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Nathalie Joachim Has a Long Reach on Fanm d’Ayiti

October 20, 2020

Cal Performances

At the start of Nathalie Joachim’s “Madan Bellegarde” — a short, somber Haitian folksong describing a Haitian woman’s condemnation — the taut voice of an elder Ipheta Fortuma floats out of a hidden speaker. Joachim, standing center stage in a flood of purple light, surrounded by the masked, physically distanced members of the Spektral Quartet, hears Fortuma’s voice and nods, listening. The scene is intimate: the glint of an earring, the repositioning of a sneaker, the contour of a cheek, the hint of a smile in an eye.

As Fortuma’s voice fades, Joachim signals to the ensemble with a breath, and the group embraces the melody left behind: Joachim, first singing the tune herself, then playing it on flute; the quartet, harmonizing it in different registers, adorning it with insistent sustains; the electronics, triggered by Joachim, providing gentle blooms of rhythm and color. The melody of “Madan Bellegarde,” passed from Fortuma to Joachim and her ensemble, becomes the sign of a tender occasion, the mark of varied distances; for its sounds are celebrations of lives overlooked, and its shaking, primary voice — Fortuma’s — is that of Joachim’s own grandmother.

Dense, soothing moments like these — where family history, musical reimagination, and Black transnational feminism converge — made Joachim’s recent live performance of her new, Grammy-nominated album Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti) truly transformative. 

In late September, Joachim, a Haitian American composer, vocalist, and flutist, performed the entirety of her Fanm d’Ayiti, a multimodal composition originally commissioned by the Liquid Music Series, with the Spektral Quartet (Clara Lyon, Maeve Feinberg, Doyle Armbrust, and Russell Rolen) at Black Ensemble Theater in Chicago. Streamed by Cal Performances and available through Jan. 12, 2021, Joachim’s project turns to chamber and electronic music aesthetics to reimagine traditional, popular, and familial Haitian songs like “Madan Bellegarde”; the careers of prominent Haitian women artists; and the stylistic, cosmological, and (neo)colonial histories still shaping Haiti, the world’s first free Black republic. Grounded in years of research and numerous oral history interviews — the album features the voices of Emerante de Pradines, Michelange Lundi and the Girls Choir of École Presbyterale Fatima de Dantan, Milena Sandler, Carol Demesmin, Toto Bissainthe, and, again, Ipheta Fortuma — Fanm d’Ayiti layers narratives and musical elements to create a rare type of syncopation: not only of rhythms, but also of styles, timbres, and traditions, each element played against the others to create a textured musical whole. 

“My journey to Fanm d’Ayiti started in late 2015,” Joachim writes in her program notes, “shortly after the passing of my maternal grandmother. She and I spent many a cherished moment underneath the mango and coconut trees in her yard in Haiti — and in my childhood home in America — singing songs with one another. It was our way of telling each other stories, and her way of passing on a centuries-long cultural practice ... Her absence ignited a deep desire for understanding in me. In what ways did our voices connect with the voices of other Haitian women? What did our songs tell us about our past, and what might they mean for the future?”

These questions and memories eventually led Joachim to a deeply personal mode of music composition: ethnographic, self-reflective, rooted in embodied experiences, family histories, cultural distances, and disparate educations. Or, to put it differently: a mode of writing that sits in the spaces between songs and countries, grandmothers and granddaughters. 

Musically, for Joachim, that writing meant layering, interweaving. On Fanm d’Ayiti, sampled and chopped girls choirs (“Suite pou Dantan: Resevwa Li”), polyrhythmic undercurrents (“Lamizè pa dou”), delicate melismas (“Papa Loko”), kreyòl longings (“Manman me voye m peze kafe”), lush string arrangements (“Suite pou Dantan: Prelid”), and electro-acoustic swirls (“Suite pou Dantan: Alléluia”) all converge into personal explorations of form and feeling. Like the main melody of “Madan Bellegarde,” each timbre of the project becomes a record of a musical education, each sustained harmonic an exploration of memory’s overtones.

Too, Joachim’s expressions of localized, celebratory Black matriarchal feminism — the rootedness of her ideas in Haitian intimacies and syncretisms, as well as the distances and frictions navigated by the Haitian American diaspora — also come at a crucial moment for many listeners, given the ever-present threats of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout the Americas, the specific cruelties of anti-blackness in the United States, and the still-fresh memories of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Singing with and through one’s maternal elders, thousands of miles from motherlands and at least six feet from local neighbors, is, for Joachim, as much an inspiration as a politics. 

Anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, in Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle, writes of the urgency of projects like Fanm d’Ayiti—projects that combat negative media representations through personal, imaginative recoveries. “Haitians as subjects of research and representation,” Ulysse writes, “have often been portrayed historically as fractures, as fragments—bodies without minds, heads without bodies, or roving spirits. These disembodied beings or visceral fanatics have always been in need of an intermediary. They hardly ever spoke for themselves.” 

On that Chicago stage, surrounded by the Spektral Quartet and filled with the joy unique to performing with other musicians after months of isolation, Joachim responds to this tendency by letting the women she interviewed speak for themselves, often playing back recorded interviews while standing aside and bowing her head, absorbing their words amid the dimmed stage lights.

That spirit of receptivity and intergenerational, transnational feminist conversation (literally) names Fanm d’Ayiti’s entire ethos. Listening to the live concert again in my headphones now, as one can in the COVID era — and, particularly, to that final phrase of “Madan Bellegarde,” when the strings’ tensions fade and Fortuma’s recorded voice returns — I’m reminded of a line by the poet Ocean Vuong:

“They say a song can be a bridge, Ma. But I say it’s also the ground we stand on. And maybe we sing to keep ourselves from falling. Maybe we sing to keep ourselves.” 

Jonathan Leal is a writer and musician from the Rio Grande Valley. Currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is now completing an interdisciplinary humanities doctorate at Stanford University. Twitter and Instagram: @jonathanjleal