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This Weekend, Eighth Blackbird Plays a Duet with the Dead

With “Madam Bellegarde,” Nathalie Joachim of Eighth Blackbird pays tribute to a musical hero: her late grandmother.

Photo: Arthur Moeller

Nathalie Joachim, 35, is a composer and flutist in Eighth Blackbird, the Grammy-winning contemporary music ensemble. But her earliest musical memories aren’t of virtuosic solo recitals or youth orchestra concerts: They’re of the improvised ditties she used to sing with her Haitian-born grandmother, Ipheta Bellegarde.

Before Bellegarde’s death in 2016, Joachim recorded some of her grandmother’s songs on her phone; years later, they inspired Fanm d’Ayiti, an electroacoustic salute to female Haitian musicians.

Here, Joachim talks about the composition, an excerpt from which will be performed by Eighth Blackbird at Steppenwolf Theatre on May 17 and 18.

Where is home for you, and what does home mean to you?

Home is Brooklyn, New York. Home for me also means where your people are, and that’s where my family convenes, where my closest friends are… That makes that place feel like home.

Culturally, Haitian people are really about community, and that goes far beyond bloodline. You’re hard-pressed to meet a Haitian kid who doesn’t have a cousin or aunt or uncle who isn’t blood related to them. When my parents moved to the United States, they moved to Flatbush, which has a high concentration of Haitian people. The community really helped them navigate this new world that they were living in.

Tell me a bit about your grandmother, Madam Bellegarde. How does that relationship connect to Fanm d’Ayiti’s larger project?

My grandmother lived with us for a little while when I was younger — that was pre-flute time for me, and I started playing flute when I was nine. But she really didn’t love [Brooklyn]. You can’t blame her: We’re from a pretty small farming region in the southern part of Haiti, so she’d never lived in a big city before. When she went back to Haiti, the father-and-son dictatorship which had caused a lot of people to leave the country had just ended. [After succeeding his father, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was overthrown in 1986.] After that, it became easier to travel to and from the United States to see her.

We made music together for most of her life: When I’d visit her in Haiti, we’d sit in her yard and sing songs to catch up with one another. Most of Haiti’s musical tradition is an aural tradition, so it’s passed down by ear rather than written down, like Western classical music. Singing with her brought me into a cultural practice that I wouldn’t have identified with at the time.

After she died, I thought more about female Haitian voices and music in Haiti in general. I started asking my parents about famous female artists they grew up listening to, and they could only think of maybe a dozen names. If these are the only women who have risen in some kind of collective memory, who are they, really, and what are their stories?

You use one of her songs in “Madam Bellegarde,” the part of the piece that’s a direct tribute to your grandmother. What’s the significance of that particular song?

The piece uses a recording that was taken when she was about 95 or so. She was a widow who never remarried, but she ran our family farm, raised her children on her own, and continued to go by her married name, which was Madam Bellegarde. The song is about how people judge her for living her life, but at the end of the day, she’s only judged by God.

Her voice is sampled and presented as part of the piece, [which includes] me playing flute and singing along with her. The original version had me singing and playing flute with string quartet, but I made this arrangement for Eighth Blackbird to perform together, for voice, flute, clarinet, cello, and violin.

Why was “Madam Bellegarde” a good fit for this program? Is there a programmatic through-line?

The name of this program is “Dissolve,” and we were really working with that as an ensemble conceptually: How do we create a program where you see us come together as a whole, then see that whole dissipate into gentler forms — solos, duos, quartets, et cetera? I feel like the rep we’ve selected really changes the energy of the show as the configuration changes. “Madam Bellegarde” was something we could perform as a quartet, and it also helps the program transition to a bit of a gentler side.

For me, thematically, I tie this concept of dissolving to “Madam Bellegarde” too because my grandmother — as vibrant and incredible of a spirit as she was — is now gone. But I do believe I carry so much of her within me, so sharing this piece is appropriate in that context, too.

And what has its effect been on audiences so far?

The thing that resonates the most is the idea of holding on to voices that have significance to us — that there is a way to carry them with you. I’ve had a lot of people say that it reminded them of their mother or grandmother, or a close friend that they’d lost. I hope it gives listeners that sense of nostalgia, but also reminds them to value the people here with them today and think about how to carry them forward. We’re not all going to be here forever.

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