Sika: An Interview with the Folk Rock Singing Sensation
Even before Jessica Valmé tells you that she’s influenced by Dolores O’Riordan it’s obvious in her voice and music: the trebles, the passion in her voice, the lone guitar strings, the rock-folksy style. Just like O’Riordan, Valmé is a prolific songwriter, writing most of the songs on her first EP Colour and Sound. Valmé was born in Haiti, but to her fans she is Sika. And it isn’t just the influence of the former singer of the 1990s-era band that is felt in her style, but also that of Sophie B. Hawkins and Sarah Mclachlan, and of Laura Mayne of the French R&B band Native. That isn’t to say that she isn’t her own person. It’s possible that several cooks can have yams, plantains, watercress in their broth, and the same assorted ingredients and yet yield their own brand of bouyon.
The song on the EP that does it for me is “Haiti Mezanmi”. It’s mournful, yet hopeful. The first thing you should know about the song “Okay to Be Alone” is that it isn’t necessarily about what its its title insinuates. One is expecting some sort of ode to the loner, to the pleasures of solitude. “Don’t tell me that we are something of the past,” says the first obsession-filled lines of the song. But “It’s Okay to Be Alone” isn’t the chronicle of serious stalking post-break up. It’s rather a call for self-reflection in between relationships and maintaining boundaries while in one.
Beginning anew after emotional devastation is the subject of “Reconfigure”. Now reconfiguring one’s self isn’t as easy as reconfiguring the dimensions of a house, or the speed of a computer system, for that matter. “You and I need to stray away,” sings Sika, demanding space and a re-evaluation. “Reconfigure and “It’s Okay to Be Alone” practically go hand in hand. They capture the singer’s vulnerable, alternative-bluesy style.
Can your recall your first performance ever? After digging my brain, I believe the first time I presented myself on a stage with the guitar was 11 years ago, December 2001. My long time childhood friend Michael Benjamin—Mikaben—had asked me to be a part of his unplugged Christmas show at Café des Arts in Pétion-ville, Port-au-Prince. Acoustic “And Friends” shows seemed trendy at the time. Since I was traveling from Montreal College to spend Christmas holidays at home, the timing was right. Michael wanted to make the evening more entertaining than just performing originals, covers and Christmas classics. So, he invited couple of his friends to share the stage by playing their own compositions. There I was, the youngest guest. I sung “Haiti Revis” on the guitar, which over time became “Haiti Mezanmi” the last track on my EP album Colour Your Walls. On that same occasion I met Andy Barrow, the co-producer of my album who accompanied me on the electric. Overall my first performance was fun and very intimidating, yet as the only female singer-songwriter there, I felt quite powerful.
Which artists are you influenced by? Artists who have a strong message, an innovative artistic vision, who are bluntly honest, authentic, basically pioneers and risk-takers usually speak to me more than others do. People like Sting with The Police, Gwen Stefani with No Doubt, Dolores O’ Riordan with The Cranberries, Richard and Lunise Morse with RAM, Beethova Obas, Tracy Chapman, Bob Marley—I find quite iconic. Aspects of their accomplishments and what they represent as a whole are influential to me. Same with Haitian visual artists like Marithou Dupoux, Tiga, Mark Rothko of Russia, Haitian comedian Languichatte. Grand! As originals, they’re always pushing, working at perfecting the new craft which them only bring to the table. A final product with much more content.
You play the guitar, it turns out. How did you start playing? Who taught you? It turns out, you are right! Self-taught is a good adjective to start off with. I simply enjoy the sound of acoustic strums. Growing up in Haiti, the music video of the song “Where I’m Headed” by Lene Marlin played on TV, and answered many questions for me. In my entourage, other than Michael, another friend of mine was taking electric private classes, while another one had abandoned her classical. I made that guitar mine and started experimenting with it. My limitations led me to teacher Camille Fortuné for about eight months—which I considered enough to compose on my own Camille later became a member of the Haitian Flamenco-Troubadour group Strings. To complement my general knowledge on guitars, I bought a book the started singing my poems, while playing. Easier way out. After college, I had Serge Bauzile showing me about finger-picking for a month during summer time in Haiti. The session was short, but it helped me realize how much I like rhythmic strummings and chord changes. Luckily playing with more educated musicians brought me a great deal of musical insights. Today I’m simply hungry for more music theory.
In the long run, what plans do you have for yourself, musical-wise? I’ve accomplished a couple to this day, still, the plan is to hang on to my dreams. Pursue solo work, release another EP treasure, collaborate with other artists as much as possible, DJs, established bands, filmmakers, choreographers. Being cast for a vocal role at Cirque du Soleil and experience touring is also on my list. If life allows me later, I’d like to contribute in building a venue for the performing arts in Haiti featuring local and international artists. At last, if my journey can inspire other Haitian female artists to empower themselves and serve their creative minds, I’ll be sitting on a mission accomplished.
All your songs no doubt are special to you. Is there one though that you are personally attached to? “You Are” is dear to me. It celebrates the reality that we are all made of both darkness and light, which to me is what makes each of us unique and valuable. The song is definitely a journey, an enriching process to go through before accessing this intimate person-to-person connection with someone; given that this person may seem mysterious or hard to read at first. It starts off as nude and fragile, then it morphs into a more orchestrated and grounded ending: an understanding, which emerges from the search through the layers of self. Originally some of the words were addressed to me in a poem titled “Beautiful Freak” by a high school friend. With time I turned it into track number three on my album. Today, “You Are” is about believing, stepping out of comfort zones, making compromises, accepting things and people as they are, loving simply.