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

Posted in Tales from the Archive, Vodou | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tales from the Archive: One Haitian Worm

Any other time, the rain twinkling like Christmas lights across the windshield would have enchanted me. Now, as we rode uptown toward Manhattan’s Columbia University, the image warned of trouble. Ten of us had crammed into Frisner’s green mini-van for a gig at the University. Numbering fifteen in all, we needed another vehicle, so drummer and flutist Luc Richard offered to take four others in his car. I had given Frisner a copy of the program, which named the venue—the International Affairs Building (IAB)—and I assumed he’d passed the information on to Richard. Never assume! I just learned that Richard’s only instruction was to follow us. All he knew about the venue was “Columbia University.” I thought about the Morningside Campus, whose four-dozen or so buildings occupy more than six city blocks, and I thought about the blur of the streetscape seen through wet glass. What if Richard loses us? The mobile phone was science fiction in 1983. If only we could stop the rain. If only we had that one Haitian worm! Continue reading

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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? Continue reading

Posted in Tales from the Archive | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment