When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 2022/2023 season this month, the opening weekend concerts include the first SLSO performances of composer/flutist Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti). Joachim, a Brooklyn-born Haitian American, earned a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album for this piece, which was arranged for chamber orchestra.
The piece draws inspiration from the voices of Haitian women and includes a live vocal component, performed by Joachim, alongside recorded vocals.
Joachim reflected on the scope of the project, and how the process has changed her. Below is an edited transcript of Joachim’s words as told to Tim Munro.
In Haiti, the women are badasses. You’re definitely going to be on your best behavior—you don’t want to mess with anyone’s Haitian mother.
I started to focus on three artists: Emerante Morse, Carole Demesmin, Toto Bissainthe. I felt connected to them. Going to Haiti, talking to these women, meeting their families, seeing where they’re from, hearing their deep commitment to Haiti, it felt inspiring. They’re each from distinct eras, but each influenced the other. Many consider these women revolutionaries.
The piece of the puzzle that made Fanm d’Ayiti come together was recording a Haitian children’s choir. They were singing the music for a Catholic church service, accompanied by a drummer who was playing these very distinct voodoo drum patterns. Two worlds colliding: this Catholic religion passed on through colonialism, and a musical practice that came all the way from Africa.
Fanm d’Ayiti is linked by the idea of strength and freedom and empowerment. It is made up of music woven together with some of the recorded testimony of the women I interviewed, the field recording of the girls’ choir, and recordings of my grandmother. Some of the material is completely original, and some are arrangements of these artists. The entire piece has a religious lens.
Some of the songs in the show are Haitian voodoo songs. There is a stigma attached, but it’s akin to Native American religious practice. Voodoo as a practice is more about storytelling than anything else. Many of the gods are tied to nature.
The show has helped me focus on a new direction. For so long I thought, “I’m a classical flutist, and this is what I do.” It’s this thing I’m “supposed” to be doing. I had never stood solidly on my ability as a composer. In this project I’m writing and performing in a way that I would have been scared to do a decade ago. So much of my musical instinct and influence comes from being a kid growing up in Brooklyn, with electronic music and hip hop steeped in my ear. Also, vocally, this project is the most I’ve been myself. Making music in Haiti happens with abandon. I found a vocal quality that feels the most natural. The songs have such deep meaning, and you just give yourself to it.
Tickets for Opening Weekend featuring Nathalie Joachim—September 17 and 18—are still available. Visit slso.org or call the Box Office at 314-534-1700 and use the code “welcome” for a special discount.