A report by Megan Ihnen for I Care if You Listen.
On her debut solo album, Fanm d’Ayiti (New Amsterdam Records), Haitian-American composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim offers the listener an intimacy of vocal storytelling and a blossoming sense of familiarity. It is a program that clearly lives in a special world in both its live performance and audio recording forms. While not wanting to spoil that experience for those who haven’t listened yet, the magic of the album lies in the accruing nature of the work. Each track deepens the relationship between Joachim and the listener, with the support of Spektral Quartet’s remarkable musicianship. As in life, the power of the connection is realized once each chapter has been experienced and we arrive at the final exaltation overcome with the beauty of the whole.
A tribute to Joachim’s Haitian heritage and celebration of some of Haiti’s notable female artists, Fanm d’Ayiti, forges a unique sound world. Joachim’s arrangement of the opening track, “Papa Loko,” was inspired by the version of Toto Bissainthe, which Joachim points out is “very much in the rasin tradition.” The rasin tradition combines elements of traditional Haitian Vodou ceremonial and folkloric music with popular, modern forms. This is an important through-line when discussing the album because Joachim’s sound world is, in its own right, a mixture that retains its unique parts. One example happens promptly in the first track as Joachim sings in unison with the violin line. The tuning between the two is surely and evenly executed. The goal, however, isn’t to merge sounds into a seamless quality. Here, and in many other places throughout the recording, the beauty comes through the ability of the performers to tune so naturally without losing the character of the individual’s respective sound.
The intimacy of this album is achieved partially through the many moments of solo singing. In regards to “Lamizè pa dous,” Joachim rightly points to “the fragility and strength of a single voice exposed, pleading for us to look directly at, not away from suffering.” The spoken interludes by Emerante de Pradines, Milena Sandler, and Carole Demesmin also contribute to that sense of vocal storytelling and familiarity. Spektral Quartet’s haunting chorale-like accompaniment to the interlude featuring Sandler, “Couldn’t tell her what to do,” deserves special mention for its tenderness.
The members of the quartet evoke and advance the soulful quality of each track, particularly bringing extra brilliance to “Manman m voye m peze café”—a seemingly simple song on the surface that carries heartbreaking connotations, especially in this arrangement by Joachim. The pairing of “Manman m voye m peze café” and “Legba na console” on the recording is inspired. The angular juxtaposition of the high strings in “Legba na console” is a taste of Joachim’s deep understanding of the marriage between traditional Haitian music and contemporary classical music. This is the point on Fanm d’Ayiti in which the listener begins to become aware of that accruing magic as it takes hold and doesn’t let go.
The final few tracks of Fanm d’Ayiti are an emotional outpouring that are not to be missed. The stately textures in the strings continue in “Madan Bellegarde” like a slight reminiscence of Aaron Copland tucked into this deeply personal piece. The homage to Joachim’s grandmother features a stunning arrangement for Spektral Quartet. Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola), and Russell Rolen (cello) each have moments of plaintive solo lines underscored by the subtly insistent percussive, electronic sounds. It is important not to overlook these small details–such as how electronics are paired with traditional string writing–that define Joachim’s distinct compositional voice.
These sounds propel us into the final phrases of the last interlude on the album, “Interlude: The Ones I Listened To.” Hearing, “Have faith in yourself and keep going… You are a role model for a little one behind you,” becomes a kind of exhilarating artist statement for the earnest joyfulness of the final track, “Fanm d’Ayiti,” which Joachim sums up by saying, “This song basically says that ‘women make the world go ‘round.’ You name it, we’ve done it. We are the driving force of life, of politics, of social change, and no matter who tries to stifle that, we continue to thrive and should be celebrated.” Celebrate, she does. And, we the listeners, are better for it.