by Peter Tracy
While cooking, walking, tending the garden, or washing clothes, the women of Haiti sing songs. For Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, flutist, and composer, her image of Haiti is one of love, beauty, tradition, family, and, perhaps above all, music: it pervades the house after church on Sundays and communicates the stories and traditions of past generations.
On her new album Fanm d’Ayiti, Joachim taps into Haiti’s long musical history through original songs and arrangements of classics by some of Haiti’s legendary women musicians. The resulting compositions engage her Haitian heritage and continue these women’s messages of resilience, love, and hope.
On Fanm d’Ayiti, which is Haitian Creole for “Women of Haiti,” traditional songs are treated in a radically new way, with original arrangements featuring voice, flute, and electronics by Joachim and strings performed by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Woven into the mix are recordings of a Haitian girls’ choir from Joachim’s family home, interviews with some of Haiti’s best-known female voices, and the voice of Joachim’s own grandmother. These elements come together to form something that feels both old and new—a musical language of tuneful songs, folk-style strings, stuttering electronics, and vibrant energy.
The album is set into motion with an arrangement of the song “Papa Loko,” which features fluttering string harmonics, skipping electronic percussion, and a bouncy arpeggiated bassline. This song segues into a recording of the Haitian singer Emerante de Pradines, who speaks about her feeling of unity with all female Haitian artists and leads us into the three-part “Suite pou Dantan,” a heartfelt dedication to the farming village that Joachim’s family calls home. Here, Joachim sings along with the girls’ choir over chaotically exuberant percussion, pairs field recording samples with steady drum tracks, and weaves winding flute melodies through the strings of the Spektral Quartet.
An arrangement of “Lamizè pa dous,” a song of African origin translating to “Poverty is Not Sweet,” gives way to the interlude “Couldn’t Tell Her What To Do,” in which we hear the moving story of the Haitian singer and justice-seeker Toto Bissainthe, as told by her daughter Milena Sandler over swelling string harmonies.
Side B of the album begins with an elegy-like arrangement of the traditional Haitian song “Manman m voye m peze kafe,” which feels almost like a theme and variations or a passacaglia with its continuous bassline, circling strings, and arpeggiating, marimba-like electronics. Two further arrangements of traditional songs follow: the grooving yet plaintive “Legba na konsole” and “Madan Bellegarde,” which features a contrapuntal duet between Joachim and the viola, a contemplative chorale of strings and flute, the voice of Joachim’s grandmother, and scattered blips of electric harmony.
This leads us finally into the interlude “The Ones I Listened To,” in which the voices of Haitian musicians Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines, and Milena Sandler encourage both Nathalie and the listener to pursue their dreams despite hardships, and the title track “Fanm d’Ayiti,” a festive original song celebrating Haiti and its strong women, ending the album on a hopeful note.
It is important to remember that for Joachim and the people of Haiti, many of these songs are an integral part of their culture, traditions, and everyday lives. Joachim has said that songs like “Lamizè pa dous” are not only songs to sing while working, but were used by slaves to communicate with each other in ways that their oppressors couldn’t understand, much like the Negro spirituals of the United States.
In a certain sense, these songs continue to serve that purpose. Many of the Haitian Creole songs on this album were sung by women during the worst periods of intellectual repression and dictatorship in Haiti’s history as a way of maintaining their language and traditions—and it is these subtle acts of subversion that Joachim celebrates in her arrangements. On Fanm d’Ayiti, Nathalie Joachim continues the lineage of Haitian women who bring together communities, pass on their culture, and fight for justice through their music.
Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti is out August 30 on New Amsterdam Records. For more information, click here.