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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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

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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 and psychic 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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