All photos by Nicolas Manassi/Roey Yohai Photography for Americas Society
Emeline Michel is known as the “Queen of Haitian Song,” and just like any good queen mother, she knows how to bring people from various backgrounds together. In a special Valentine’s Day appearance, Emeline set the cozy performance space at the Americas Society on fire with her strong and agile voice, responsive bandmates, skilled dance moves and dynamic song list. She sang for lovers, victims of the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, lovers of jazz, lovers of Haitian compas and rara, dancers, singers, poets, storytellers, and those concerned for humanity.
Many of the songs she performed on Feb. 13 were from her latest album, Quintessence, which is also her 10th album to date. In this recording, she shows her reverence for storytelling and love affair with good literature by collaborating with celebrated Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. Michel is on the move for a short East Coast tour, but before she left New York for her next stop in Pennsylvania she spoke with Afropop’s Akornefa Akyea about collaborating with various writers for this album, her work as a Red Cross Ambassador, and love of books.
Akornefa Akyea: First of all, it was so wonderful getting to see you perform yesterday. It was really lovely and so fun.
Emeline Michel: I’m so delighted, thank you!
I wanted to find out how it is for you performing in cozier spaces like the Americas Society. With the music you play, it encourages people to get up and dance and move around a little bit. You were dancing and it was still very lively, but how is that for you performing there?
Well, I try to always be very flexible with elements around me and the intimate setting. Of course I didn’t realize how intimate it was going to be so I switched things around. I have a band that are really fantastic musicians but at the same time they are really open to changes so I had to switch the song list because I realized it would have to be an acoustic set. Very acoustic and bare minimal. It’s really about making it happen. For me, sometimes when you are outdoors with 10,000 people versus inside like that it calls for a different atmosphere. I enjoyed it all the same. I just couldn’t have people jumping. If you really want to have a party and boogie down, that’s not the exact scenario. But I enjoyed it. And I think the interaction was important. That’s what music is about at the end of the day.
Your music is so flexible. You play in so many different styles that it really does works in virtually any space. I was wondering how you came to this very unique style in this album, Quintessence. What was the inspiration for this acoustic style and paring down of your sound?
Oh that’s one of my favorite questions. Thank you for asking! I think it was the adventure. I am a reader. I love reading and I admire great poetry and I have so many wonderful, wonderful people in my country that, you know, I went to their book like a lover! [Laughs] I get in bed, and cuddle up and then I don’t want to go anywhere. Edwidge Danticat is one of them. Of course, I’ve always wanted to collaborate with her and it was to my surprise that I went to her and she responded sometime in May, and she was like “O.K., yeah, but let me know what you want to talk about.” And I said, “Listen, [the 2010 earthquake] was a painful event. I’m sending you my first verse and you do whatever you want with it.” And it’s really about making, because it’s a right to have a memory. It’s important to not forget it although the pain is there with the earthquake in Haiti. And then that was the first one that was written. And after that I had other wonderful, brilliant writers from Haiti. I wanted this to be literature in song. And frankly when I started it, I knew it was going to be challenging but everything flowed. It took me a long time because I wanted everything to be warm on your face, not so much the type of work that I have typically done before. And so far so good. The response to it and the fact that it’s really an album that you just get inside and you get a glass of wine and then you listen to it. And I am so glad you’re receiving it.
I was listening to “Timoun” before the concert and I was so excited when you started to play it! Can I ask who are the children are singing on that record?
They are from an orphanage in Haiti. I do a lot of work like that where I just surprise them, come down and sometimes we write music and we sing together. And then there were a lot of great vocalists coming out of Pere Jean [the orphanage]. They were looking forward to being in the video. You know, we had a lot working creating either video or movie. Whatever it is, when you are in Haiti, it is really a humongous amount of work. But they were excited, behind the mic, they knew they were going to be on the radio. They were really excited and they have great vocals. So they are from Pere Jean. They are the children that Father Jean took care of and brought them to the studio for me.
That’s so lovely! I am wondering, as a songwriter, what did you learn from working with an author and other writers? Your medium is through melodies and theirs is through their written literature.
It’s exciting. It’s a very exciting process. Because you know a song is really a story you have to tell in five minutes or three minutes depending on the length of the song so you don’t have chapters to really let yourself go on a longer version. So the collaboration happened very differently because first of all I picked the topic and then that allowed us to stay in context. And with Edwidge she just sent me the first few lines and I stopped and burst into tears because I didn’t realize I was still there and how I felt. And it flowed. I just took her poetry because I told her this is what I want, this is the chorus and then I sent her the line of the chorus and then she got it naturally. I hope she will be writing more songs. She’s a natural.
And then after that I went into the studio and created the melody around what she wrote. So this is how it happened. For the others, it was much different. Sometimes we would sit around a little ti punch, it’s alcohol. A little alcohol, rum, from my country and you put lime and honey in it. It’s a perfect cocktail. But you sit down in front of your ti punch and you try to write but nothing happens. [Laughs] And then the next day you come and everything just comes, it flows. So it is so exciting. As you say, for the room it’s not exactly a place where people can jump but you tailor down, you really kind of read into the audience, maybe they want to listen to something and you just take a chance. It’s the same kind of connection with the writer I find.
I can tell that you are a storyteller. I love the stories that you told during the performance. I’m originally from Ghana so I love hearing those kinds of stories.
Ghanaians definitely have a very strong oral tradition. Do you have any–I’m sorry to ask you this question right now–do you have any books you love? Any stories for me?
There’s an author, her name is Ama Ata Aidoo. I am forgetting the name of the book but I’ll follow up with you.
Please follow up with me because in our country this is the way our parents educate us. I also grew up also on the country side [of Haiti] where you know, we gathered around a big campfire and in the month of August, we are there with our grandfather telling us the story. And we are sitting with big eyes listening. It’s very much one of the dearest traditions in my country.
Yes, I understand. So it seems your work has shifted a little bit. Or maybe it was always there. You’re now a Red Cross ambassador and you run your own production company. How has that affected your music and how are you managing all of those different roles?
It is always challenging because part of it is in my country, you have to take a position for the positive, for changing things around and there’s no way to go about it but to get involved. And reminding people that they are also responsible for anything that happens and they can save a life. It’s important for me me to take those roles and not just talk the talk but walking it as well. It’s difficult sometimes.
My little company for now is only me. I have future production for young female vocalists that I will be in the studio with in the end of March and work with them. It’s very small. I started it and I hope I can find someone to work with that has a stronger shoulder to really take it on. It’s just a way to keep creating with integrity. Instead of just doing something because you don’t have enough money so you don’t want to dream big. So I prefer we start it and then find collaborators along the way.
Is this production company nurturing specifically Haitian women?
For now, yes. For now Haitian. You know this year I collaborated with another label in Haiti called Tamise. We do writing session with the youth. We go to the school and we ask them, “what is not being said in the music? What do you guys think should be implemented? Can we write a song that has that theme?” And we do it for like 22 days and after that we create a song. It’s really one way to kind of give back to my country.
You’ve been in the music industry for a while now as a singer and composer. How have you seen that it has changed for women? Especially for black women?
It think what is wonderful is there are a lot of female artists now more than ever. We have had like an explosion of gorgeous vocalists and I think that the fact that they can see a few figures that let’s say, quote unquote, have been successful making their music around the world has encouraged them. That is the positive thing. But we are still in the same position. There are not enough producers. There are not enough and unfortunately it’s a worldwide crisis going on with the music industry. So we all face the same problem. But what is hopeful is there are more people that want to sing whether or not there is the problem. So I guess it’s equal.
What shows do you have coming up?
I’m going to be in Millersville, PA tomorrow playing at 8 o’clock with a full band. It’s going to be very nice and beautiful. We’re looking forward to it. And the next one is March 4 at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts and on this one, I’m going to tell you right away, we’re gonna play “Timoun” but we’re going to have children dancers. Yes! It’s going to be full length and a lot of fun. And I have a special guest ,her name is, she’s a sumptuous dancer, Calia London. She’ll be on “Freedom Bound.” I really want to put on something very special because I have a lot of people saying “I’m coming, I’m coming,” so I really want to make it a great experience.
And any future projects?
We’re heading to Haiti for International Day of Women so there’s a collaboration recording in the studio, that’s the one I mentioned, with a wonderful singer from my country. Her name is Riva and we’re putting a song together and collaboration together about reminding the youth to respect themselves first so they can get respect. We are also heading to Abu Dhabi… it’s looking exciting. It’s looking really great and I’m totally grateful for the support and all the people who are still encouraging me and buying my work.
I’m very excited for you! That sounds wonderful.
Thank you. And I’m looking forward to the name of the book.
Yes, of course! I will follow up.
[The name of the book, by the way, is Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo.]