Towards the tail end of 2017, outsideleft's French editor, Guilaine Arts, directed us to investigate the folk inflected music of Haitian-American UK transplant, Germa Adan, and oh boy, are we glad that we did. Germa is responsible for one of 2017s great LPs, the mini-album Kenbe Fèm.
Germa, right now is an incredibly powerful, unique and fresh voice on the UK folk scene. So, fire up the audio track below and read what Germa has to say about her long and winding road from Haiti to the Carolinas to Kings Heath and beyond.
Outsideleft: You've spent a good part of 2016 / 2017 playing gig after gig as part of your tour to promote your musical and real life journey from Haiti to the UK via the USA supported to some extent by the English Folk Dance and Song Society - to get their support, what did that entail? What did they expect for their money!?
Germa Adan: The EFDSS Creative Seed Funding was used for research and groundwork of some of the songs from my album. I was able to travel to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library located in Cecil Sharp House London. I poured into lots of american and british folk song anthology, as well as some very valuable Alan Lomax recordings in 1936 Haiti. The EFDSS were very supportive with the aim of my research and didn’t put any pressure on the direction of my project and really empowered me to explore without any expectations of a big reveal at the end. Their support was very encouraging, as well as the support offered by singer-songwriter Maz O'Connor, who I paired up with to collaborate on some songwriting and arranging; she was very influential on the early stages of arranging ‘Born to Die’, the third track in the album.
Outsideleft: Your creole heritage informs your music, how did you end up being drawn to perhaps traditional english folk music, which say in some respects rarely I think reflects the culture of the UK much anymore...!?
Germa Adan: I was initially drawn to british folk music as I was beginning to see a common thread amongst many folk songs here, in Haiti and America. Before I developed an interest in songwriting I was a keen absorber of the music of Odetta, Manno Charlemagne, Steve Brunache (just to name a few), bluegrass and the traditional music found in England, Scotland and Ireland. I grew up in Haiti singing kreyol versions of bluegrass gospel tunes and tunes passed along from radio or family singing. The interest in folk singing was already in my bones and was a natural influence in my current writing and singing style. As I began to write my own tunes, I realised that my writing was influenced by my haitian roots, my life in America and also my current home- England. I also came to an understanding that folk music is and always will be music of the people. It wasn’t created for a concert hall.. Many traditional tunes travelled across oceans and they no longer belonged to a specific group of people
Outsideleft: How does your quite beautiful mini album, Kenbe Fèm, tie in with your EFDSS work (if at all)?
Germa Adan: My efdss work involved a lot of exploring of British, American and haitian folk tunes. It also helped to shape and influence new material that I was moved to write. Not all the songs that came out of my EFDSS work are on the album, as I am planning to release them as I go and hopefully some will be programmed into my next album. Songs like Dodo, Born to Die, Kenbe Fem, Lark in the Morning and la Vie Cest were written during the EFDSS work.
Outsideleft: Kenbe Fèm - how where was that recorded, it's rich and robust in its sound, beautifully sung, played and produced, can you talk about that process a little bit...
Germa Adan: The inspiration for the lyrics of Kenbe Fem was for a chance encounter I had with a Syrian refugee in the local library. We were talking and she was telling me about how displaced her life has become and how she is separated from her children. She had a life planned back home and a legacy to pass on but now she has to rebuild. What was so inspiring about her is this resilient and hopeful spirit she still had and how she was holding strong. I was reminded of how Haitians often say ‘ Kenbe Fem’ (Hold Firm) to each other when times are tough, and how Haitians go through alot and despite the struggle for peace and tranquility, we pick ourselves up and kenbe fem. I went home and the lyrics and melody for this song just poured out without much effort; it was almost like i was writing it without much struggle because the inspiration for this was so strong. It is not my song but a song for anyone like the woman I met who are holding firm despite the odds against them.
Kenbe Fem was recorded and mixed by Eddy Morton. We initially recorded myself on voice and acoustic guitar and my friend Hugh Cansdale collaborated with me by adding electric slide guitar parts. Afterwards, I added 2 vocal harmonies to the chorus and then I recorded the string parts on the violin; All this was recorded fresh at the studio without any parts written down apart from rough musical shapes that I already had in mind such as when the strings would rise and fall; I often find this approach more effective than writing in specific parts as it allows for a bit of ‘je ne sais quoi’ to happen during live recording.
Outsideleft: Vini Chache M'/Come Find Me, La Vie Cest these are gorgeously sumptuous dreamy pop songs... The Lark in the Morning kind of dutifully dour... how is your music changing. At times you sound like a one woman Bad Seeds!
Germa Adan: Ha! I never really absorbed Nick Cave and Bad Seeds until you mentioned this and after going away to have a listen, I can definitely see what you mean; their sound is uncompromising and often hauntingly emotional. It’s difficult to say if my music is changing, as I generally go where the music wants to go and try not to forcefully sound like a specific genre or style for the sake of fitting in. This probably makes it difficult for listeners who like to pin-point to one specific style, but my sound is influenced by my the creolisation of my musical journey across borders. Therefore, each song could be influenced by one or more cultures or one or more musical genre. The creolisation is taking place subconsciously, naturally and I hope to never want to get in the way of that. Also as I orchestrate a song I tend to enjoy playing with textures from simple harmonies; in some songs (like Vini Chache M'/Come Search for Me) I wanted to paint a simple landscape with pockets of texture to not get in the way of the words. In other songs (like La vie Cest), it is the instrumentation that paints the picture and brings the song to life.
Outsideleft: Now, I have a daughter who is learning to play the trumpet, she can be pretty good... Which I often think is very lucky because, it could've been the violin and that is surely the most difficult instrument to get a tune out of. How did you begin? What drew you to that? Are you from a musical family?
Germa Adan: I do come from a musical family; My father was in a band in 1980s in Haiti and we grew up singing and going to church in Haiti and America, where the music is a big part of service. I started to learn the violin by chance actually; I was in a crowded computer class in middle school and some of us were given the option to choose a different elective and I chose the string orchestra. I didn’t have a clue about what I was getting into but i knew I loved music and we make a lot of music at home so it wouldn’t hurt nobody’s ears (my parents might think otherwise at first). As we were latecomers we had to try and catch up with the rest of the string orchestra, so I chose to play the violin without much thought and took the violin home everyday to practice determined to not hide at the back of the class. By the next year I was leading the ensemble as concertmaster and the rest of the musical journey led to studying music performance, composition and education at universities. I was very fortunate to have supportive teachers along the way in middle school, high school and college who saw the potential and helped to develop my craft as a violinist and composer.
Outsideleft: You've talked about stretching, if you like the violin into more sort of rhythmic spaces - that's exciting. Can you talk a little about that.
Germa Adan: In the past year I’ve been exploring the use of the violin as not just a solo instrument and more of an accompaniment to the voice. I started to see the violin as a guitar at times, or a piano or a Kora or a banjo based on the types of songs I wanted to sing. I didn’t realise how much of an out of body experience this can be. And this way of thinking has changed my perception completely and has allowed me to break some barriers that I thought i had to my songwriting. I am now keen to compose more works using voice and fiddle and I can’t wait to see what textures and harmonies I can conjure in this way - the possibilities are now endless!
Outsideleft: What's the difference between your solo album type work, and your Adan Projects things?
Germa Adan: My solo work currently focuses on writing and releasing songs that really speak to me and songs that make come together to tell stories. My Adan projects originally started as collaborations that I had with other artists that have ideas that we could explore and continue to grow into other collaboration projects, such as projects with schools, organisations, poets and visual artists.
Outsideleft: What are you up to now what are you doing next doing next what did you have for breakfast where do you live where is your favorite place in your city?
Germa Adan: Hmm for breakfast I have been really into grits with spinach and poached eggs, this is my current breakfast obsession. Never really liked grits until this year! I have got lots of favourite places to go in birmingham; when I’m not hopping around central Birmingham, I enjoy meeting with friends in Moseley, running community projects in Handsworth, going to events in Digbeth and wandering in gardens in Harborne...
Currently I am preparing for new opportunities and projects in 2018. I’ve got some collaboration projects in the pipeline that will be exploring multimedia performance. I am going to be taking some time to finish writing and recording another group of songs that will have their own stories to tell; it is essentially a sequel to my Kenbe Fem album, where I hope to really delve into the use of voice & fiddle combined with other instrumentation. I hope to have this released by mid - late 2018 (all going well!). I’ll be performing at a couple events and festivals around the UK and will be updating about the dates as they are confirmed on my website and on social media here for those interested: www.adanproject.com