It seemed that Frisner and Makandal never got the distinction between work and play. Didn’t they know that in our modern era of discrete dichotomies (opposites that don’t mix), the distinction rules? We have a time to work and a time to play, and “Don’t mix business with pleasure” could be one of our most common platitudes. The message, apparently, has not reached everyone, or perhaps some have too much whimsy in their veins to absorb it—like musicians. They play music. They also happen to be at work while they’re playing. They get paid to play. Some even belong to a labor union so that they can play for fair wages. Nobody in Makandal belonged to a union, but we worked hard to play, or did we play hard to work?
Makandal’s first rehearsal space was in the basement of a church in Flatbush. We held a dance class there to collect funds for whatever pressing need came up, and we followed the dance class with rehearsal. We lost the space when the pastor changed; his replacement had little sympathy for a group performing “voodoo.” Toward the end of the ’82-’83 school year, my mentor at Hunter College, where I was a graduate student, asked me to help establish a Haitian drum workshop. We did the necessary paperwork, and the workshop was born in the fall semester of 1983. The Department of Music gave us its small recital hall on Friday nights. In exchange for teaching Hunter students gratis, we could rehearse until whatever time we pleased after the class, and we invited students to observe rehearsals, or even participate. In time, we found a fund within the school that paid Frisner to teach the class, and we still had our rehearsal space.
By 1991 we had honed our Friday meetings into a creative social event, to which we were all incurably addicted. If it was someone’s birthday, we partied with a cake and beverages (soft and hard). If it was not someone’s birthday, we partied anyway. The occasional appearance of Pierre Desrameaux in New York gave us reason to celebrate. Desrameaux helped pioneer folkloric dance in Haiti during the era of Estimé and Magloire (see photo of him to the left from Lavinia Williams’ Haiti-Dance), and here he was in the late winter of 1991 training our dancers, working with Frisner to whip the company into better shape. I captured a series of rehearsals on my new camcorder, and despite my amateur status (and the camera’s), the recordings document a number of Haitian traditional dances, with Desrameaux’s elegant and classic moves. I discovered a nice angle behind Frisner where I could study the intimate interplay of dance and drumming. Take note of that when you watch the video below, which I took on March 1, Frisner’s forty-third birthday. Watch Makandal knock down the wall between work and play.
The video sample shows two ancestral dances: nago, the warrior dance of the Nago nation; and banda, dance of the erotic and decadent Gede nation. Makandal’s collection includes many more, articulated in fine detail by marvelous dancers like Desrameaux and destined for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive, now in the works. We invite you to learn more about the Archive here, and to support it with a contribution. Mèsi davans!
Photo by Chantal Regnault (second paragraph above): Jocelyne Louis and Frisner Augustin rehearse at Hunter College as Makandal drummers and Hunter students accompany, November 18, 1983
Photo from Lavinia Williams Yarborough’s Haiti-Dance, 1958 (third paragraph above): Pierre Desrameaux and Jeanne Raymond dance a banbòch after djouba.
Featured photo by Chantal Regnault: Hunter College drumming students pose with Frisner Augustin and members of Makandal, November 18, 1983
I love this! Learning culture is so important. Thank you for sharing the video. What fun dance moves!
I can completely relate to playing for work!
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Great blog post! Thanks for sharing this with us.
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