Sarah Elizabeth Charles Moves Through Generations Of Sound

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Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles performs as a member of the group Ajoyo, as well as releasing music under her own name.

(Photo: Shervin Lainez)

You mentioned that your parents aren’t from here. Do you think the music you’ve made is a way to connect with those roots?

Absolutely. My father is from Port-au-Prince, and my mother is from the States, but her parents are from Quebec—French on all sides to a certain extent.

There was definitely a more targeted journey that I decided to take in my early 20s to really get to know where [my father] comes from, both exploring Haitian folkloric music and also traveling to Haiti [once or twice a year] with an organization called Rise2Shine, which has an early childhood music education space in Fond Parisien. I helped to design the [curriculum]. Going there and starting to study the music, that’s such a big part of me, but it wasn’t something growing up that I was necessarily exposed to.

There are so many Haitian musicians in New York, especially on the jazz scene, and people like Melanie Charles and Pauline Jean were very supportive, hipping me to records and helping me.

I came up in a Roman Catholic church that had a folk choir; I was in that choir. At this point in my life, I don’t practice any religion, but that upbringing was huge for me. And it’s coming out right now as I’m [working on a] project with Maya Angelou’s poetry in partnership with her estate. One of the songs, “Lord, In My Heart,” sounds like an Irish folk tune. When I wrote it, I was like, “Where does this come from?” I realized it came from those moments in church when I was singing that music. One day, it just came out.

We’ve talked a lot about heritage and roots, but it’s been through a filter: parents who were immigrants with a homeland. Have you ever been in a moment and felt, “This is my country”? As an African American with a nonspecific homeland, it’s something I think about a lot, but I would imagine children of immigrants might feel the same way.

Right, and as a multiracial person, I’ve been very aware of race my entire life. I’ve been in situations and felt that community or that home comfort. I can probably count those moments in my life on my one hand.

I realized over the past three to four years that feeling of home and comfort, and settling, and peace, and calm is something that I actually already have available to me inside of myself. There’s a lot of beauty in everything that I am. It’s been a really amazing spiritual journey that’s grounded me in being able to love myself and feel at home with myself. DB

Correction: In a previous version of this story, a reference to Charles’ hometown was incorrect. She grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. DownBeat regrets the error.

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