The Intimate Touch: From Frisner with Love

Dear Frisner,

How’s everything on the other side? I’m here to wish you a happy birthday. I know—because I was with you—that you crossed over to the other side on February 28, 2012, and that you rose from anba dlo (under the water) a year and a day later to take a place in the Hall of Ancestors. How powerful! You were born twice on March 1: the first time in 1948 in Port-au-Prince, and the second time in 2013 in Jacmel, the home of that spirit woman, your grandmother. But I’m not here just to wish you a happy birthday. I want to talk about your hands.

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Vodou Jazz in 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 our Frisner, up from one of the world’s most oppressed communities, would play here tonight.

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Winin’ and Grindin’ and a Lot of Gouyad

(This post revises a story from “Tales from the Archive,” a series on Posted on 9 September 2015, it captured a slice of West Indian Carnival on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 3 September 1990.)

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 at the same time (circa 1866) on Prospect Park, they hoped to connect the Park with green spaces on the eastern end of Crown Heights, an expanse topping the site of a glacial moraine from the last ice age. 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 without permit to 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 winin’? To which Makandal would add its Haitian gouyad

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Blue Djouba Alaso! or, Frisner’s Piano

Dear Frisner,

How’s everything? I’m calling to say “happy birthday.” Actually, it’s the time of year that marks your transitions in and out of terrestrial life (March 1, 1948, and February 28, 2012, respectively—both leap years), and on March 1, 2013, we called you up from under the water (wete nan dlo) to begin your life as a distinguished ancestor. I’m sorry to write that this year I couldn’t visit your family mausoleum in the Port-au-Prince cemetery and pour libations. Security is weak in the area, and we’ll have to content ourselves for now with rites around your govi. The clay jar, which I think of as my spirit telephone to you, lives securely in our Brooklyn flat, just beside me as I write. So let’s have a chat.

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One Year + One Day

If only I could turn the clock back to that moment seven years ago, do it all over again, and see a different outcome… But it was out of my hands. My laptop battery died as I worked in the early hours that February morning, and our Port-au-Prince neighborhood was in a blackout. The prime minister had resigned, and the capital grumbled because the president held a lavish Carnival in the South while placing a ban on street celebrations here. I closed the laptop and headed up the street to find Frisner, not knowing that the ancestors in Ginen had found him first and were calling him home. Yes, it was out of my hands.

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Frisner’s Souvenir

N ap fè yon souvni…Menm si m ta mouri, o, m ap kanpe…kasèt la toujou la…mizik ap toujou la…l ap travay pou demen.

We’re making a memory…Even if I die, oh, I’m rising up…the cassette lives on…the music lives on…it’s working for the future.

(Story adapted from a blog entry posted to, 26 August 2015)

New Year’s Eve 1987. 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. 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 as we approached the finish line for 1987—counting five years almost to the day with each other—it surprised me, and touched me to the bottom of my soul, when Frisner presented me with a holiday gift, the very best he had to offer: his music.

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