Vocalist and Composer Anaïs Maviel Finds Peace Through Translation

When I spoke with Anaïs Maviel, she was just about to begin rehearsals with The Rhythm Method for the premiere of listen to the rain as part of her ACF | create award funded by the Jerome Foundation. The performance is scheduled to take place on June 19, 2021 at Roulette in New York. She found it interesting that they asked her to perform on Juneteenth since she is not African-American. She pondered what it would mean to say yes: what was the opportunity? Free expression and liberation are a constant across the global Black community, and she wanted to make that connection to the African-American experience from a diasporic point of view.

Anaïs grew up in France, mostly living in rural communities and villages. Her mom, Dominique Sylvain (Joyshanti), was born in New York to Haitian parents and lived in various countries in Africa and Europe before eventually landing in France. “I am very grateful for the cultural background that she passed on to me,” says Anaïs. “She is a very powerful person with a strong connection to spirituality and a strong connection to ethics and politics. She is an artist herself, so I got that upbringing that comes from someone who has seen different parts of the world and who is aware of the dynamics.”

The other side of the story is that Dominique was also a single Black mom in a racist country. They were not in big cities and were often one of–if not the only–families of color in the village. “So that was challenging as a child,” she remembers. “Structural oppression takes various forms. France is very different from America, but I have had challenges on the way. Although, I am also very grateful because there is a privilege of growing up in Europe as far as accessing free education and things like that.” But Anaïs’ earliest musical education and influences came from her mother. “She exposed me to the music that really roots me. She exposed me to various cultures of the African Diasporic.”

Anaïs Maviel--Photo by Dar Es Salaam Riser

Anaïs Maviel–Photo by Dar Es Salaam Riser

When Anaïs spoke of her more formal French music education, she recalled how she felt she was not welcomed and was often left feeling othered and discontent. “Pretty early on I was taking lessons on piano and flute, and I always felt dissonance with the structures, so I have always struggled with music schools,” she explained. Rather than going to the conservatory, she ended up attending university to focus on cultural studies, aesthetics, and the history of art.

Eventually, Anaïs started exploring the world of notated music. “To me, it’s actually a big deal to get my ideas down on paper because I have been a creator and a musician since day one, but I have been excluding myself from that world for a long time,” she says. Anaïs did attend a jazz conservatory in France for a short period of time, but for her, it was very much like how France treats African-American culture. She described how conservatory took away freedom of expression and just wanted her to sound pretty, an experience that she found alienating. “So, in the meanwhile, I am self-teaching, composing on the piano. I would not notate things, but I made attempts here and there and always in a jazz context. I would ask people to improvise in a certain way and so I had several years of trying conduction, trying different ways of expressing my ideas, and being frustrated with my lack of capacity to express what I needed from musicians and to take the role of a leader in music because I was also very insecure.”

When Anaïs moved to New York City, she found her place in the improvised music scene where her compositional mind continued to develop, this time with a community around her that she would inspire and be inspired by. “I was very skilled as a musician and very compositional in my approach to improvised music. I was improvising but I was also so structured, and thankfully people really reflected this back at me when I arrived [in New York] and people were really hearing what was going on, where I felt quite isolated in Paris trying to do my thing.”

In 2019, Anaïs received Roulette’s Van Lier Fellowship, which opened the door for her to really explore the music she wanted to make. “All my drafts and all the material that had accumulated in my head and I hadn’t had the opportunity to give some time to–now I had the time and the confidence to do it. It was both structural and inner censorship, but when I got this money to just do my thing, I really got into notation. Since then, I’ve been learning, learning, learning. It’s like learning a whole new language that I kind of know from very far.”

Anaïs Maviel performs her sound, text, and movement piece "Legba Swaying"--Photo by Michael Lucio Sternbach

Anaïs Maviel performs her sound, text, and movement piece “Legba Swaying”–Photo by Michael Lucio Sternbach

Anaïs, who speaks five languages, says this new musical language is powerful, and she is hoping to learn to be more poetic rather than literal. That’s the journey in calling herself “a composer.” For her, learning different languages is about making peace. There are conflicts. There are tensions around the dominance of certain languages. She notes that four of the five languages that she speaks are colonial languages–languages colonizers forced on populations they were looting in terms of resources and culture.

It’s been a couple of years now, and Anaïs is starting to hear what she wants to hear from her collaborators. She is stepping into the role of leader. “It feels very transitional because my goal is not to be the perfect classical composer. But I guess it’s like, this moment of learning to express my ideas and use the language that is available–[to] speak the language that is, right now, the main language in which we allow you to be a creator in music…There is also an inner conflict with this that I am coming to peace with in terms of my Afrocentric upbringing in music to a Eurocentric world and finding my space here.”

As she searches for that balance, tension, and reflection, Anaïs says one of her life’s purposes is translation. “When you’re a mixed race person, people can see it on your face that it is going to be your job to translate,” she explains. “It felt like a burden for a long time because it was more like this double-consciousness thing: having this mask on, and then I have this other mask on. But then, where is the communication? Where is the connection? Where is the harmony?”

The Rhythm Method--Photo by Maya Bennardo

The Rhythm Method–Photo by Maya Bennardo

A few years ago, The Rhythm Method invited Anaïs to vibe with them at their music festival. “They have this feminist approach to booking shows and working with people, so when I showed up to play the gig, it was one of these experiences that just felt nice,” Anaïs remembers. She was struck by the way they communicated and listened to one another and how “laid back” their approach was. She was immediately inspired to write for them, and The Rhythm Method, of course, was game. Six months later, they sent Anaïs the application for the ACF | create program with about a week to complete it. But for her, it was the perfect timing–all the thoughts that she had for the project had fallen into place.

“I had just finished this retreat for Qigong and I was all into five elements and I was really deepening my perception of my own body and of nature. Something was sprouting in me,” she says. listen to the rain used her experience and study of Qigong and the I-Ching as inspiration. “The eight forces from which I drew each movement of the piece are water, fire, thunder, rain, earth, mountain, wind, and sky. I was specifically interested in the rain since it doesn’t correspond to the element of water as one would assume, but to metal. In Chinese energetics, metal is the element of the sky and corresponds to our sense of smell and breathing. I find it interesting that rainforests are the ones providing the breathable air we need to co-exist on this planet. Thus, listening to the rain.”

Composition is about hearing and translating for Anaïs. She still doesn’t exactly feel comfortable with the term “composer.” She sees herself as an arranger, organizing sounds that are already there. She is translating what she is hearing into a message for the audience. Anaïs finds that the intention behind the music is more important than the form. “[The Rhythm Method] is interested in my approach to music, which is more embodied. As a vocalist, everything kind of starts with the body and some self-awareness. So I am very excited to work with them on the things that matter most to me in music.” With the Rhythm Method, she has found a marvelous exchange of hearing and translating that speaks beauty into existence.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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