Tales from the Archive: A Message from Ti Kelep

The waistcoat was one of Frisner’s favorites, and he wore it often on stage. A basic black, it featured two welt pockets, a pointed front, and a closure that he never buttoned down—banking, of course, on the sex appeal of an open vest. Over time he had pinned the front panels with some dozen buttons in assorted sizes, shapes, and colors, bearing equally diverse messages: forgotten political races, a festival we’d once played in Central Park, and perky little sayings, like “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” On the evening of February 16, 2012, in a concert at the Institut Français Haïti in Port-au-Prince, he wore it over a white corporate logo t-shirt, but the shirt, too, was sleeveless, exposing a pair of sinewy biceps that glistened in the spotlight as he pounded the drum for Ogou, Vodou’s consummate warrior and his own spiritual master. The sheer power of this performance masked the poignant paradox that it would be his last…

drum_makingWe had arrived in Port-au-Prince on December 30, 2011, and planned to leave on February 28. Makandal drummer Morgan Zwerlein joined us mid-January. During those two months I looked for ways to re-connect Frisner with his hometown and country. By February we were making plans for 2013 with the Festival International de Jazz de Port-au-Prince and the École Nationale des Arts (ENARTS, National School of the Arts). We created a local children’s carnival that entertained the neighborhood the week of February 20. We had also acquired a fine set of drums—three Rada, two Petwo—and decorated them with vèvè for various spirits (see photo upper right). Throughout the trip we were posting a video series called Mesaj Ti Kelep (Ti Kelep’s Message). Each installment followed our activities in Haiti and conveyed a message for Frisner’s students and followers back in New York. I uploaded the fifth Mesaj on February 19.

soundcheckMesaj Ti Kelep 5 captured highlights from the concert at the Institut cited above. The Institut collaborated with ENARTS to produce a series of Thursday evening concerts featuring a wide variety of music styles. We had Stéphanie St. Louis of ENARTS and Nathalie Forsans of IFH to thank for scheduling Frisner. The ensemble included Morgan Zwerlein on second drum and Walther Mondésir on third, and our dear friend Alphonse Clénord—aka Djabolo—supported on vocals. They used all three Rada drums plus the largest Petwo from the newly finished set. We went to the Institut early in the day for a soundcheck and returned in the evening for the show. Television National d’Haïti (TNH) recorded the performance for broadcast on February 26, and I recorded it for the fifth Mesaj.

green_roomFrisner always drummed for the lwa (Vodou spirits). For thirty-two years I watched him confound the temple-stage dichotomy, a concept too foreign and too stingy for his bounteous spiritual space. This concert on February 16, 2012, was his finale. Did some part of his Vodou consciousness know it? In hindsight it seems he was already merging into his ancestral lwa as he danced his way through a program that presented six styles from the Vodou repertory. The video below excerpts three: Nago, Djouba-Abitan, and Voodoo Jazz (a composition of his own based on the zepòl style). Nago (the first three and a half minutes) bears special scrutiny. The style comes down from the Anago people, originally of Nigeria, who transplanted their warrior spirits in parts of Benin and Togo, then again in Haiti during the colonial period. Frisner exhibited Ogou in the Vodou houses of his youth, and served him with a passion throughout his sixty-three years. Watch and listen…


As noted above, each installment of the series conveyed a message. Some advised students on drumming issues, for example, “keep the part that you are playing steady with the bass and relax as the master drum dances around you.” Mesaj 5 offered simple but potent counsel on another level: “Express yourself.”

Makandal offers you this Tale from the Archive on the fifth anniversary of the maestro’s passing. To honor him further, you may join the konbit (work brigade) with a contribution to the Frisner Augustin Memorial Fund. Read about it and donate here. Many thanks!

Credits (from the top)

Featured image: Detail from a photo by Lois Wilcken of Frisner Augustin fixing a goatskin head to a Petwo drum, Port-au-Prince, February 5, 2012

Photo by Lois Wilcken: Frisner Augustin and Morgan Zwerlein secure a goatskin head to a Petwo drum. The drum shows a vèvè (ritual diagram) for the drum spirit Ountò. Port-au-Prince, February 5, 2012

Photo by Lois Wilcken: Frisner Augustin checks sound with his ensemble before a performance at the Institut Français Haïti. From the left, Walther Mondésir, Morgan Zwerlein, Frisner Augustin, and Alphonse Clénord (not visible), Port-au-Prince, February 16, 2012

Photo by Lois Wilcken: Musicians enjoy snacks in a library of the Institut Français Haïti before a performance held at the Institut in partnership the École Nationale des Arts (ENARTS). From the left, Alphonse Clénord, Morgan Zwerlein, Walther Mondésir, Frisner Augustin. Port-au-Prince, February 16, 2012

Video shot and edited by Lois Wilcken: Excerpts from a performance by Frisner Augustin and ensemble at the Institut Français Haïti, presented in partnership with the École Nationale des Arts (ENARTS). Excerpts include Nago, Djouba-Abitan, and Voodoo Jazz, in that order. From the left, Walther Mondésir (third drum), Morgan Zwerlein (second drum), Frisner Augustin (master drum), and Alphonse Clénord (vocals). Port-au-Prince, February 16, 2012

Story by Lois Wilcken

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