Actress and singer Jehyna Sahyeir, 25, embodies the rise of traditional Haitian music with a style that blends jazz and voodoo. In residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts (the International City of Arts) in Paris, she appeared on stage at a music cabaret in Blois on 9 March as part of the Aux Arts Citoyennes festival.
At 25, you are one of the few Haitian musicians of your generation to give voodoo pride of place. Why?
The younger generation is moving away from its roots. It's a legacy I'm taking on, even if it feels like a heavy weight on a country that's “crumbling”. We are beset with questions. You wonder what musical line to take, how to open up this legacy to the world, how to bring it back to life at home, and more than anything, how to create this great voodoo gathering when you only have your own voice and your body.
What is your artistic direction?
Over time I realised I was connected to this voodoo music. It is a well from which I draw my strength, taking inspiration from voodoo music, songs, dances, prayers and rituals that I adapt. But I'm not confined to one artistic movement: I'm constantly doing research. I write my own songs and associate them with jazz, soul and blues, which, like voodoo, are forms of music born of struggle. I appropriate some of their codes, I add mine, and so I create new sounds.
You are in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts until April: what does this environment offer you?
All I do is look at Haussmann style architecture from my balcony! More seriously, I sing, write, read and observe. Being in residence allows me to meet other artists from different backgrounds and cultures, and to share our experiences and what we feel through what we do. The atmosphere is very inspiring! On the other hand, by being immersed in my creation, I'm more focused: melodies line up better in my head and encounters are a good opportunity to fill up with humanity.
What are you working on?
I am working on writing and composing my first album, which is a continuation of a previous work: MARASA. Musically, I'm still on this quest to marry cultures with voodoo tradition. Marasa means twin in Creole, and sometimes twins don't get along. Paradoxically, perhaps, MARASA remains my great reconciliation project.
You're also a woman of theatre, where you started as a child. How do you combine theatre and music?
I always say that my artistic world is well balanced because my work as an actress makes my work as a singer easier and vice versa. Theatre therefore occupies a central place equal to music. My experience with choreographic theatre, where you work mainly on body and body language, strengthens my presence and my performances on stage.
I also run workshops at the Pyepoudre cultural centre and have recently started teaching in secondary school. I focus my teaching on choreographic theatre to help young people better express their feelings. They tell me it helps them a lot, so it motivates me even more!
On 9 March you perform in a musical cabaret as part of the “Aux arts citoyennes” festival in Blois. What is this show based on?
A group of dedicated women with an entrepreneurial spirit have decided to create a cabaret to make their grievances heard and to talk about their everyday problems with gender inequalities, harassment and lack of recognition etc. They're guided by a director because they've never been on stage before. I am very touched to be able to work with them and to see that they have chosen art as a medium to express themselves. My contribution is musical and I’m going to sing interludes punctuating their lines.
The festival is being held as part of International Women's Day. Do you define yourself as a committed artist?
I am a committed artist. I have always been in demand and I was born into a people who protest and are not afraid to stand up and express themselves. I talk about this great social divide between rich and poor, denounce the Haitian government's mismanagement for trying to muzzle us and talk about feminism of course - I'm a feminist. And the choice of my musical universe is in itself a commitment because I chose it to help preserve this great Haitian cultural heritage that we have: voodoo songs and rhythms. In this way, I claim our right to life, to freedom, to equality, and to freedom of expression. Through my work I hope to raise awareness and reconnect young people to their roots and to inspire future generations.
Winner of the Cité internationale residency programme, Jehyna Sahyeir is in Paris until April 2020. 70 winners are welcomed each year as part of the residency programme at the Cité Internationale des Arts. Find out more about residencies at the Cité Internationale des Arts
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