Nathalie Joachim is Liquid Music's 2016.17 artist in virtual residence. As part of this, she is documenting the development of Fanm d'Ayiti, which will premiere as part of the 2017.18 Liquid Music season. In this blog post, Nathalie Joachim reflects on how current events in the United States and Haiti are affecting the development of the work as well as how Haitian history and music have continued to inspire her.
As an artist, you sometimes forget that the forces of the world may from time to time bring your ability to create to a grinding halt. Because our creative work is so deeply tied to our inner work, it is easy to forget that the part of you that is human will need to find its way, in spite of the part of you that is a workhorse. This happened to me this past fall. Over the course of one month I was hit in what resonated as very personal ways by two untimely world events: Hurricane Matthew touching down in my family’s hometown in Haiti, and the election of Donald J. Trump.
If you’ve ever experienced the paralyzing anxiety that comes when your ability to protect your loved ones has been taken from you, then you understand what I mean, and you can understand how these two events, while extremely different from one another, impacted my life in somewhat similar ways. Let’s just say I needed a minute... a moment to not be absorbed by my creative work, as is my tendency. A moment to take action, and to send small ripples of positivity into the lives of my loved ones (and I mean that in both a familial and global sense). I needed a minute to see beyond myself.
For me that meant giving back. In the days following the election, I gave and I gave and I gave: to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Law Center, Natural Resources Defense Council and so many more. For Haiti, I launched a fundraiser to rebuild my family’s hometown school in Dantan, raising nearly $9000 to invest in the educational future of a community that has been home to so many generations of my family (and built a new well for access to clean water to boot!!). The giving...it was cathartic and empowering; healing and effective.
As I turned back to my own work, and began to look at all of the work that lies ahead for us as a nation, I began to find solace in human connectivity, as a concept and as a practice. Connecting – with women, with people of color, with artists, with immigrants, and the communities that we make up. This connective tissue invited me to dive deeper into my research for Fanm d’Ayiti.
Haitian music is a standing representation of global connectivity, and I will be exploring that a lot through this project. As of late, I’ve taken a deep interest in listening to Yanvalou: a Haitian folkloric and ceremonial song tradition that is rooted in the African music history of Haitian slaves. Most Haitian slaves came from regions of West Africa – Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and predominantly the region that is present day Benin, aka the birthplace of voodoo and Yanvalou. This music represents a long history of storytelling, spirituality, social commentary and survival. Yanvalou music is to Haiti as the negro spiritual is to America - more than songs, they are a means of communicating, both subtly and overtly. That music was essential to the preservation of the culture of black people and thus their survival. That music is celebrated each year on January 1st as Haitians commemorate their independence with soup joumou.
One of the greatest interpreters and arrangers of traditional Yanvalou is Toto Bissainthe (1934-1994), a Haitian singer, actress and activist. Yanvalou is recognized often for its signature drumming patterns, but Toto Bissainthe had a way of bringing a sense of through song and lyricism to this music – a take that I am particularly drawn to. She spent many of the formative years of her career living and performing in France, where she started Griots – France’s first black theater company, which specialized in the celebration of black and particularly Haitian culture. In other words, she was oozing with my absolute favorite brand of black girl magic, and it’s no surprise that she is my muse for this project.
She was a champion of Haitian music abroad, which was an overall triumph for Haiti. Her messages, though strong, were thought to be “safe” to be consumed by the masses of rural Haitians because she sang predominantly in French. Most rural Haitians only spoke Haitian Creole, and at that time were being led in a false assertion of black nationalism by dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (and subsequently his son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier - the dictators my parents escaped when they immigrated to America). To Duvalier, she was not a threat because the people most effected by his reign of terror were intentionally denied access to education, and therefore couldn’t understand her words, though they identified with her use of Yanvalou as a symbol of their cultural heritage. It wasn’t until Toto Bissainthe began to share her messages of dissent regarding the state of Haitian political and social affairs through songs sung in Creole, that she was officially exiled by Duvalier. And yet... her message prevailed. Duvalier was known for threatening rural people with voodoo curses if they went against his rule... and yet it was the message of voodoo music that saved them.
In one of her most famous songs, "Ayiti M’pa Renmen’w Enko" she speaks out strongly against a corrupt and short sighted leader and the failings of Haitian institutions as a result. Towards the end of the song, she finds hope. The lyrics translate to say:
“But the blue and red rainbow [of the Haitian flag]. Haiti, the youth. Haiti, the hope. Haiti, the deliverance. Haiti, when you rise and stand, my country… I love you.”
The messages here? They are not lost on me. Being an ambassador for Haitian music abroad. Being a strong woman with a voice. Celebrating the culture and history of our ancestors. Knowing that their attachment to their beliefs and traditions is part of what makes the world connected and beautiful, and that continuing those traditions of connectivity is essential to our survival. Knowing that people with inflated senses of power will prey on the less fortunate, and sometimes convince them to make choices against their own best interest by pretending to stand for their traditions and values. And knowing that those of us with voices may face opposition, but that as long as we take a stand, our messages will prevail for generations to come. Let’s just say that I’m grateful to have been able to turn back to this project. I am grateful for this platform of connectivity. They are guiding me through the madness right now. They are giving me hope.
Keep up with Fanm d'Ayiti on the Liquid Music Blog:
Introducing Nathalie Joachim
Liquid Music Connects: Students Visit "Virtually" with Nathalie Joachim
Follow Nathalie Joachim:
Twitter: @flutronix (twitter.com/flutronix)
Instagram: @njoachim (instagram.com/njoachim)
Crowdrise Fundraiser: Hurricane Matthew Relief for Dantan, Haiti
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