Tales from the Archive: A Trip to Vodou

The young artists fell into a philosophical tug-of-war with the recording engineer. Harry Leroy already boasted a history of recording some of the best Haitian musicians around. He knew his business. The artists of La Troupe Makandal, on the other hand, had little or no studio experience—even Frisner Augustin, a nine-year veteran of the Diaspora who had taken on direction of the newly arrived Troupe three months ago in October 1981. The eight musicians and dancers, now relocated under Frisner’s wing, knew little about tracks and mixing, but they did know their own business: dancing, drumming, and singing to bring down the spirit. Such a mystical undertaking demands the networked physical energies of a collective. Leroy wanted to record individuals, or small sub-groups one by one, recording each of many tracks separately and then mixing later on. In other words, he wanted to break up the collective. But without the collective, what happens to the spirit?

150930_IstwaMakandal’s coming to New York fulfilled a dream for Frisner. During the summer of 1981 dancers and new arrivals Smith Desroches and Marie Léotard Sylvain sought him out in his basement room in East Flatbush. Colleagues had recommended him as someone who could help them. Smith and Marie explained that they had just entered with the group Roots of Haiti, but that six members of La Troupe Makandal, their proper company, were due to arrive in mid-October. Imagine Frisner’s excitement at the thought of his dream just falling into his lap! In October he called me from the basement room he now shared with Smith and Marie to break the news that Makandal had arrived.

150930_FlierFrisner moved quickly to establish the group in New York. He contacted entrepreneur Firmin Joseph and got a gig to play Joseph’s Thanksgiving festival at Brooklyn College on November 26. For its first year in New York Makandal played a number of such community festivals. On April 18 the Troupe won its first award at Nuit des Trophées (Trophy Night) at Brooklyn College. The producers noted Makandal as “Ensemble de dance [sic] de plus populaire pour 1981″ (“The most popular dance ensemble of 1981”). And Makandal did stir up a storm when it hit the stage. It was more raw, more risqué—more in-your-face Vodou—than other folklore companies playing to the immigrant community. From backstage I would watch audience covering their faces with their hands, then peeking out through slightly parted fingers as Makandal ate glass, danced with fire, and bumped hips in the most erotic moves of the death spirits. No wonder the artists felt at odds with the cold technicalities of modern sound recording!

MAK_LW_PER.068_0001si_ma_19820523While the company made its mark on stage, Frisner secured the backing of Gayrol Demosthenes to produce the LP A Trip to Voodoo. Demosthenes also ran Cisco Shipping and gave the men in Makandal their first day jobs. He chose sound engineer Harry Leroy to record. Leroy recorded all ten tracks in one session, even though the wrangling over separation of instruments and voices went on for some time. In the end they compromised, and Leroy recorded all the instruments together, and then all the voices. It worked, and we left the studio for the home of a friend in Queens, who had a nice Haitian dinner laid out for us.

ltm094Bonnie Devlin and I (both Frisner’s students) wrote the jacket notes. In 1982 I was too new in the field to worry about “voodoo,” which I would later contest as the proper way to spell the name of the spiritual tradition. (Subsequent publications of the recording altered it to “Vodou.”) Photographer Joel Pierre shot the cover photo and designed the jacket. Pierre shot the photo in an East Flatbush basement that was so cluttered I was convinced we couldn’t do it. But with characteristic Haitian moxie, Makandal cleared the space and constructed a Vodou set around a card-reading featuring Frisner and his students Laurie and Bonnie. I was to stand with the artists holding a candle. The Makandal women shook their heads as they thought about my posing with them, then got to work layering make-up on my light complexion so that it would not bleach out beside their ebony.

By the end of 1982 the album was out. Listen to Frisner (lead) and Makandal (chorus) sing for the powerful, militant Nago spirits. Note how Frisner names artists and friends. Carole Jean Louis takes over the lead at 6 min, 26 sec to end.

A Trip to Vodou (the album’s current and permanent name) belongs to the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive, now in preparation. The Archive includes field recordings; documentation of Vodou dances, rehearsals, performances, and classes; interviews; mementos of Frisner’s private life; and, as we see here, studio recordings. Our efforts will contribute toward writing a history of the Haitian community in New York through its arts and culture. Be part of the konbit (work brigade). Learn more and make a tax-deductible contribution here. Thank you!

Captions and Credits

Makandal’s handwritten personnel list (second paragraph), naming original members (from top to bottom) Marie Jocelyne Louis, Marie Léotard Sylvain, Smith Destin, Smith Desroches, Carole Jean Louis, Yolande Leger, Franck Sylvain (aka Jean Paul Joseph), and Ernst Benjamain

Flyer (third paragraph) for Makandal’s first performance in New York on Thursday, November 26, 1981 (Thanksgiving Day), appearing with Ti Mano and Gemini All Stars, Tabou Combo, and Farah Juste

Photo backstage at Brooklyn College Theater (fourth paragraph), Sunday, May 30, 1982. Makandal poses, probably for Luc Richard using Lois Wilcken’s camera. Top row from left: Smith Desroches, Lois Wilcken, Yolande Leger, and Carole Jean Louis. Middle row from left: Smith Destin, Bonnie Devlin, Jean Paul Joseph, and Anthony Cyprien. Bottom row from left: Jocelyne Louis, Frisner Augustin

Album cover (fifth paragraph) for La Troupe Makandal’s album A Trip to Voodoo, 1982. Photo and design by Joel Pierre

Audio: “Nago” from A Trip to Voodoo by La Troupe Makandal, 1982. Produced by Gayrol Demosthenes, recorded by Harry Leroy, mixed by Frisner Augustin and Harry Leroy

Featured photo by Chantal Regnault: Detail from a photo of Makandal onstage at Wingate High School, June 12, 1983

Story by Lois Wilcken

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