Join Liquid Music Artist in Virtual Residence Nathalie Joachim on a virtual tour of Haiti as she collects research for her upcoming world premiere, Fanm d'Ayiti. Nathalie's account of Day 2 of her travels is included below (Read Day 1 here).
Today was a day I'll remember for the rest of my life, without question.
Things started first thing this morning, when we drove to Milena Sandler and Joel Widmaier's home in Port-au-Prince. Quick recap: Milena is daughter of Toto Bissainthe, who is basically my muse for this project, and for sure someone whose artistry and history is SUCH an inspiration for me in this project and in life ❤️. Milena and Joel run Radio Metropole, one of Haiti's national radio stations, as well as the International Jazz Festival. To be casually invited to their home is like Rashida Jones meeting you blindly and being like "hey – wanna come over? I can tell you stories about when I was little and my dad, Quincy, and I used to hang out with young Michael Jackson!" I mean... I definitely changed my outfit 3 times before leaving the house.
Anyway, we show up and Milena was super warm and welcoming. Immediately, she gives me a copy of this 2 disc compilation of her mom's greatest works, and also a book that she and Joel helped produced entitled "Grandes Dames de la Musique Haïtienne" (Grand Ladies of Haitian Music) aka... a book I wish I'd gotten about a year and a half ago...!!! She ushers us into her living room - it's flooded with natural light, and the treasures of a lifetime of world travel. For the next half hour, she tells me stories of her mother's life: her beginnings as an actress and founder of Les Griots – France's first African American Theater company; her tumultuous and sometimes dangerous relationship with Haiti; her deep love for music; and her deep commitment to activism (though she did not consider herself an activist or political in any way. Milena said "she simply believed in justice"). To hear her speak of her mother, was enthralling. And like her mother, her big doe eyes gave away every emotion: excitement, wonder, respect, and an underlying sadness for someone she loved deeply and feels was never during her lifetime appreciated as much as she should've been by a country she loved with her whole heart. The woman I've been reading endlessly about and listening to feverishly throughout this virtual residency came to life through Milena's words. We wrapped our conversation with an interesting chat about Milena's work to fight for copyright law in Haiti (which essentially doesn't exist...!!!), her work with the jazz fest, and some ways I might be able to get more involved in the country's music community... yahoo!
From there, we went back to the National Theater, where I was hoping to go through archives, only to discover there were none, but to be offered a meeting with the Executive Director instead – who, as it turns out, is serving his second term as director, which is unprecedented in the Theater's history. So, I thought "I bet this guy has seen a whole lot, and probably has so much to offer me in terms of my research for this project!" Boy was I wrong. To be frank: it was what felt like 3 hours (but was maybe actually 30 min) of mansplaining, boasting and doing literally anything to avoid discussing the importance of women in Haitian music history.* I guess I should've expected this from a government appointed official who is just trying to do his job, but...it was a real low point after so many highs on this trip. Basically he talked about how great he was, and I sat there looking at him like this:
*(Side note: the Director was a nice guy, who was very generous with his time, and is very resourceful... just not for this project.)
Best thing to happen during this visit? We had been trying to reach Émerante de Pradines all morning (remember her? 99 year old living legend? See hopeful rant from Day 1), when the phone miraculously rang as the director was mid-sentence talking about something relatively uninteresting. It was Émerante's assistant saying that she was no longer at Hotel Olaffson, but was instead at a community music school that she runs in Pernier (a neighborhood outside of PAP's city center). She had no plans to return to the city (drat!), but was happy to meet me if I was willing to make the trek to see her (yahoo!). So after a swift goodbye and odd obligatory photo with the National Theater Director, Team Fanm d'Ayiti was off!
Major Kudos to driver James and fancy family friend Exume for managing to navigate to what turned out to be a pretty remote area. I'm not going to lie: I was pretty nervous that we'd gotten ourselves lured into a hairy situation, but that might only be because I watch too many action movies and have an active imagination...
Anyway, after a little bit of shady alley road waiting in the car, a random pick up of Émerante's assistant outside of an unmarked "church", and a short drive down a fairly treacherous and deserted road, we showed up at a quaint building that maybe used to be a church itself at one time. Her assistant leads us through a courtyard, and down a small corridor walks a gentle faced elderly woman whose smile reminds me fondly of my own grandmother. We introduce ourselves, and explain who we are and why we're there. She smiles at me and says that anything she can do to help me will be a great pleasure for her. It was a warm and honest greeting, which set the tone for our entire discussion.
I spent an hour with Émerante, and I wish I could've stolen several more, but I didn't want to overstay my welcome. A self-described beloved trouble-maker, Émerante's spirit shone through with every word. Born September 24, 1918 (!!!), her memory of beguiling ambassadors with her voice at the age of 17 with Haitian folkloric (aka vodou) songs (rather risky behavior at the time), which led to her America for what ended up being 65 years, was quite vivid. Upon arriving in the States, she was determined to go to Juilliard (eek!), but ended up studying with Martha Graham instead (double eek!!). You KNOW I would've passed out if we shared an alma mater! She considered herself a theater actress first, a dancer second, and a musician only because it ran through her blood (her father was a famous singer as well). She had a deep love for Haiti, and a desire to help those less fortunate whenever possible (hence moving back and starting this small music school, in an area so remote it surely isn't served by anyone else in her home country).
There were odd coincidences between Émerante and Toto: they both left Haiti for abroad and eventually felt called to return; though their songs empowered and continue to empower Haitian people, they hardly viewed themselves as singers; and certainly not as activists.
She told me story after story – almost too many for me to keep up with (very thankful for that Zoom recorder again!). My favorite story Émerante told was about meeting her husband. Many people had encouraged her to get a "real job", and "let go of all of this theater talk" as she put it (we've all heard it, am I right?!?! Shout out to all my artist friends doing the most with the least!). When she met her husband, a well known Latin American scholar and renowned university professor (for the likes of Yale, Stanford and Columbia among others), and told him what she did for a living, he said "wow... that's a lot! You need someone to help you!" And for Émerante, that was the first time that anyone had encouraged her to commit to this career path. And so she did. (Shout out to every artist's someone who told them they sure could and should!) And to see the look of love in her eyes when she said "and he did... he did help me," is surely one of the sweeter things I've ever experienced.
I asked Émerante if she could give one piece of advice to female artists today, what would it be? I also asked Milena what she thought her mom's one piece of advice would be. They both said two things (...which is two pieces of advice, but whatevs - better for us!):
- Don't try to be cute for anyone to get ahead with your work. Be honest, and be yourself, and if people can't accept that, too bad for them. Someone, somewhere will accept you for who you are, and it's probably the people who will end up mattering most.
- Never stop doing what you love. Keep your eye on the prize and keep moving forward. Don't give up!
I gave Émerante a long hug after she said that. It's something I of course know, and believe in, and promote, but often times it helps to hear it. Especially from someone who's lived it for nearly a century.
My whole heart is full after this day and this encounter with a true national treasure and one of the great voices of Haiti's golden age. I imagine I will be smiling about it for a very long time to come.
See the World Premiere of Fanm d'Ayiti
Wednesday, March 14, 2018, 7:30pm (purchase tickets)
Amsterdam Bar and Hall, Saint Paul
Fanm d’Ayiti Related Event:
On Being with Nathalie Joachim and Krista Tippett
Monday, January 15, 2018 (reserve tickets)
Doors at 7:00pm | Conversation at 7:30pm
On Being Studios, Minneapolis
Keep up with Fanm d'Ayiti on the Liquid Music Blog:
Travel to Haiti Part l
Liquid Music Connects: Students Visit Virtually with Nathalie Joachim, Part II
Liquid Music Connects: Students Visit Virtually with Nathalie Joachim
Introducing Nathalie Joachim
Follow Nathalie Joachim:
Twitter: @flutronix (twitter.com/flutronix)
Instagram: @njoachim (instagram.com/njoachim)
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