"It's Who We Are": An Interview with Nathalie Joachim

We're ecstatic to be performing with Nathalie Joachim on Friday, September 13th! We've been dreaming this up together for over a year, when Nathalie asked if we might be interested in performing excerpts from Fanm at her set on Resonant Bodies Festival in Chicago. Being long-time fans of Nathalie's, we were pretty bummed that we couldn't do the gig, but it set us on a course: we started thinking immediately about how we could work together, and perhaps even support her work on this extraordinary project in an even more substantial way.

Clara sat down with her recently to go even deeper behind the scenes…

photo: Josué Azor

photo: Josué Azor

Clara Lyon: Where does the story of Fanm d’Ayiti begin?

Nathalie Joachim: My maternal grandmother passed away in September of 2015. She was a really important voice in my life and losing her had me thinking about her voice, and also what female voices in Haiti have meant to me, historically. 

One day after she had passed, I was having a casual conversation with my parents, and it was weird: I was thinking about these voices and how they are such a part of who I am, but also that – except for Emeline Michel – I couldn’t actually name any other female Haitian artists. So my parents and I started talking about which female artists they could remember. I still actually have the handwritten list from that evening, and there were really only a dozen names on it.

CL: When did this initial curiosity transform into a commission?

NJ: A few months later I received an inquiry from Kate Nordstrum, who curates the Liquid Music series. I sent her my best, most curated list of projects and at the very, very bottom of the email, I added something like, “You know, I’ve also been thinking of doing this project centered around women of Haiti, but I’m not really sure what I would do yet.” Much to my surprise, this is the one she was really most curious about.

Thanks to Kate, this was the first time that I was given the space and support to have a real “research phase.” There wasn’t a note written down for a very long time.

Now, I am trying to embed this kind of time and space into my practice. I feel that being classically trained, you are pushed into this forum of carving something up, sculpting what is supposed to be there. This project turned my entire practice on its head: instead of forcing a form or shape upon something, I just allowed it to become what it needed to be, to receive all of the things that were coming, and to be open enough to receive them.

CL: I was just thinking about how you described to Spektral what a musical person your grandmother was, and how she really is responsible in some ways for your love of music and love of musical collaboration. Do you know how your grandmother became such a musical person?

NJ: The lineage of passing on music in Haiti is really organic. The passing on and sharing of music is not a special thing that happens, it is really an essential thing that happens. For my family, it is one of the ways we share time together.

It would be much more strange if my grandmother didn’t have a love or attachment to music. Because it would mean that she was the link in the chain of musicality in my family that was broken, or that she chose to not participate in it. It’s not a unique thing. It’s just who we are.

CL: When I went to Haiti a few years ago for a teaching artist residency, something I encountered with many of the people I met and the folks I collaborated with was this incredible generosity with sharing their artistic traditions, and a deeply rooted sense of pride in Haitian art as a real cultural treasure. I wonder if this resonates with your experience of Haiti, and what role you feel that art plays in Haitian culture. 

NJ: Absolutely, absolutely. Let’s just start off by saying that pride is a sort of quintessential Haitian characteristic. We are a very proud people, for good reason, I think, and the arts are really valued in a beautiful way. There are entire regions and cities that are known specifically for their art-making, and it is a very big part of our cultural history. 

That is also why, to be honest, that I was in this place of pulling out my hair to figure out what to do about the cover artwork. It’s a really great example of what you are talking about: there is a form of Haitian painting, and also wood-carving style, that you probably saw a lot of when you were there. Very often, Haitian women are depicted at work in different ways. I don’t really know the origins of this style-I’d like to know more about it-I just know that it was etched into my brain because it is in every Haitian household, and every Haitian establishment. When I think of artwork in Haiti that is the thing that comes to my mind because it is just so prevalent-we had it in my household growing up, and my Mom is a visual artist too, so we had some of her work as well. Definitely that side of things too: personal expression-whether through song, or visual art, writing, or storytelling, is a huge part of Haitian culture. 

I’m just so pleased at everyone’s at people’s reactions to the cover art because I wanted to work with Erin K. Robinson. She herself has such a history in her work that is featured around the black female form, both women and girls. It is a very central part of her art-making, so that resonated with me right away. She wasn’t very familiar with Haitian artwork, so I sent her some examples that I had from my own travels, and took some pictures of what my family had on their walls, and she did such a gorgeous, modern interpretation of the work that I am so proud of. In so many ways the cover is also a reflection of the songs on the album, but I was also glad to bring in this lens of visual artwork and it’s celebration of Haitian women and their resilience. I just loved that! And Erin did such a wonderful job of honoring the tradition.

The idea of expressing all that is in you, in an artistic way, is something that is very common in Haiti. I think it’s related to why you hear women singing all the time as they work and go about their lives, because it is just in them to express themselves. I think that we view art as storytelling, and I’m proud to say that that is part of who we are. 

Haitian people are extremely artistic people. You find that even in the girls choir sample in “Alleluia.” It’s not a professional choir, it’s literally just the girls who live in town, some of whom are my little cousins. There is nothing special about what they are doing, they are just doing what they do, but they sound so beautiful.

CL: I’m curious about your compositional choices with Fanm d’Ayiti. You are such an accomplished flutist and composer employing a wide breadth of styles in your work, and at the time it must have felt like adapting and arranging these songs could have gone in many different directions. How did you make the decision to sing on this album?

NJ: I think the thing that drove me most in terms of expression had to do with two things. For one, there was my grandmother. I don’t think that I ever played flute for her. We always made music by using our voices. 

Also, the stories and the text behind these songs is so powerful. But it was definitely putting myself out on a limb. There was a very good chance that I was going to make a record and everyone would be like, “Why are you singing?”

CL: What do you hope the audience takes away from our Chicago premiere on Friday night

NJ: I hope that everybody experiences the deep sense of love and respect that I have for this ancestry, this lineage, and these women who have come before me. I hope that people will see that this is such a deep part of who I am. More than anything, I want to be able to honor these women by making this music.

art: Erin K. Robinson

art: Erin K. Robinson

Fanm d’Ayiti
Record Release Show

Friday, Sept 13
Black Ensemble Theater