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 makandal.org, 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.
He recorded it while I wasn’t home, using a sixty-minute audiocassette and my little gray Sony Walkman stereo recorder, the same one that disappeared from time to time in Haiti and always traveled back mysteriously, as if on the waves of a Vodou chant. He used one conga drum and played the entire thirty-five-and-a-half-minute set by hand, that is, no bagèt (sticks). Frisner always said that hand drumming is more relaxed than drumming with sticks, and his recording did sound relaxed, with scatting and other fun kinds of riffs. Seven tracks compose the set: (1) “Papa Danbala”; (2) “Sa Ki nan Kè Mwen”; (3) two songs in kongo style (“Krisyano” and “Larenn Di Wazo”); (4) “Bawon O” in petwo style; (5) four songs in ibo style (“Ibo Lele,” “Si M Te La,” “Ibo Gran Moun O,” and “Dessalines Soti nan Nò”); (6) the lullaby “Dodo Ti Pitit Manman” along with “Rat la Fò Yon Baptèm,” both in salsa style; and (7) “Pa Pale Pa Poze.”
Now it’s Makandal’s turn (and mine) to share the gift of Frisner’s—and Haiti’s—music. You may find the entire 35 minutes, 33 seconds of his digitized holiday recording here. It belongs to the Wilcken Collection of the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive. The Archive offers hundreds more such treats from an array of collections.
Frisner sings the prescient words that open this post in “Dessalines Soti nan Nò” (from 18 minutes, 10 seconds). The song belongs to the Ibo nation, known in present-day Nigeria as Igbo. During revolutionary times (eighteenth century) the Ibo carried a reputation for extreme resistance, going so far as to take their own lives to escape enslavement and foil the oppressors. This song has General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who would go on to become independent Haiti’s first head of state, coming out of the north bearing an Ibo charm in order to vanquish the enemy. A bouyant ibo beat inspires the breaking of bonds and drives the song. Note the playful tonal-rhythmic flourish beginning at 18 minutes, 52 seconds, and the measured transition into “Happy Birthday” (for himself) and a re-write of “Jingle Bells” that celebrates our work together (he on his drum and I in my writing). Did Frisner think of his cassette as an expression in music of Dessalines’s charm? One that would vanquish cultural inequity?
Welcome to the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive’s blog, a storybook that grows out of archival materials. Continue reading, listening, and viewing with the posts that follow this one. If you want to contribute either documents for the archive, a post, or a cash donation, please see our About page. Learn how to use our Metadata table and the Repository. To become a blog follower, click on the “Following” link at the top of the righthand sidebar. We look forward to your critical feedback, and your involvement in Frisner’s and Makandal’s cultural equity project.
Credits from the Top
Detail of photo by Chantal Regnault of Frisner Augustin against a spectrogram of an excerpt from Andrew Cyrille’s “Spirit Music” from his album Route de Frères. Mr. Augustin played conga on the album. Collage by Lois Wilcken.
Photo by Chantal Regnault of Frisner Augustin and Lois Wilcken behind the scenes at the auditorium of Clara Barton High School, Brooklyn, 3 November 1985, at a Gede festival organized by Arnold Elie of Troupe Shango
Photo by Chantal Regnault of Frisner Augustin during a holiday performance in the atrium at Citicorp Center, Manhattan, 16 November 1983
Story by Lois Wilcken