Nathalie Joachim and Spektral Quartet present her project “Fanm d’Ayiti” Oct. 14 as part of the Cal Performances At Home concert series. Photo: Josue Azor

In order to find her voice as an artist, Nathalie Joachim first had to unleash her voice.

Last December the Juilliard-trained flutist performed in Berkeley with the award-winning contemporary music ensemble Eighth Blackbird. She’d spent five years with the acclaimed Chicago sextet, and it turned out that the Cal Performances date at Zellerbach Playhouse was her last as the sixth Blackbird.

Joachim returns on Oct. 14 to make her virtual Berkeley debut as a headliner as part of Cal Performances pandemic-accommodating At Home series. Filmed exclusively for Cal Performances, she’s presenting her project Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti) featuring her vocals with Spektral Quartet. Originally commissioned by Liquid Music in St. Paul, the project gave her the momentum and means to pursue a solo career when her 2019 New Amsterdam release Fanm d’Ayiti earned a Grammy Award nomination for best world music album. The performance will be available to view on demand for three months until Jan. 12, 2021.

She’s not packing her flute away, but by reintroducing Joachim as a singer of startling range and beauty Fanm d’Ayiti captures her at a liminal moment. Inspired by the songs she sang with her grandmother on visits back to the family’s rural village in southern Haiti, Fanm d’Ayiti marks the integration of her musical identity as a Haitian-American woman.

“This project was about a shift in my practice, and embracing all of the pieces of my identity unabashedly and without question,” Joachim said in a recent phone conversation from her home in Chicago. “Voice is central to my means of expression, and people will see that in some new commissions with other ensembles. I’ve got a new piece for So Percussion for four percussionist on drum pads programed with only samples of my voice. In other ways, you’ll see it coming through in my writing.”

Fanm d’Ayiti isn’t the first time that Joachim has worked as a vocalist. Her longest running musical collaboration is the electronica-laced duo Flutronix with fellow flutist/vocalist Allison Loggins-Hull (who co-produced her album Fanm d’Ayiti). Part of what makes the new work so potent is that she’s singing in Kreyòl and that Joachim’s isn’t the only amazing voice in Fanm d’Ayiti. The production includes her original songs incorporating the recorded voices of her grandmother and a girls’ choir from her family’s home village of Dantan. She also created new arrangements of songs by some of the greatest known female vocalists in Haitian history, including celebrated vodou songstress Carole Demesmin and Emerante de Pradines, an essential voice from Haiti’s post World War II musical golden age who died in 2018 at the age of 99. She also interviewed Milena Sandler, daughter of the late, famed chanteuse Toto Bissainthe.

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 It was her first research-based project “and it really showed me the generosity of spirit of Haitian people,” she said. “In some way each woman opened the door for the next and opened a door for me. I found this synergy between my story as an American-born woman feel deeply connected to this heritage and their voices. Each of those conversation was very emotional, to see how deeply they care about our history, how passionate they are for continuing to use their voices to lift each other up.”

The opportunity to document the project on video for Cal Performances provided its own pandemic-era uplift for Joachim, who describes recording at Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater last month with the socially-distanced and masked Spektral Quartet as “a very valuable and cherished experience for me. It was my first time performing with other people since the pandemic. Six months without making music with other people! It was such a joy to share time and space with colleagues. That’s a feeling that is not able to be recreated otherwise. Performing is so core to who I am.”

Rather than aiming for perfection, she and violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust, and cellist Russell Rolen played the piece through “as a live show,” Joachim said. “What you get is an awesomely flawed, unedited version. We wanted it to have that kind of energy, otherwise it would have felt like a recording session.” The film will be available for viewing via Cal Performances through the fall.

Fanm d’Ayiti might be opening a new creative chapter for Joachim, but the project is steeped in her formative musical experiences. From her earliest days at Juilliard she sought to expand her conceptual toolkit beyond the flute. Drawn to multimedia productions, she earned a Master’s from the New School focusing on audio design. Fanm d’Ayiti draws on that training but the key to the project can be found in her relationship with her maternal grandmother, whose death in 2015 started her on a quest to find Haiti’s definitive women vocalists.

“Music was the core of my relationship with my grandmother when I was growing up,” she said. “It was how we spent time together, how we told each other stories. Music is such a central part of Haitian culture and how we engage with each other. I never really thought of it as formal music training, but she was bringing me into this centuries-old practice. That was how music was passed down in our culture. Now I have to really credit her with being the first person to teach me to use my voice and usher me into using my voice for storytelling.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....