Wednesday Wonder: Frisner’s Souvenir

We weren’t the kind of people who stressed over holiday gifts. Frisner had come up out of a struggling community—he literally slept on a dirt floor as a child. I had developed an aversion to the annual shopping mania, and, as a graduate student, my means were limited anyway. As we approached the finish line for 1987, I counted five years almost to the day with the maestro, and we celebrated only joudlan (New Year’s Day, also Haiti’s Independence Day). We did it the traditional Haitian way, with a ben chans (herbal luck bath) on New Year’s Eve and a nice, steaming kettle of soup joumou (squash soup) in the morning. So it surprised me, and touched the bottom of my soul, when Frisner presented me with a holiday gift, the very best he had to offer: his music. Continue reading

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Wednesday Wonder: Vodou in Church

We finally got a gig with World Music Institute! Founded in 1985, WMI, in 1986, was already on its way to becoming one of the world’s leading presenters of contemporary music and dance from around the world. I had spoken with director Robert Browning about engaging Makandal months ago when WMI was in its embryonic stage, but sound level issues at an interim venue were preventing him from hiring musicians from African and African diaspora traditions—who just don’t know how to keep it down! Now, having established WMI as a non-profit, and having secured funding, Browning was using Washington Square Church in Greenwich Village as a venue. So, on February 14, 1986, Troupe Makandal was rocking every arch, tower, and cavernous hallway of the Romanesque Revival building with its Afro-Haitian vibes. Continue reading

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Wednesday Wonder: Telling the Roots

How did it all start? With a wish, a worry, a dream, maybe a phrase of music? Yes, yes, yes, yes…

An interview I set up more than thirty years ago gets it in a nutshell. I say “set up” because I made the appointment, I told Frisner what the gist of it would be—his life in Haiti before coming to New York nearly ten years ago—and I brought a set of questions; but he really conducted the interview. After the first question, he took over, having spent the last few days reflecting on what he wanted the world to know about his struggle to become a drummer. I took the 3 subway to East 96th Street in East Flatbush on the evening of March 24, 1982, descended the tumbledown stairway to his basement digs, sat down with him, turned on the cassette tape recorder, and posed the first question. Hours later, I knew I was going home with a gem. But then, while I was away in Haiti during the summer of 1984, the cassette vanished!
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Wednesday Wonder: Up from the Archive

I had never been inside The Town Hall before, not until today, September 22, 1989. I was impressed by its monumental aura. Maybe not as grand and elegant as Carnegie Hall, but arguably more noble in purpose than all the world’s highbrow houses put together. The League for Political Education, a suffragette group, created The Town Hall in 1921 as a space to educate the people. Its architecture—no box seats, no obstructed views—displayed democratic values. As I crossed the balcony listening to Makandal’s soundcheck from a variety of sonic perspectives, I felt both proud and humbled that my Frisner, up from one of the world’s most oppressed communities, would play here tonight. Continue reading

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Chante! Sing!

But wait a minute! Who said I can’t sing? I think I did. How did the child of two musicians, one a pianist, the other a singer—yes, a singer—become so timid with her voice? Is it reversible? Well, I will never be a Nina Simone or a Toto Bissainthe, and that’s okay. But I can probably take some lessons from those incredible people who make up the Vodou chorus, the sèvitè (servants of the spirits) who belt it out in a perfect cacophony of sweetness and soul, and hitting the wrong notes is not a problem. Continue reading

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Vodou Love in Outer Space

Pluto has a heart! Scientists looking at the first images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which just arrived in the Pluto zone after three billion miles and nearly ten years, have spotted a heart-shaped region on the frosty planet. They’ve nicknamed it “the heart.” Who would have thought that the mythical god of the wintry underworld, custodian of the afterlife, would have a soft spot? Echoes of Vodou cross my mind’s ear. Continue reading

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A Message to You

I’m writing to you, that free spirit who can’t stop dancing to the beat of a drum. You must have come out of the womb this way. Am I right? As far back as you can remember, your proclivities failed to match those of your peers. Your parents shook their heads, maybe even feared for your future. You felt yourself as spiritual, but you found it really, really hard to believe in hellfire and damnation. In your heart of hearts, the spirit was meant to be free. Continue reading

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