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.

The thrill would be a refrain throughout the performance. Rock star David Byrne hosted the evening, and the show kicked off with the rolling rhythms and melodies of Milton Cardona’s Afro-Cuban group Eya Aranla. Makandal followed after the intermission. I felt goose bumps again when Frisner took possession of a nearly black stage, flashing imagery of Haiti’s struggles and victories: a t-shirt that flaunted white skull-and-bones, a whip to cleanse the stage, and a conch shell to announce a battle to the death. He took his place with the ensemble and blasted it out, a mix of straight drum and percussion music and Vodou-jazz, the latter folding in trumpet, sax, trombone, and bass guitar. As Dr. Gage Averill would note in his review for The Beat (Vol. 8 #6, 1989), “this audience seemed to appreciate the percussion solos the most.” Here’s one for your enjoyment.

Playing a Rada (Guinea Coast tradition) arrangement, that was Frisner Augustin on lead drum, Steve Deats on second, Jean Alphonse on third, Paul Uhry Newman on bell, and Jean Robert Morisseau on bass drum. Audio recording courtesy of The Town Hall.

The critics must have had goose bumps, too. Check it out:

“[Augustin] left the audience very happy indeed, on their feet and screaming for more. Serious drumming deepened by a low, rumbling electric bass and taken in another direction by a soaring horn section set off Augustin’s inspired, richly melodious voice and his atomic, bacchanal energy.” (Elena Oumano, The City Sun)

“Damping his drum head with chin or hand or rubbing his thumbs along it, striking the drum’s head and wooden body with a hammer-headed stick, Augustin produced a staggering array of sounds, from bone-dry thwacks to liquid burblings, that earned him repeated ovations.” (Gene Santoro, New York Post)

“Mr. Augustin’s show really took off when he and his drummers…muscled their way through a hard and propulsive groove that had the audience cheering.” (Peter Watrous, The New York Times)

So there I was in the front row having the audience experience of a lifetime. Despite my euphoria, I did manage to catch a few photos, and I give you one here:

Town_Hall_Musicians

Standing, from left: Paul Uhry Newman, unidentified saxophonist, Tim Newman, Alberto Plummer, Tom Mitchell, and Chris Jefferson. Seated, from left: Jean Robert Morisseau, Jean Alphonse, Steve Deats, Frisner Augustin. Photo by Lois Wilcken.

Makandal has preserved the photos, the sound, and the press documents for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive, now in process. In order to share this legacy with you and the future, we need funds. To make a tax deductible contribution, and to learn more about the archive, visit our Archive page. Thank you!

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