Tales from the Archive: Tangled Roots

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. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Remembering Jocelyne

Frisner popped the audiocassette into his car’s player, and the music started. “Le voix là, le voix les anges, le voix là, le voix les cieux, nous prions qui sous la terre, sous la terre comme dans les cieux, le voix là, le voix les anges.” That was Frisner himself singing lead in the opening phrases of Makandal’s first album, A Trip to Voodoo. Makandal had recorded in Queens on a frosty day in January 1982. Summer was now closing, and ayibobo! We finally had a copy, and A Trip would be released any day now. The track continued, now in Kreyòl. “Nou tout se zany o, zany anbarase mwen…” “We are all angels, oh, angels surround me…” As if on cue, at 2 min 4 sec, the voice of an angel flew in. But what an angel! Her sound carried a curious and original blend of nasal resonance and ringing solidity. “Who’s that?” I asked Frisner. “Jocelyne.” I scolded myself for noticing Jocelyne’s special talent only now, then sat back to indulge in more. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: My Diploma Is the Drum

In the summer of 1999 the cat was out of the bag that Frisner Augustin had won the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Frisner’s (and Haiti’s) coup inspired Jocelyn McCalla—most of us call him Johnny—to invite Frisner to his weekly TGIT. And what was TGIT? Every Thursday night during the summer the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR), which McCalla directed, held an evening gathering in its capacious Manhattan headquarters. TGIT (Thank Goodness It’s Thursday) celebrated the end of the week, albeit it a shade early. Those who attended enjoyed drinks and appetizers, banter ranging from light to challenging, the pleasure of company new and old, and a most splendid balcony view of Mr. Sun bedding down for the night over the Hudson River. Enter Frisner, diploma in hand… Continue reading

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Call the Drum Spirit Community Forum

Friday, June 24, 7 pm
The Great Room (2nd floor) of South Oxford Space
138 South Oxford Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn (map)

Makandal presents a community brase lide (brah-say lee-day, Haitian Kreyòl for brainstorming session) led by writers, scholars, cultural activists, and artists. What is the current state of documentation of Haitian Vodou drumming? Do you feel this cultural treasure merits more attention? Given Vodou’s status as a historically persecuted spiritual tradition, what, if any, are the limits of documentation? Who should be conducting it? Where and how? What is the role of the community? What is your role? Continue reading

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Call the Drum Spirit! Rele Ountò!

The Third Annual Frisner Augustin Memorial Drum Concert

Saturday, June 25, 8 PM
Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue at Third Avenue, Downtown Brooklyn (map)

Who’s Playing?
Bonga and Tiga
Makandal Drummers with Taïna Ligondé
Brother High Dreamteam Fulltempo

What’s Screening?
Video documentary on pioneering Haitian drummer Louis Celestin, by Zaka

TICKETS: Advance
$18 general  BUY
$15 students/seniors  BUY
Note: Advance sales end June 24

TICKETS: At the door
$20 general, $18 students/seniors
Age 12 and under FREE

Photo by Dawn Leikness: Bonga Jean-Baptiste, Haiti, 2009

Call the Drum Spirit Concert 2016 is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Featured image (visible within post) by Chantal Regnault: Frisner Augustin drumming in Battery Park, Manhattan, July 5, 1986.

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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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