PC: Erin Patrice O’Brien

Nathalie Joachim on Sampling, Self-Reclamation & Communal Healing

A conversation with Haitian-American artist Nathalie Joachim about her new album "Ki moun ou ye"

Nathalie Joachim on Sampling, Self-Reclamation & Communal Healing

A conversation with Haitian-American artist Nathalie Joachim about her new album "Ki moun ou ye"

I was first introduced to performer-composer Nathalie Joachim through her dynamic and charismatic duo project Flutronix with Allison Loggins-Hull close to a decade ago. Since then, I’ve seen her numerous times around New York’s New Music scene – the last time being one of many experimental music heads in attendance for the premiere of Ted Hearne’s “Dorothea” in October 2023. In 2019, Joachim released her GRAMMY-nominated debut record Fanm d’Ayiti (“Women of Haiti”) with Spektral Quartet which interweaves storytelling and oral history into an evening-length piece for voice, flute, string quartet, and electronics. Out February 16th, her upcoming sophomore record Ki moun ou ye (“Who are you?”) is a continuation of Joachim’s deep examination of her cultural identity as a Black Haitian-American woman, and her familial and ancestral connections. Along with Joachim’s voice and flute-playing, the album additionally features contributions from Yvonne Lam (violin, viola), Jason Treuting (drums), and vocalist Ipheta Fortuma.

Nathalie Joachim: Hey, can you hear me? How’s it going? 

Yaz Lancaster: Yes. It’s going well! I’m doing a residency with Brooklyn Youth Chorus so I’ve been down in Brooklyn all week working with the kids. It’s been really fun.

NJ: I have a long relationship with that chorus. I wrote them a piece, but I actually used to work for them when I was in grad school. So tell Dianne I say hi (laughs).

YL: I will…didn’t you have some shows recently? Or coming up very soon [in New York]?

NJ: Yeah, I have a lot! I’m doing a taping with John Schaefer for New Sounds on the 14th, and on the 15th I’m doing a show at the Schomburg Center with the Harlem Chamber Players the day before the record comes out…which is very soon (laughs). Then on the 21st I’m doing a conversation and performance at [the] MoMA with Edwidge Danticat and Canisia Lubrin, which will be awesome. Then Carnegie in March – Ensemble Connect is premiering a piece of mine with choreography by Eduardo Vilar. I’m also performing a solo set of music from my new record.

YL: So busy!

NJ: Yes! I’ve been trying to get a piece turned in today, and then I gotta run to rehearsal right after this.

YL: Ah, that’s real. So, I wanted to start by saying congrats on the album, it’s so beautiful. How do you feel about it coming out so soon?

NJ: Thank you. Ah, it’s weird! You’re excited making the thing, and then you go through this sad period where it’s like ‘Nobody’s heard this except for me.’ Then that period goes by long enough that you sort of forget about it, and now it’s funny to finally hear people’s reactions to it because I’m like ‘Oh right, nobody’s heard this yet.’ Now that we’re a week out, it’s just like ‘Wait, what if I don’t want it to come out?!’ (laughter). Too late, it’s gonna come out! There’s a little moment of ‘Oh no, what if nobody likes it!’ But I’m excited, I’m excited.

YL: (Laughter) Yeah, I put out my first record last year, and recorded it between 2020-2022 so the same thing happened. When I finished recording I was like ‘Oh now it’s done and everybody’s gonna hear it!’ But no, you gotta do the mixing, the mastering, the press run, artwork, packaging and all that. When it was about to come out I was like ‘Hmm I'm kinda bored of this’ since I’d been listening to it constantly for 3 years at that point.

NJ: I feel like I’ve got enough iterations of it – taking it out on the road will be fun. I’ll be performing solo sets, I premiered an orchestral suite of songs from [Ki moun ou ye] with Alarm Will Sound, and I have a chamber version that I’m gonna do. It has all of these different lives now so I don’t think I’ll get bored of it just yet. And I’ll be doing a regular band version, which is new to me. I don’t normally have a band.

YL: Yeah that will be fun, getting to perform all these different versions of it will keep it fresh for you.

NJ: It’ll give it new legs. Which is unlike Fanm d’Ayiti, which I’d been performing a lot before a put out. Especially since we had such a huge gap because of the pandemic – I was starting to feel ‘done’ singing those songs. But Ki moun ou ye feels good because I haven’t been performing it live.

YL: What were some of the influences for the sound of the record?

NJ: Honestly…there weren’t any. There wasn’t any sort of reference I was going for. I became obsessed with electronic music and absorbed with the idea of sampling, particularly in this setting of developing my own language of sampling. I knew that the focus of the record was going to be about coming into myself. Also very suddenly, just before Fanm d’Ayiti came out, my sister passed away. I was healing from that and finally facing a bunch of my own personal stuff that I really needed to. The voice is a real place of catharsis and healing historically everywhere – in every single culture I think. I wanted to know what it might feel like for me to put myself in conversation with my voice. The voice became really central because in some ways it’s singular – there are no two voices that are exactly the same – however, it’s inherently collective because it’s born of your DNA and therefore contains a piece of every single person that’s come before you.

As a vehicle for healing, ancestral connection, and examining generational trauma which has quite literally reshaped our DNA, what would it mean for me to use that as a direct modality of expression for this project? Sampling became the foundational language. I’ve used bits of this language in a couple of other pieces. There’s a quartet I wrote for Sō Percussion, and also a piece I wrote for Duo Noir where they’re playing samples of my own voice, and those were like a practice run for me to start developing this language. 

Every single song on the record is born out of small samples of my voice from other songs on the record. With the exception of “Kenbe m”, which was the first song that I wrote. But I quite literally sampled my grandmother (who was on my last record) in that song. Once I made the demo for that song, I used tiny little bits of my voice to begin with the rest of the record. I'd like to think that maybe someday, 100 years from now, some insane person is gonna go and break it all down and find which songs are in which (laughter). The title track is a very robust use of that sampling language. In some songs it’s more subtle, and others like “Kanpe anba solèy” it’s totally fallen away, but in the original demos, it was built in that way but ended up becoming more and more fragile as things moved along.

So, I was not listening to anything else. I don’t know that I’ve heard anything else quite like it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

YL: I had the same reaction. I don’t think I’ve listened to something in the past little while quite like it, with this combination of musical elements. And I love that form. The way you’ve consecutively built the material upon itself reminds me of a poetic form called a “Duplex,” (coined by Jericho Brown) which is similar to a Cento, but also like a Ghazal, where you take couplets from the previous stanza or section of the poem, and you bring them back in a specific, methodical way. It definitely makes the record feel very cohesive in the way that it structures repetition. Listeners, even without knowing that, will hear that it’s all coming from the same place. 

I love how your family and ancestors are threaded throughout this – so I wanted to talk about the music video a little bit actually since it’s shot at your family’s home. It’s really lovely. Is that the only video for the record?

NJ: That’s the only official Music Video music video for it… I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you this but – Redacted info: if you’re curious, follow Nathalie’s work for a future announcement ;~)

YL: When did you film it?

NJ: In August. At that point we were just wrapping up the final mixes, getting ready to head into mastering, and I was going down to Haiti for vacation to hang out with family. It dawned on me that I didn’t think about the visuals for this record AT ALL and that 2023 is a visual age. I said to myself ‘Ouu, I don’t know what to do, it’s not giving music video budget at this point!’ (laughter). So I called a very good friend of mine, Gessica Généus, who also happens to be Haiti's leading film director. She used my grandmother’s song from my last record in her feature length film that went on to win some of the top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021. I thought ‘She kind of owes me one because she did use my music’ and had my fingers crossed (laughs). I asked ‘I’ll be in Haiti for these two weeks in August, will you be in Haiti these two weeks in August?’ and she said ‘Yeah, actually!’ We put together a really small, all-Haitian, all-female team of filmmakers and production folks, and everyone came down to my family’s farm and we made this gorgeous video.

The funny story about the video is that it was actually supposed to be a different song…

YL: Oop! (Exaggerated gasp)

NJ: If we were gonna put out one single, this was the one that represents the record strongly. But we hadn’t finished the mixes. When you’re making the thing, you know where you’re going to get to, but if people haven’t heard it yet they're like ‘Why don’t you just pick this other song?’

YL: Ah, yes. Sometimes the music only makes sense to you at certain points when it’s not done yet.

NJ: We spent months planning to make a video for something else, and the day I landed in Haiti, the president of the label messaged and said ‘You know what, now that I’ve heard the mixes…you were right about that song.’ We had to switch gears very quickly to a different song. The concept we had previously wasn’t going to transfer. The final video came together quite quickly. The team had no time to scout my family’s land so we just arrived and walked it. It’s such a testament to the strength of community because our entire little farming village, for the week we were doing this – every single person worked on this video.

YL: Wow.

NJ: Whether it was cooking food for the crew and I, sewing our wardrobe together from random fabric we could find, making kites for the kids for that scene when they’re running down the road with kites, cleaning the set so we could have space, moving plants around, or making sure the rooster was gonna comply (laughter). It’s so beautiful – I’m obsessed with the video because I get to share this place I’ve been talking about very openly since I made Fanm d’Ayiti, and now people get to know what it looks like instead of just imagining it. That land has been in my family for so long, and making the video is like a gift to my family as well, and a gift to me to be able to document it in this incredible way. And it’s a gift to know that all of these people who my family has been connected with for so many generations…all of their hands have touched this video in some meaningful way. I’m grateful for the record, but I’m so incredibly grateful for the video because the entire community lifted it up to be this gorgeous thing that I never could have done on my own.

In some way it’s like a metaphor for the record. There’s like a breaking down of self to reclaim self and this idea of being receptive to the love that’s around you.

PC: Screenshot from “Ki moun ou ye” Music Video

YL: I really love that. Everything about it is so special. Hearing you speak about your family’s home, I’m so curious what your childhood was like. Did you grow up there or visit Haiti a lot when you were younger?

NJ: I grew up in Brooklyn – When I was very very young I wasn’t going [to Haiti] at all because the dictatorship in Haiti ended when I was quite young. My grandmother was still here with us in the United States. Once democracy was established in Haiti, my grandmother was like ‘Guys, I’d rather be living in the Caribbean, obviously. I’m outta here.’ Once she went back that’s when it became easier for us to travel there. Now, I spend a tremendous amount of time there.

YL: Gotcha. Going back to the album, what was your process working on it? You mentioned that you just composed a work for chamber orchestra – did you find it was a completely different process navigating the album versus your more “classically” presented work?

NJ: Entirely. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say that this record quite literally saved my life. I had to take my entire self ‘down to the studs’, to my most vulnerable place. I was asking myself this question of who I am, and what all of it means. What does it all mean in the end? What is the good, the bad and the ugly of it? What is the truth of it? What of it actually belongs to me? What of it can I heal for myself? What of it can I heal for my family? It brought me to question every relationship in my life, especially in being in such a deep space of grief after losing my sister. What does it mean to lose a whole piece of yourself and how do you even heal from that? And how do you heal yourself from not only the things that are happening to you in real time in your own life, but the things that our parents and our ancestors have yet to have healed for themselves? Those things are definitely passed down to us.

There isn’t anything I’ve previously written that gets into that place, if you know what I mean.

YL: I get it.

NJ: All of it is a true response to whatever the prompt was or whoever I’m writing for. But this is different even from Fanm d’Ayiti which I could also sit within almost as a prayer and a vehicle for story to be told. There was no hiding myself in [Ki moun ou ye]. So my process for this was unlike anything else I’ve ever written and maybe will write.

YL: That really resonates with me. I just finished my first ever orchestra piece this month. I’m really excited about it, I’ve always wanted to do it and I’m happy with how it turned out. At the same time, right when I finished, I was definitely feeling a bit…disillusioned. I felt like I was wondering if it’s possible for me to completely express myself and say exactly what I want through an orchestra, or through a “Contemporary Classical” music lens right now.

NJ: (Nodding) Yes.

YL: It’s tricky to navigate…to figure out which medium best suits what you need to say at the moment.

One thing I noticed about Ki moun ou ye is that it’s mostly in Kreyòl. But then there’s “Ti nèg,” – pardon my pronunciation – which feels like it’s at the heart of the record, and is mostly in English. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about what’s going on in that song? And how did you choose what’s in Kreyòl versus what’s in English?

NJ: I wrote that song after a conversation with my dad, who was born on my family’s land and is now retired there, living out the rest of his life. Most of this music was written down there and some news story had popped up that was of course racially-charged. He transitioned from talking about the news to telling me how he didn’t really learn he was Black until he moved to the United States (laughter). It’s such a gift to be able to go to a place where you just aren’t thinking about race at all, and you really don’t encounter anybody of any other race out where we are. In the cities you do, but we’re really deep in the countryside, truly in the middle of nowhere. So there’s an amazing amount of psychological and physiological peace that comes with not being inundated with microaggressions or full-on aggressions, or any racial harm. There’s a kind of safety in that.

When he immigrated here – my family immigrated to Flatbush like many other Haitian people – he was essentially stopped by the police and his life was threatened. He thought he was going to die at that moment, the very first time he was ever stopped by the police. He couldn’t for the life of him understand – he was thinking ‘I’m just a regular person walking by, I have nothing to do with what’s going on, I don’t know these people, I don’t know what’s happening. I’m just on my way to the train.’ And then he realized ‘Oh! They think we’re associated with one another because we’re all Black, and so I must be a criminal.’

That was the inspiration for the song — I was thinking about my dad. He grew up very poor, he has no photos from his childhood. I often imagine what he must’ve been like as a little boy running around on this land that I’m now so familiar with. That’s why it’s called “Ti nèg” because the ti nèg I had in my mind is my dad as a little boy. The song itself has a lot to do with Kreyòl language, which to me is such a beautiful, fascinating language rich with hidden meaning, poetry, and imagery. It has been a primary vehicle of shepherding and sheltering our history and stories. The more I study Kreyòl, the more I fall in love with it because I realize that in studying a language it teaches you so much about the people who created it. Haitian Kreyòl and all of the Kreyòls throughout the diaspora are treated as pidgin versions of languages of colonizers, which is not true. You think about the moment [Haitian Kreyòl] was created, you have tens of thousands of people coming out of West Africa speaking different languages themselves, different dialects, different tribal codes of language. Many of them may not have been able to communicate with one another right?

YL: Right, of course.

NJ: It wasn’t like everyone just came from one neighborhood, it was swaths of people taken and traded from all throughout the region. You can see our connection to African diasporic languages very clearly. By design its simplicity is not because we weren’t a complex people, its simplicity is because we had to derive a language quickly and swiftly to try to get ourselves out of what was a horrifying situation. We needed to figure out how to communicate with one another quickly. I was talking about games as structure for pieces recently – if you start examining them, games that are really great are not always the most complex game, right? Games that are really great are often the ones that get people playing them quickly, and they’re having fun and succeeding at them. There’s a brilliance in that. To write music like that is not easy, and to make language like that is not easy. 

PC: Erin Patrice O’Brien

You see what words we chose from French because we didn’t have words for them. We didn’t have a reason to be running around calling ourselves Black, so the Kreyòl word for Black is derivative from their word for Black because it was what we were being called and what we understood ourselves as being called by them. If you get deeper into that, all of our gendered language is French-derivative. Kreyòl is a gender-neutral language. It’s like this fight that we’re having in these Romance languages, in English and other languages that were divisive – societies that were deeply divisive – our understanding of that was fundamentally different. To say ‘us’ and ‘them’ – there isn’t a separation of that that you understand contextually in Kreyòl. You understand if I’m talking about ‘you and I’ or if I’m talking about two people over there, but it’s all considered a ‘we.’ There’s something collective about the nature in which we refer to one another. Even the notion of ‘ki moun ou ye’ means ‘who are you?’ but it also means ‘whose people are you?’ That’s a way people greet you in Kreyòl.

There isn’t this idea of ‘you’ as this alone person. I do really love that in [“Ti nèg”] I’m able to break down the etymology of it, but also to take this image of my dad as this gorgeous little smiling boy running around, this beautiful Black, and then him arriving here and becoming not only a Negro, but becoming a Nigger. But he also became a Nigga too, you know (laughter). That’s something we can claim in that way. So I really love that song.

YL: I definitely understand that too. You’re talking a lot about community, reclaiming things that were used against us. And preserving language, culture, and collective memory, which are things I care about deeply. I love that you’re going to that place and taking us there with you. It’s just so needed right now. The past few years have been so…capital ‘C’ Crazy (laughs), and a lot of people are showing their true colors and masks are coming off figuratively and literally…with this record you’re upholding your roots and saying that we need our communities, and we need to put time and effort and love back into reclaiming our spaces and identities. And that it can be healing of so many things. So thank you.

NJ: A very easy way to get people to lose their sense of self or their sense of place is to strip them of their language. The reclamation of language in terms of the reclaiming of self was mandatory for me to be able to do. Knowing that some of the words on this record are for some people, and some of the words on this record are not for them, and feeling the power in that! The power in choosing when to speak which language and which words were in what language. Challenging this notion of ownership, particularly as a Black person, to say in the leading song and the title track ‘Who once owned us?’ I am not referring to enslavement at all. I’m referring to who once owned these pieces of me that exist because I’m a whole person that existed before anyone decided that I could be owned by them. I still can decide that I own myself. That feels like the most radical act that we can do in this world which is, I agree with you, Crazy with a capital ‘C.’ That’s part of what I mean when I say this record saved my life, to be able to say that I get to define who I am, how I move through the world, and what of myself I share with the world and what belongs solely to me, my family, to my community, or chosen ones.

It’s personal, this record. But I really try to do my best in understanding our sense of connectivity, and many of these themes are deeply universal. Hopefully they will be points of contemplation for others as they listen to or read through the text and begin to understand more deeply what I’m talking about. The idea of coming into yourself on your own terms is the thing that I hope people can see. 

Nathalie Joachim’s Ki moun ou ye is out everywhere on February 16th via Nonesuch and New Amsterdam Records. For more information about Joachim and her upcoming performances, visit her website.

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