The spotlight caught him in one of his star moments: seated at a conga in a red Kesler Pierre t-shirt for the Vodou spirit of love (her dazzling heart crowned with the word “Makandal”); a cluster of New Orleans-style carnival beads around his neck; a white kufi on his head; and fingers poised to embroider venerable sonic memories into a new groove. The audience ceased its shuffling, and his solo started, rhapsodic at first and then settling into a gentle yanvalou. He reached into his bag of musical tricks and wrapped his hands around ibo and then zaryen (with a little Carnival detour along the way). Now he was ready for the kill—an ever so cool transition to mayi that drew sighs of pleasure and applause from the audience, and a pitch-bending motif executed with elbow and chin. Frisner Augustin returned to mayi for a razor-sharp cadence, and a stage-left gesture of invitation to the celebrated jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille. Vodou and jazz were ready to dig deep into their tangled roots.
“Mwen menm m klase pou m swiv mizik la, mwen menm pou m mete ti epis ladan ni avèk tanbou pa m nan, pa twò fò, pa twò dousman. Paske fò w balanse melodi yo.”
“Me, I’m trained to follow the music, to add a little spice with my drum, not too pungent, not too bland. Because you have to balance the melodies.”
(Frisner Augustin, interview with Lois Wilcken, Brooklyn, August 16, 1994)
Frisner had his first encounter with jazz while still in his youth. Choreographer André Germain discovered him playing a Vodou dance in Kalfou, then introduced him to pianist Jacky Duroseau. A protegé of pianist Lina Mathon Blachet, Duroseau drove Frisner to upscale Pétionville to play in Blanchet’s latest venture, a small Vodou jazz combo. Frisner fell in love with it immediately. Jazz opened him to new sonorities, and his love of the genre could account for two features of his mature style: fastidious attention to tone and his bold kase (breaks). He experimented with his own brand of jazz later in New York, where he played for such artists as Kip Hanrahan and Andrew Cyrille.
On Thursday, February 10, 2000, Frisner appeared for the first time on a bill with Andrew Cyrille and a combo that included guitarist Alix “Tit” Pascal and bass player Lisle Atkinson. Congo Square: Where Jazz & Vodou Meet was the brainchild of musician Sarah Dupuy. Sarah worked for the New School in Manhattan, and Andrew Cyrille served on the faculty of the New School University Jazz and Contemporary Music Program. The notion of a historic link between the music of Haitian Vodou and North American jazz intrigued Sarah. She boned up on the research that pointed to Congo Square in New Orleans as the place where enslaved people from Haiti (brought in by colonists fleeing the Haitian Revolution) jammed on Sundays—eventually giving birth to jazz. Feeling that the juxtaposition of Vodou music and jazz would dramatize the connection, Sarah secured funding from the New School Diversity Initiative and the National Coalition for Haitian Rights to present a free program in the school’s Tishman Auditorium.
The first half of the program featured Makandal dancers and drummers performing a suite of five Afro-Haitian numbers. Cyrille’s group followed the intermission, but not until the two drummers delighted the audience with a first-class duet. (See opening paragraph above and video below.) This number crystallized the spirit of the program, with both the so-called “traditional” drummer and the so-called “modern” drummer tossing out playful riffs and mind-bending breaks. The duet blew away the veil between the traditional and the modern as the two men explored the continuum between these convenient but somewhat questionable categories. Can we say that jazz and Vodou are in a perpetual state of meeting?
Frisner went on to play in Andrew’s Haitian Fascination combo. Successful live performances generated an album, Route de Frères, released on the TUM Records label in late 2011. Frisner’s untimely death in 2012 brought the earthly collaboration to a close, but documents like the New School video and the Route de Frères album will keep the spirit of Congo Square jamming for posterity. Hear it in another Augustin-Cyrille duet, track 11, “Mais (Percussion Duo)” from Route de Frères:
We couldn’t wait to share this story with you. The Augustin-Cyrille duet in 2000 was fun-on-steroids. We’ve been waiting for many months to transfer the video to a digital file from our VHS tape, lovingly donated by videographer Amy Bonwell. We extend our thanks to Brian Grant for providing the VCR. And thank you to all who have contributed financially to the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive. If you haven’t yet made a tax-deductible contribution, and would like to, go to our Donate button.
Credits (from the top)
Featured image: Detail from the Congo Square: Where Jazz & Vodou Meet flyer. New School University, February 2000
Photo by Lois Wilcken: Frisner Augustin and Makandal playing Vodou jazz at The Town Hall, New York City, September 22, 1989
Front cover of program for Congo Square: Where Jazz & Vodou Meet, John L. Tishman Auditorium, New School University, February 10, 2000
Photo by Stefania Zamparelli for the album Route de Frères by Andrew Cyrille and Haitian Fascination, 2011. Clockwise from upper left: Frisner Augustin, percussion and vocals; Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophone; Lisle Atkinson, double bass; Alix “Tit” Pascal, acoustic guitar; and Andrew Cyrille, drums
Video: Drummers Duet from the program Congo Square: Where Jazz and Vodou Meet, Tishman Auditorium at New School University, New York City, February 10, 2000. Featuring Frisner Augustin and Andrew Cyrille. Video shot by Amy Bonwell for Creative Spark, edited by Lois Wilcken
Audio: “Mais (Percussion Duo)” track 11 from Route de Frères, TUM Records CD 027, 2011. Track featuring Andrew Cyrille and Frisner Augustin
Story by Lois Wilcken
This article and music are a spiritual offering. Thank You, eternally. Was so depressed just reading about the latest police execution of a Brother in tulsa. Can’t say there’s hope, but connecting to this excellence makes the pill easier to swallow.
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Hope is a verb as well as a noun. You have to do it. Frisner Augustin did it to cope with extreme poverty, life under a murderous dictatorship, and the various forms of discrimination that greeted him in New York. When a critical mass exercises hope, it’s powerful. Tap into it. It’s there.