Photo: Josué Azor
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Nathalie Joachim On The Haitian Musical Roots Of 'Fanm d'Ayiti,' Community Building & Standing In Her Truth
Meet Nathalie Joachim. The Brooklyn-born Haitian-American flutist, vocalist and composer received her first-ever GRAMMY nomination this year for her debut solo album, Fanm d'Ayiti. The project, whose name translates to Women Of Haiti, was inspired by her late grandmother and is a tribute to three pioneering Haitian female musicians—Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines and Toto Bissainthe, weaving together their voices, stories and traditional Haitian folk music traditions.
The Recording Academy spoke with Joachim to learn more about the rich stories and in-depth research process behind Fanm d'Ayiti, her classical training at Julliard and why she sees using her platform as a vital necessity. She also shares what gives her the most hope in the world right now and how she has found strength in her identity.
What does it mean to you to be nominated for a GRAMMY for Fanm d'Ayiti?
It's huge, honestly, on so many levels. It's a humongous triumph. I mean it's my first solo record so to do that, to put myself out there in this way. I think most people know me from a classical world, and to put out a vocal record that's really personal and tied to my family's heritage in such a deep way, to really step into myself as an artist in this way and to have the record be received really positively was enormous. To receive this kind of attention for it and acknowledgment of the work feels tremendous.
And on top of that, again, bringing in my family and our heritage and history and just being able to represent Haiti in this way, and to highlight some deeply important music and political and social history of Haiti through this project, is really such a huge honor. I feel incredible about it.
What was your initial reaction when you found out about the nomination?
It's the kind of thing where you don't really know how to react. You're like, should I scream? Should I run out of the room? I actually was in the middle of this mountain town in Sweden. I was so far away and I got a text message from Allison Loggins-Hull, who co-produced the record with me and is a long-time creative collaborator. She's like, "You got nominated for a GRAMMY!" I was jet-legged, in a car on my way to a venue for a performance in this little town. And I was just like, "Oh wow," and the friend sitting next to me was like, "What happened?" "I got nominated for a GRAMMY." It was this interesting moment where you just wanted to be able to put out all of this energy but I was sort of stunned into silence a bit.
It was absolutely unexpected. I think we're all always watching in our industry to see who gets nominated and it's been so many years of seeing so many of my colleagues get nominated. So it just felt a little surreal for it to be happening to me.
Can you speak to the message behind the album and the Haitian women you chose to celebrate within it?
Absolutely. The story behind the record really came out of the passing of my maternal grandmother, who was just a hugely important voice in my life and such an inspiration to me personally and musically. We spent so much of our time together singing songs. She was really one of the first people to encourage me to use my voice, not just to make music but also to share stories. So, the loss of her voice really got me thinking a lot about women's voices in Haiti. That led me to become more curious about female artists from Haiti because the popular music scene is so male-dominated.
I started to talk to my parents about women who are popular musicians that they could recall. And that small list of women really led me to not only a lot of really gorgeous music but some extremely powerful stories of women who truly use their voices to highlight the strength of the people of Haiti, to uplift them and to help the country continue to move forward. I had such a deep pleasure diving into my research of these women and meeting with them if they were alive, both here in the United States and also in Haiti. And meeting with their family members, going to the spaces and places where they made music throughout their careers. I found such a kinship in their stories as artists, and specifically female artists, really trying to make it in a field where women's voices are ever-present but really under-represented.
And so, those stories led me to thinking about myself and what it means to really be a part of that legacy. The three women that are really featured on the record are Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines and Toto Bissainthe. I chose those three because they're all different generation but their work and their missions were so connected. Also on the record is my grandmother, whose voice I recorded years before she passed away, and the girl's choir from our tiny little farming village in the southern part of Haiti called Dantan.
It's amazing to be able to hear the voices of all those little girls here. They are all grown now but when I hear them, I think of each of them individually and know that our families have all shared so much. For some of us, it's nine, ten generations of growing up in that small farming community together, of our families having really grown together. I feel really lucky to have been able to share my own voice in a space with all of them.
That's so cool, it's really like a collage.
Yeah, absolutely. The three women are established artists who didn't have to share their stories with me but really opened up their homes and hearts. I shared some really powerful and meaningful moments with them that helped bring a beautiful sense of place to the record and a deeply personal connection.
Do you feel that working on the album shifted or further developed your connection to your Haitian roots?
Yes, of course. I'm a first-generation Haitian-American and most Haitian parents really want their children to become nurses, doctors, lawyers or teachers, something practical. My family has always been really supportive of my career, but they were always like, "We don't know, you're always in there making strange sounds with your instruments, we don't really understand." Especially coming from having studied classical music and then really being quite focused on performing contemporary classical music.
For my family in Haiti, music is such a huge part of how we engage with each other culturally as Haitians. And so, all of them are like, "Yeah, you make music, so does everybody else." This project was really, really incredible because it was my first professional project that my family was deeply involved and engaged in. I think it was the first time that they really got to see the connection between my art and my passion behind the music; just really understanding why making music means everything to me.
I think it was the first time they really saw it and understood it. This was something that, from the very beginning stages of the project, they were a part of conceptualizing it. They were a part of helping me research and understand the history as I was going through it. They really got to be with me and work with me through every single phase of it. I think it deepened all of our connection to our heritage and our celebration of our culture that felt really beautiful.
So, being able to have my family be a part of it helped me have such a deeper appreciation for our culture and heritage. It was something that was always important to me but has now become that much more valuable to me. Also, being able to see the reaction, especially after the GRAMMY nomination, of the Haitian community. I feel so incredibly celebrated and supported by them. There's just been this outpour of love and support and everyone cheering me on. I feel like the whole country's standing behind me and that feels amazing. It's like, I feel more deeply connected to every Haitian person that I meet now more than ever.
"There's just been this outpour of love and support and everyone cheering me on. I feel like the whole country's standing behind me and that feels amazing."
I'd love to learn more about the overall creative process of the album and what it was like working with the Spektral Quartet.
Totally. This project has really changed my artistic practice in a meaningful way. It's my first really research-based project of anything I've ever made. It is also the first time that I really had to give in to the process for it to be successful. Rather than going in and being like, "I'm going to do this music and it's going to take this form and be this shape," I spent about a year and half of what was really a two-year process building this project, mostly meeting with people and collecting oral histories and field recordings. I did a lot of deep listening and being open to what was presented to me.
It was the first time that I ever really just allowed the material to tell me what it needed to be. I think that the work really benefited from that because a lot of people have really commented on how it's able to bring together, like you mentioned, this collage or this hybrid of all of these different sounds with the field recordings and the interviews. I think that was really because I took a lot of time to just genuinely interact with people, to really listen and connect with them.
When you allow yourself to do that, the stories begin to take shape in a beautiful and brand new way and you allow yourself to be present for when the through-line or the common thread begins to emerge from the experiences you're having. By the time I sat down to really get to writing the music, I had been in this really deep listening space for a long time. It felt much easier for it to be the vehicle that all of these things could exist in and that I could also express myself in as well.
That is a new way of working for me, so it's also terrifying. For a long time, there was no music being written and you're like, I hope I come up with something. In the end, it showed me that this way of engaging with people makes us stronger. It makes the work stronger, it makes my understanding of what is necessary or what is valuable about the stories that much more clear. I already have a few new projects underway that are really influenced by this change in my practice. It has really allowed me to center how I would like to work going forward because I feel so deeply interested in connecting with people through my work. With the state of the world right now, that feels particularly important to do through my work as an artist.
One of your projects I'm really interested in learning more about is Discourse with Carolina Performing Arts. Can you speak to that a little bit, and how you hope to engage in community building with it?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm glad you mentioned it because the process for that project has really been influenced by my experience creating from Fanm d'Ayiti. Allison, my creative partner in Flutronix, she and I have been embedding ourselves in the Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh community. The whole project is commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, which is through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And so, for the past two years we've been doing exactly as I described I had done for Fanm d'Ayiti. We've been going down there, engaging with community partners, doing everything from holding music workshops to just simply breaking bread with people. It's been about embedding ourselves in the community and connecting ourselves to their leaders.
We've been doing that in an effort to really gain a deeper understanding of American history and that has been incredible. I think you learn so much more about a space by simply sitting and having a conversation with an elder of the community, with a young person to get a sense of what they feel like, or a homeless person who has to engage in a community where they're overlooked. And the transient university community; how does their engagement change the shape and the history of a place? We've also been talking to members of the indigenous community there as well, and how have they been impacted as people who've been there long before any of these other people.
So, that's been beautiful. Allison and I were both really dismayed after the last election, not just about who was elected but about the fact that there is this huge divide in America that we have lost a sense of connecting with each other on a personal level. And so, we're really hoping that through discourse, by connecting with real narratives of real people and by showcasing the value of those narratives, that we are fostering connectivity within a community, creating a sonic representation of a history of the space. And again, doing that through an evening-length musical work that deeply features the stories and the collected histories of the community itself.
We are very excited for that to premiere this Spring, April 2 and 3 at Carolina Performing Arts. It's been a deeply moving process and we feel a great responsibility to honor the stories of the people who have been so generously sharing their time with us. And we're just excited that an institution like Carolina Performing Arts would get behind such an experimental work about social change. This will be our first iteration of it in Chapel Hill.
We do have future iterations planned in cities across the country, which is also really exciting. And each space sounds different, every story has been completely different and beautiful but also universal in that it brings us back to our sense of humanity. North Carolina is not just some distant place that's far removed; it's full of people who all have stories and love and light in them just like the rest of us. We're hoping that this project is able to travel the country and show that there's a lot of good to be had in simply opening yourself up to truly connecting with people.
"You can start to feel small but then you realize music is a universal language. It's something you can share with anyone across the globe and that in itself puts you in a position of power, where you can use your platform to connect to people anywhere."
Why do you think it's important to use your music and platform as an artist as a catalyst for social change?
It feels important to me. Historically, if you look timeline-wise, just about every major artistic movement coincides with a major change happening in the world. So, I think artists have always been really tapped into what's happening with communities and have always taken on the responsibility of commenting on it because we have a platform to do so, whether it was 1,000 years ago or now.
I think it is the job of an artist to be reflective of our time, I don't think it's enough to operate in a vacuum. And I think that the reflection can take many different shapes and forms. Even just looking at the Best World Music Album category, you see such a beautiful reflection of our times in every single album that's represented. Which is another reason I'm so proud to be a part of such an incredible group of artist and thinkers who are really tapping into that.
It can feel daunting when you wake up and the news is sort of dismaying every single day. You can start to feel small but then you realize music is a universal language. It's something you can share with anyone across the globe and that in itself puts you in a position of power, where you can use your platform to connect to people anywhere. For me, it feels like the right thing to do because you're moving the needle even just a little bit and I think every bit counts.
Yes, it does. And what is the biggest thing you hope to see shift in the next couple of years?
So, we're living in a digital age which is a blessing and a curse. But if there's one thing that Fanm d'Ayiti and Discourse have shown me is the value of coming off the computer screen and talking to people in real life. We all have very busy schedules but it's important to get to know your neighbor. Know that you can step out into the world and really connect with people. I hope that is something people elect to do more often.
I think that the internet can be an awfully expanding place but an awfully isolating space also. I'm hoping to see more people really reaching out person to person and getting to know their communities and that is maybe the best first step in helping us move forward. I think the more we're connecting with one another, the more we're able to help each other, whether you're talking about climate change, social justice or politics.
I think it's all connected to us really taking a good look at one another and appreciating who we all are in all of our shapes and sizes and colors. I hope to see people move more towards a sense of togetherness and to step away from the sense of divide.
When you were younger, what drew you to making music and to the flute specifically?
I started playing piano when I was four years old. It was the first instrument that I played and I was very bad at it but I obviously really loved music. At that age I was spending a lot of time with my grandmother; we would always sing tons of songs together as a way of doing stuff around the house or just making up stories and songs together. When I was nine, I had the opportunity to choose an instrument at school and I pretty randomly chose the flute. I took to the flute much more quickly than I took to piano, and my band director recognized that right away. She was a flutist herself and gave me private lessons during our lunch period and I started to excel pretty quickly.
At that point, the Julliard School had started their music advancement program, in response to a lot of music education getting cut from public schools throughout the five boroughs [of New York City]. It was essentially Julliard's community schools program for students who weren't necessarily beginners and showed promise but were losing access to music lessons in their schools. I got in and started going when I was 10 years old.
A few years later, my teacher there had me audition for Julliard's pre-college program and I got in. I've spent most of my musical life at Julliard. People often ask me how I decided to be a musician. My honest answer is I think it chose me more than anything else. It's truly the one thing that I have always loved and could never imagine my life without. I feel really lucky to have been able to find something that I genuinely love so deeply, so early on.
Julliard gets all the credit for my musical training of course, but I have started openly crediting two other kind of funny sources. One being my grandmother, who in truth was really one of my first music teachers without really knowing it. Also, for anyone who's an old-school New Yorker, there used to be a Tower Records right across the street from Julliard and I used to spend all of my free time over there at the listening stations. That's really where I found my love for electronic music, hip-hop, jazz, you name it.
I would spend hours in there hanging out at the listening stations. It expanded my musical pallet in a beautiful way, and you have to imagine that it had some impact when I was having such deep musical training at Julliard. While my brain was being shaped in that way, I was spending a lot of time not just listening to the music at the music stations but on some level analyzing or really understanding like "how does this Bjork album relate to what I just learned in my music theory class?" All of that, I think is reflected in my musical style today. On the record there's this huge influence of my classical training but also the electronics and bringing in these other voices in this way and the folk elements.
I think a couple questions ago you asked me about Spektral Quartet and I didn't talk about that.
Yes, please do. Thank you!
I would be so upset with myself if I didn't mention that they are incredible collaborators. The project was commissioned by Kate Nordstrum, who is the curator of the Liquid Music series. I originally premiered Fanm d'Ayiti with members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. After that, I was asked to do a performance here in Chicago, so I reached out to Spektral Quartet there. They weren't available for that date but where totally game to record it with me. It felt great that we all got to work on it and record it here in our home city, which was really wonderful.
They're exceptional musicians, and if there's one thing that's true about making music in Haiti, it is really more than about being about any individual, it's about every single person contributing a deep part of themselves to the process. That was something that I really learned through my grandmother, that it was really about you sharing what you can for the group. Music-making in Haiti is about a communal practice and so much of the music that we have is not written down in a western way, but it in fact is passed down through an oral tradition. Spektral Quartet was incredibly flexible; everything thinks of classical musicians as being totally rigid and they are the exact opposite. They really gave themselves to the process and opened up to experimenting. It was really that spirit of their musicality that allowed for the project to become as beautiful as it really did on the album and is now even still growing as we're touring it together. People should try to catch it live; it's definitely been growing and evolving ever since we recorded and I'm so happy and lucky to be working with them.
"It is important to seek out the people who are living the life that you want to lead and if you don't see that person, to have the courage to become that person so that somebody behind you can see you as a role model."
Do you have a message for young people, especially young women and/or people of color, interested in pursuing a career in music now?
You know, it wasn't until very recently that I felt like I could stand in my whole identity as a black woman, as a Haitian-American artist creating new work in today's climate. For a very long time, it was hard for me to call myself a composer because I came from a world where composers generally didn't look like me or live a life like me at all. Or to call myself a vocalist, when I had come up in this oral tradition of singing with my grandmother, which felt very different than my very buttoned-up conservatory training took a lot. It took a long time for me to really embrace all of the pieces of my identity as assets, as the true beauty of who I am, not just as a person but certainly as an artist.
I feel a huge responsibility to be standing in that truth and to really be embracing that side of me because I know how valuable it would have been for me at nine years old to have seen someone doing exactly what I'm doing. It would have helped me more easily step into that space because it feels so much more possible. I don't think I had even played a piece of music by a person of color probably for decades with my training. That's insane to think of that.
So, to every young artist out there today, it is important to know that it is absolutely possible for you to stand in your truth and for it to not necessarily look like Beethoven or Mozart and to still have it be real. To still be able to claim those titles as your own because what we see is that each of these practices, whether it's folk tradition, or hip-hop or something incredibly fringe and experimental, each of them is really valid in their own right. It is important to seek out the people who are living the life that you want to lead and if you don't see that person, to have the courage to become that person so that somebody behind you can see you as a role model.
"To every young artist out there today, it is important to know that it is absolutely possible for you to stand in your truth and for it to not necessarily look like Beethoven or Mozart and to still have it be real."
I think what's true on the record and I'll echo what Carole, Emerante and Milena Sandler [the daughter of late Bissainthe] say on the very last interlude of the record, which is to be yourself and to keep moving forward and to know that there is a little one behind you who's looking to see if they can become what you are. It's really huge. It can be life-changing for someone.
I know that in researching this album and talking to all of these women, I left almost every single interview in tears because I felt more capable in talking to them, knowing that they had a led a life where they really were able to stand in their truth and to make the world a better place against all odds, in a world that was really against them.
If you look at Emerante, she was somebody who came to popularity in the '40s and '50s, at a time where women were not supposed to be doing anything and she really defied that. She's a true hero and without women like her, it would've been really hard for me to even me to have the career that I have now. And so, it is important for each of us to stand in our truth and in doing so, stand against anything that says that we cannot do so because you absolutely can do. I hope that every little girl, every little person of color is out there seeing role models. I think that's happening a lot more today but it's been possible at moments where there was no one else doing it. And so, it's totally possible for each of us and for every person who's coming up behind us.
What gives you the most hope right now?
Honestly, the thing that gives me the most hope right now is the voices of young people who I think are more courageous than I ever was at their age. I think who are really coming together in a way that's really beautiful. And also, becoming much wiser much sooner, I think in my opinion. I would have been terrified as a little girl to stand up to authority or question the adults. I think there is space for both. I think adults can learn a lot from the young and there's nothing better than having a conversation with somebody who's been on earth for almost 100 years, like Emerante.
Children are honest and more aware and tapped into their spaces in a way that adults can sometimes become too busy to be. I feel a lot of hope when I'm going into communities and talking with young people who are really just able to say, "I'm young and I have a lot of life to live but I also know what's right and wrong and I'm here to lend my voice." You see this in young people like Greta Thunberg.
That does truly give me hope, I think we all have a lot to learn by talking and listening to young people and understanding where their hearts and heads are at. I think the generation of kids coming up right now is a generation to be admired and they certainly have their work cut out for them.
Don't forget to tune in to the 62nd GRAMMY Awards next Sun., Jan. 26, live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS, and the Premiere Ceremony and Red Carpet live streams right here on GRAMMY.com—your home for all things GRAMMYs.