One of the Capital City’s most unique singer-songwriters brings his own journey to the Mardi Gras festivities in Midtown on March 4
By Scott Thomas Anderson
Clemón Charles walked into the Lion’s Roar Dharma Center prepping for his own spiritual roar.
The native son of Barbados brought his guitar over to a stool in the spotlight. He hunched under his smooth, raven fedora and started driving for a connection through silvery, flowing notes. His boot heal took to dropping a beat on the hardwood as a bass player began fueling his propulsion.
The East Sacramento crowd listened to Charles’ melodious voice sing a composition titled “Victimless Crime,” which he co-wrote three years ago. The piece has a bright, free-moving mediation that emanates from its chord progression. It has an open call for empathy burned into its thoughtful lyrics. It’s a fusion of acoustic style and cosmic intention that has its roots in Charles growing up entranced by American folk music while living in the West Indies. As a kid, he was immersed the samba, calypso and reggae rhythms dripping from his island’s song culture, though he always filtered them through his own love of Greenwich Village-style troubadouring. The result is a kind of purity of sonic output that Charles has been honing over the years he’s performed in Sacramento.
The Dharma center show is the latest example.
But Charles is also a child of an old, spirit-sparking Carnival culture, too. In Barbados, it’s called the Crop Over Festival – a lavish music and dancing extravaganza tied to sugarcane celebrations from the 17th Century. It is jubilant and energetic, and something that’s in Charles’ blood.
“It’s very similar to a Brazilian Carnival or the one that Trinidad has,” he says of Crop Over. “There’s costumes all over the street. There’s a big band competition. This thing just takes over the city.”
Having been forged in those communal blowouts from an early age, Charles is looking forward to being a featured musician at Shannon McCabe’s Mardi Gras Ball on Saturday, March 4. The event goes down at Harlow’s Nightclub in Midtown, and it won’t just be Charles leading the action, but his full, six-piece accompaniment of the Clemón Charles Band. He wants the back-up: As much as Charles loves soul-searching with his acoustic, he knows that the soul of a real Carnival party is irrepressible motion and energy. His group saw that from the stage last year.
“It was epic – we had such blast,” he notes of the ball. “I like it because you get all walks of life coming in. Sometime with festivals, it’s not about one particular genre, so it brings everyone out. This year, we’re going to play a lot of dance music. It’s going to be celebration. Our plan is to get people moving.’”
The boy playing Caribbean folk, the man finding a City of Trees
Charles began playing guitar when he was 9-years-old in Barbados. By the age of 13, he was performing in Caribbean-tinged folk ensembles. His musical heroes at the time were Richie Havens, Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel. As Charles developed his skills, those singer-songwriting paragons spread their atoms through his own creative vision.
In 1988, Charles immigrated to the U.S. with hopes of working in the music and concert promotion industry. He first landed in San Francisco, though quickly made his way to the Capital City. Charles says that he felt a deep connection with Sacramento right away.
“It’s the people,” he reflects. “The people have been so wonderful to me and they’ve just made my life so comfortable. Of all the places I’ve been to around the States, Sacramento – there’s something special about how they treat you. The majority of my experience has been so positive.”
Charles was employed at Sacramento’s Sheridan Grand Hotel in 2010 when a general manager stumbled on him playing music in one of the offices. The manager was so impressed that he asked Charles if he’d perform for guests out in the lobby. The staff even set up a stage for the occasion. Just like that, Charles was playing music for audiences again after a years-long break. Soon, he was also performing at special events for the Marriott Hotel and Harvey’s casino in South Lake Tahoe. At one point, nationally known television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz invited Charles to tour the nation with him, signing on as the opener for the physician’s highly attended lectures.
By 2012, the man from Barbados who’d adopted Sacramento – and been adopted by Sacramento – had assembled the full Clemón Charles Band. The group was landing gigs from Bogle Winery in the Delta to North Star Ski Resort in the high Sierra. But even with all the stage energy a band provides, Charles stayed true to the intimate musical sensibilities that he learned from folk. Later, in 2015, the Lama from the Lion’s Roar Dharma Center heard Charles performing and took an immediate interest.
“He said, ‘A lot of your songs have Dharma meanings, so I’d love for you to come do a Dharma event,’” Charles remembers. “They eventually gave me a commission to put music to some chants. So, this relationship has just grown and grown.”
Performing at the Dharma Center’s art, music and dance events – known as Expressions – has further inspired Charles’ songwriting muse.
“It’s environmentally based,” he explains of his process. “Mainly, it’s songs about community, even how we handle mental health issues. I find myself really focusing on that. The reason is that we all have friends who have had hardships, or struggles with their emotions or how they’ve been treated. And I’ve known from a young age that how you treat people is reflection of who you are – and how they feel about themselves.”
The Mardi Gras balls and moments of release
Shannon McCabe, known as the Vampire Queen of Sacramento, started throwing her big Mardi Gras balls at Harlow’s seven years ago. Since then, she’s brought to these galas all the lavish style and Devil-may-care attitude that are hallmarks of her longer-running Vampire’s Ball. Yet, separate from these anticipated affairs, McCabe is also a member of the Clemón Charles Band. She joined five years ago as a second singer.
“Clemón and I have a very symbiotic relationship,” McCabe stresses. “We are great friends. We enjoy harmonizing with each other in life and in music.”
The other band members are Martin Benson, Allen Coy, Travis Houston and Elisa Bloom. All will be on deck for the big performance at Shannon McCabe’s Mardi Gras Ball on March 4. The Clemón Charles Band will take the main stage at Harlow’s at 8 p.m.
Other highlights of the evening include a Second line parade around the park near Harlow’s by the Krewe of Vampires at 6 p.m.; a special Mardi Gras-themed food menu from The Kitchen by Chef Genna; multiple burlesque dances from Sacramento favorites Starlet O’Hara, Jean Heart and Sugar Cheeks between 7 and 10 p.m.; a main stage show from the band Death in Bloom at 10 p.m.; a costume contest and the crowning of the 2023 King and Queen of Mardi Gras at 11 p.m.; and Mardi Gras themed music being spun by D.J. Bryan Hawk. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.
Charles says Harlow’s is one of his very favorite places to perform. He and its owner, Jim Cornet, have been at the center of a broader nexus between music and holiday ambiance in Sacramento – one modeled on a regular occurrence in New Orleans. Last December, the two worked together to bring a 10-day live music program to the Sacramento International Airport. The idea was that visitors flying into California’s capital would get a warm greeting from local performers. It’s a trend that airports in New Orleans and Nashville have been involved in for a while. Charles helped recruit a slew of regional artists for the mission. He and McCabe performed as a duo during the festivities. Charles feels the response from travelers and Sacramentans alike was overwhelmingly positive. For him, it’s the same kind of reaction that draws him to the Expressions events at the Lion’s Roar Dharma Center – reactions that continue to push his passion.
“With something like Expressions, there’s not money in it,” he remarks, “but there’s so much more gratification just seeing people being happy.”