The Wind which I really love!
A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date?
Oh, that’s tough. It would have to be a song or album about growing up in the Caribbean, then living in Europe, talking about the struggles and accomplishments etc. I don’t know any song or album about that!
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly?
The Shawshank Redemption.
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance or concert)? I’m not 100% sure, but one of my earliest memories of a theatre production is Carmen. I remember loving it! The music, performances, stage and set etc. It certainly was a great introduction to how music can blend with/support a story and visuals. No wonder why I love films!
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?
I recently got married and my wife is trying to change her surname here, but since Brexit it’s a lot more complicated. In fact, it’s a nightmare! Last night though, I received some of the footage from the concert. It made me really happy to see it again!
What’s your current plan B? (if it all goes wrong what’s the plan?)
I’ve never really had a plan B, as I cannot see myself doing anything other than music. But if everything goes wrong someday, I’ll find a bit of land in the countryside, live a peaceful life and grow vegetables and animals.
Celebrate someone else (who do you rate right now?) –
Celebrate yourself … (make us proud of you)
I’m proud that I managed to organise the concert, dealing with all aspects from hiring the venue, the performers, gear, promotion etc, all whilst composing and orchestrating the music within 10 months. It was a huge challenge!
Where can we find your latest project?
I am currently mixing the music from the recording of the concert and will be releasing a promo video with snippets of the concert soon. It will be available on my website, sergesainterose.com , YouTube and social media. Watch this space!
Serge Saint Rose’s From Britain To The Caribbean And Back played at St John’s Smith Square.