Tales from the Archive: The Intimate Touch

From The Intimate Touch album notes:

“We can continue hearing pulses grouped in fours….Or, we can hear a shift from pulses grouped in fours to pulses grouped in threes: beginning on the second pulse of the third beat in measure 1 we hear four identical groups of three (bass-rim-rim, bass-rim-rim, bass-rim-rim, bass-rim-rim). The contrast between a heavy bass stroke and a feathery rim shot—on the pitch G4, the elusive G-spot, no doubt—reinforces the accent on every third pulse….

So which way did Frisner experience what he played? I can’t presume to know the answer, but I suspect he experienced both, and desired to use both as he plied his intimate touch in the privacy of his recording booth. After all, who knows what’s going to seduce a new listener?” Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Vodou in the Voodoo Theatre*

She was planning the program with good intentions. “Do it just like you do it at home,” Verna Gillis told Frisner as we met with her in the run-up to our first performance at Soundscape, her loft in the Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. Verna presented contemporary music from around the world, and Makandal would share the October schedule with such luminaries as Roswell Rudd, Yomo Toro, Daniel Ponce, and Sun Ra.

After we met with her, Frisner told the other Makandal artists that Verna expected a staged Vodou dance. “Oh,” someone said—thinking of a rather sordid performance genre in Haiti—”she wants tourist voodoo!” Well, not exactly, no wild-eyed possessions, no rolling chicken heads. But Verna was asking us to dance on a slippery threshold. Just like you do it at home…
Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: A Day for Frisner, a Day for Haitian Culture

“Because of the drum, that’s why I can be here today.

“I remember the time I struggled in Haiti. A lot of people used to talk bad about the culture, the roots. But today is going to be my day, with my culture.

“All the friends I have, they’re like my family. The candle. You don’t light the candle for nothing. You light the candle for something deeply. And you don’t put water on the ground for nothing. The time I used to light the candle and look at the miwa (mirror), a lot of people thought Augustin is crazy. Augustin is not crazy. The time I come to New York, 1972, I have one candle. I light one candle. But that candle, it was my family.”

Frisner Augustin, reflecting on his life journey just after winning the National Heritage Fellowship. From the soundtrack of video shot by Kesler Pierre, September 28, 1999, in the Main State Buiding of the United States Department of State. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: The Fire Tape

His hands gripped the steering wheel as he cut his eyes off the road to fix them on mine. “The tape.” I didn’t have to wonder what Frisner was talking about. In the summer of 1986 Makandal had been hard at work in rehearsal and then the studio to make its second music album, Erzili. Together with audio engineer Harry Leroy, we had finished both recording and mixing. Although it was customary to leave the master tape with the engineer, Frisner had insisted on taking home both the pre-mix (with tracks separated) and the final stereo mix. He stored them on a high—almost to the ceiling—shelf in the bedroom. I had just passed through that room before going out to find Frisner and break the disquieting news that half our apartment—including the bedroom—had gone up in flames while we were both away. I came home to the disaster first, and when it was safe, I toured the charred chaos. The pungent odor of smoke, and images of belongings scorched beyond recognition, filled my senses now as I struggled to remember. Yes, the tape. What had become of Erzili? Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Take Your Time

Frisner Augustin’s drum students knew his “Take your time” as a mantra, but few could articulate what he meant by it. Most assumed he was talking about tempo, or speed. For example, the tempo is sixty beats per minute, and you’re running ahead at sixty-five. He stops you. “Take your time.” You start again, this time measuring out the beats with longer gaps in between. But somewhere down the line, you’re lost, and you stop. He sighs and gazes at you with the boundless patience of a Buddha. “You have to take your time.” Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Drumming in Praise of Karen McCarthy Brown

So many things we think we understand! I, for example, have long told myself that the separation of the mind and the body—a notion basic to modern thought—is a lie. True knowledge springs from a marriage of mind and body. So I have thought, so I have written. But dancing with Karen Brown, an old friend and colleague, on the occasion of her retirement party in the spring of 2009 was teaching me that I had a way to go in understanding. She really knew. She danced like an angel now at her party, to the drumming of Frisner Augustin, whom she had specifically requested for the affair. “This is it,” she insisted. “This is what it’s really all about.” I felt the presence of a consciousness deeper than those of us at the party—who were not facing a fatal illness—could possibly know. In the liminal space between life and death, on the road to Ginen, Karen would go out dancing. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: The People’s Hall of Fame

Even silence reverberated off the walls of the auditorium as Frisner Augustin took his award. The New York Academy of Medicine, a 1926 Art Deco interpretation of the Romanesque on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile, could hold more than five hundred people in its auditorium, and City Lore’s event had the house fairly full. You would expect, in the middle of an awards ceremony honoring grassroots contributions to New York’s cultural life, the usual coughs, murmurs, and rustle of programs. Instead, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. I stood in the back of the hall holding my breath as he cradled the award—a broad and shiny bronze replica of New York City’s historic subway token. As he studied the token, Frisner, a street-wise veteran of a Port-au-Prince ghetto, wept. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Behind the Cemetery

M te rete nan dèyè simityè, nan Ri Flèry Batye. Ou konprann? M te rete nan mitan dèyè simityè a. M te rete nan mitan katye a.

I lived behind the cemetery, on Rue Fleury Bathier. You understand? I lived right in the middle of “behind the cemetery.” I lived in the heart of the community.

(Frisner Augustin in an interview with Lois Wilcken, August 15, 1994, Brooklyn)

Behind the cemetery… In the geography of a city, town, or village, it’s simply a position along the back border of a cemetery. But it’s tempting to imagine other strange and metaphysical meanings, like fourth-dimensional spacetime, limbo, or the veiled anba dlo (under the water) of Haitian Vodou. Indeed, the deep culture of the cemetery disperses beyond its walls, and when Frisner was a child, the cemetery didn’t even have walls. You were never really “behind.” Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: I Love You, Èzili!

She’s a coquette, a spirit woman reportedly of fair complexion, although she’s been known to inhabit every hue. When she leaves the luster and magic of Ginen to take possession of a human medium—to the heartbeat of drums, the sweet meander of melody, the seductive sway of dancing bodies—she fixes her wide and tender eyes only on the men. She’s vulnerable and prone to weep, but when you serve her with all your heart, she responds in kind with the nurturing power of love. Èzili… Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: The Spirits Ride the Boroughs

January 24, 1981. At last! I’ve gone to my first Voodoo [sic] ceremony….I met Frisner and Ken in the building Frisner used to live in in Manhattan….Ken had a pair of claves for me to use during the ceremony. I was to beat the bell pattern to any songs that I knew the bell part for. We got into Frisner’s car and drove up to the Bronx.

February 14, 1981. I went to two ceremonies tonight. The first was in a Brooklyn basement, and I went with Frisner and Bonnie. It was quiet, partly because they didn’t want drumming. Apparently they’d consulted a spirit about this….The second was actually in a Manhattan apartment! On West 98 Street….During one of the songs, a spirit came down—practically in my lap. I got a good whack across the bridge of my nose, and Frisner’s drumming was interrupted when the guy fell over on the drum. My tape recorder slid off my lap, but I quickly rescued it. No harm done. I have a nice tape now, and my nose doesn’t seem to be broken. Continue reading

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