Fanm d’Ayiti begins with breathless harmonics from Spektral Quartet. The translucent layers welcome in Nathalie Joachim’s petalled voice — perhaps the only word that can describe her tender vocals. Her lyrics are in Kreyòl (Haitian Creole) and her timbre is positively floral, sweet and geometric in that Fibonacci way.
This semester, Cal Performances has gone virtual — the performances are prerecorded onstage, with documentary-style features of the artists speaking about their works. Joachim stands in a luminous seafoam dress that drapes in stiff folds. Behind her are the wings of the masked quartet: Clara Lyon (violin), Maeve Feinberg (violin), Doyle Armbrust (viola) and Russell Rolen (cello). Their eyes follow the hinge of Joachim’s jaw, the strain of her lips with lengthened words, for signs. And signs arise, providing them opportunities for synchronicity. Alternating between voice and flute, Joachim flows together with the strings to ride a pitch or turn, offering a shelter from dissonance and syncopation, a beautiful reprise.
Joachim is the composer, director, voice and occasional flutist of Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti). A couple of the pieces are famous Haitian songs arranged by Joachim or traditional Haitian folk lyrics matched with her original music. The suite is an exquisite integration of the ancestral and the modern, interspersed with prerecorded audio, be it instrumental accompaniment or interviews. Joachim seamlessly moves from soloist to director: Her palm is pressed high as she croons with closed eyes; that same palm gently falls to fingertips on the laptop as she queues in the springy percussion. DJ is too crude a comparison — the transition is more of a subtle ballet, elegant and careful.
Cal Performances graces the audience with program notes, in which Joachim speaks directly to the reader about the work and its inspirations. One such key inspiration is her grandmother (and her passing). Joachim even characterizes her grandmother by the flora of Haiti — she recalls memories under mango and coconut trees of her backyard, the doorway of that yard adorned with red hibiscus flowers, the national emblem of Haiti.
In the program notes, Joachim explains the significance of her three central guests, whose interviews are interluded into the composition. “In Fanm d’Ayiti,” she wrote, “I share recordings from my conversations with three women: Emerante de Pradines, a prized voice of Haiti’s Golden Age; Milena Sandler, daughter of the late, famed chanteuse Toto Bissainthe; and celebrated vodou songstress Carole Demesmin.”
In the recordings, de Pradines lobbies earnestly for a repatriation to the homeland and celebrates the connections between Haitian female artists. Sandler’s voice is the first to pierce the initial canvas of the suite, and she reflects on her mother’s advocacy and dissent. Demesmin’s voice lends to a narrative of hope for Haitians.
The work is woven with pride, lineage, self-discovery, spirit and resilience. Two of the pieces speak especially to resilience: “Manman m voye m peze kafe” and “Lamizè pa dous.” As the program explains, “Manman m voye m peze kafe” is about a girl who is sent to the market and is arrested by the police, but all she can think of is how she will explain to her mother that she came home empty-handed, without coffee. “Lamizè pa dous” translates to “misery is not sweet,” and is from a genre closely related to the American spiritual, sung while working to communicate even under the surveillance of their oppressors. She hints at hidden messages in both songs, in both the unsaid and the unsung.
In the latter half of the performance, Joachim is accompanied by a girl’s choir from Dantan, her family’s small farming village in southern Haiti, as her grandmother’s voice chimes through. She sings “Alléluia,” a rendition of a traditional church hymn. The tethering between past and future brings a palpable joy in the sound. De Pradines’ interview rings resonant — the connection between generations of women, before and after Joachim herself, are forged by Fanm d’Ayiti.
Cal Performances is offering professionally produced full-length performances; Nathalie Joachim and Spektral Quartet performing Fanm d’Ayiti will be available to stream online through Jan. 12.