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

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Tales from the Archive: The Spirit Rises in the Bronx

The subway ride to the Bronx felt endless. I usually rode to the house in Morris Heights with Frisner, but his van had gone ahead of me four days earlier. Since then it was marking time and waiting for its owner outside Kay Mano: the home of Mano Cadet. A small chamber within the bosom of the house now held Frisner in seclusion, leaving me to ponder the mysteries of Vodou from the outside. Now, I passed the time on the number 4 train chatting with photographer Chantal Regnault about the coming-out party we were about to document. For some reckless reason, I had placed a tote bag on the floor at my feet. The subway doors opened a few stops before ours; the man sitting across from me seized his opportunity. Out he went with my tote, just a microsecond before the doors closed. Bummer! But the good news was that my little audio recorder was not in that bag. I could still capture the exuberant sounds of Frisner’s initiation party. Did anything else matter? Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: How to Mix Business with Pleasure

It seemed that Frisner and Makandal never got the distinction between work and play. Didn’t they know that in our modern era of discrete dichotomies (opposites that don’t mix), the distinction rules? We have a time to work and a time to play, and “Don’t mix business with pleasure” could be one of our most common platitudes. The message, apparently, has not reached everyone, or perhaps some have too much whimsy in their veins to absorb it—like musicians. They play music. They also happen to be at work while they’re playing. They get paid to play. Some even belong to a labor union so that they can play for fair wages. Nobody in Makandal belonged to a union, but we worked hard to play, or did we play hard to work? Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Whining, Grinding, and a Lot of Gouyad

West Indian Carnival was probably the farthest thing from the minds of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux when they designed the world’s first parkway: Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. At work on Prospect Park at the same time (circa 1866), they hoped to connect the Park with other green spaces in the borough. The West Indian Day Parade (established in Manhattan’s Harlem in 1947 by Trinidadians who settled there) relocated to the Crown Heights stretch of Eastern Parkway in 1969. In 1990 Trinidadians still managed the parade, but it was open to just about anyone who wanted to jump into the melee. Really! What would Olmstead and Vaux have thought of connecting those green spaces with singing steel pans, a kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies and Indians, and unabashed soca whining? To which Makandal would add its Haitian gouyadContinue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Fire Dancing in the Ballroom

Sometimes the line between the lurid and the divine is not so apparent. So I didn’t know how to react when Frisner told me we were doing a “voodoo” midnight show at a West Indian ballroom in Flatbush, that the presenter wanted something sensational, and that he, Frisner, was eager to take the gig. Makandal, named after one of Haiti’s most feared revolutionaries—an infamous magician who triumphed over death at the stake—had first made its mark in New York with such specialties as eating broken glass and dancing with fire. But by the late summer of 1990 most of the dancers who arrived with Makandal in 1981 had left the group, and we hadn’t replaced them with magicians. We cultivated a more polished image now. Or did we? Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Frisner’s Souvenir

We weren’t the kind of people who stressed over holiday gifts. Frisner had come up out of a struggling community—he literally slept on a dirt floor as a child. I had developed an aversion to the annual shopping mania, and, as a graduate student, my means were limited anyway. As we approached the finish line for 1987, I counted five years almost to the day with the maestro, and we celebrated only joudlan (New Year’s Day, also Haiti’s Independence Day). We did it the traditional Haitian way, with a ben chans (herbal luck bath) on New Year’s Eve and a nice, steaming kettle of soup joumou (squash soup) in the morning. So it surprised me, and touched the bottom of my soul, when Frisner presented me with a holiday gift, the very best he had to offer: his music. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Vodou in Church

We finally got a gig with World Music Institute! Founded in 1985, WMI, in 1986, was already on its way to becoming one of the world’s leading presenters of contemporary music and dance from around the world. I had spoken with director Robert Browning about engaging Makandal months ago when WMI was in its embryonic stage, but sound level issues at an interim venue were preventing him from hiring musicians from African and African diaspora traditions—who just don’t know how to keep it down! Now, having established WMI as a non-profit, and having secured funding, Browning was using Washington Square Church in Greenwich Village as a venue. So, on February 14, 1986, Troupe Makandal was rocking every arch, tower, and cavernous hallway of the Romanesque Revival building with its Afro-Haitian vibes. Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: Telling the Roots

How did it all start? With a wish, a worry, a dream, maybe a phrase of music? Yes, yes, yes, yes…

An interview I set up more than thirty years ago gets it in a nutshell. I say “set up” because I made the appointment, I told Frisner what the gist of it would be—his life in Haiti before coming to New York nearly ten years ago—and I brought a set of questions; but he really conducted the interview. After the first question, he took over, having spent the last few days reflecting on what he wanted the world to know about his struggle to become a drummer. I took the 3 subway to East 96th Street in East Flatbush on the evening of March 24, 1982, descended the tumbledown stairway to his basement digs, sat down with him, turned on the cassette tape recorder, and posed the first question. Hours later, I knew I was going home with a gem. But then, while I was away in Haiti during the summer of 1984, the cassette vanished!
Continue reading

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Tales from the Archive: The Spirits Rock The Town Hall

I had never been inside The Town Hall before, not until today, September 22, 1989. I was impressed by its monumental aura. Maybe not as grand and elegant as Carnegie Hall, but arguably more noble in purpose than all the world’s highbrow houses put together. The League for Political Education, a suffragette group, created The Town Hall in 1921 as a space to educate the people. Its architecture—no box seats, no obstructed views—displayed democratic values. As I crossed the balcony listening to Makandal’s soundcheck from a variety of sonic perspectives, I felt both proud and humbled that my Frisner, up from one of the world’s most oppressed communities, would play here tonight. Continue reading

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Chante! Sing!

But wait a minute! Who said I can’t sing? I think I did. How did the child of two musicians, one a pianist, the other a singer—yes, a singer—become so timid with her voice? Is it reversible? Well, I will never be a Nina Simone or a Toto Bissainthe, and that’s okay. But I can probably take some lessons from those incredible people who make up the Vodou chorus, the sèvitè (servants of the spirits) who belt it out in a perfect cacophony of sweetness and soul, and hitting the wrong notes is not a problem. Continue reading

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