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.
Looking at Haitian Vodou through a combined anthropological and artistic lens, Maya Deren noted an astute awareness of the body as the temporary home of universal forces. Death in Vodou is more than the mere cessation of the body’s workings. The spirit within needs to move on. To maintain the flow of cosmic energies, the Vodou priest must disentangle the elements of a servant’s spirit and dispatch them to their proper spheres. The desounen (literally, uprooting of the sound) accomplishes the task by separating the individual’s dominant divinity (mèt tèt, or master of the head) from his or her metaphysical double. The community performs rites that send this latter spirit anba dlo, (under the water), a metaphor for a spiritual spring. After a period of one year and one day, another set of rites calls the spirit back from anba dlo and provides her or him with a govi, a clay vessel that the spirit and the community may use to communicate. The spirit thus becomes an oracle, speaking from the ancestral home of Ginen.
On that morning of February 24, 2012, I found Frisner in a coma from a cerebral hemorrhage. He began his odyssey to Ginen (i.e., he left his physical body) in the wee hours of the 28th, and we held the desounen on the night of March 2. I returned to New York, then traveled to Haiti again to complete the rites. For reasons too complex to detail here, Frisner came up from anba dlo in Jacmel in the Southeast—the home of his mother’s Vodou clan—and his govi now lives in Brooklyn, where he spent most of his life.
Having come up without the benefit of a formal education, Frisner Augustin could not have detailed the Vodou rites of death as did the authors in the bibliography below. But he experienced and practiced a profound belief in the spirits, including his own. (Ogou was his mèt tèt.) Whenever he visited Haiti, he visited the mausoleum he had built when his grandmother died. He sponsored many libera, a cemetery ritual that includes libations at monuments to the guardian spirits, and the distribution of food and drink to the poor. The video above captures his family libera in January 1994.
The video below is the work of Makandal’s artist Kesler Pierre. Mr. Pierre created the video for Rele Ountò (Call the Drum Spirit), a drumming concert that Makandal presents in memory of Frisner. You may find the music on the second track of the album Prepare (available in the Makandal Boutique). Listen for Frisner’s interjection at 3 min, 5 sec into the track: “Lè m mouri, y a wè longè m, ountògi sa.” In English, “When I die, they’ll understand this drummer’s power.” A fitting tribute to the immortality of the spirit…
Bibliography: Vodou Rites of Death
Beauvoir, Max G., 2004. Lapriyè Ginen. Coconut Creek, FL: Educa Vision Inc., xxvii–xxx.
Deren, Maya, 1983. Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti. Originally published London, New York: Thames & Hudson, c. 1953. Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 41-53.
Desmangles, Leslie G., 1992. The Faces of the Gods, Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 68-77.
Maximilien, Louis, 1985. Le Vodou Haitien, Rite Radas—Canzo. Reprint of 1945 edition. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 171-181.
Featured Image: Detail from photo by Chantal Regnault. Frisner Augustin poses before the Vodou altar of Mano Cadet, Bronx, 11 November 1984. See archived image with annotation here.
Photo 1: Photo by Chantal Regnault. Frisner Augustin pouring libations on his family mausoleum, Grand Cemetery, Port-au-Prince, May 1998. See archived image with annotation here.
Photo 2: Photo by Lois Wilcken of vèvè (ritual diagram) for Gede, spirit of the dead, traced on the earth floor of a Vodou space in cornflour and coffee by Manbo (female priest) Fancilia Chery, Port-au-Prince, November 1987.
Video 1: Recording by Lois Wilcken of Frisner Augustin and family performing a libera (libations and offering for the dead), Grand Cemetery, Port-au-Prince, 7 January 1994. See archived video with annotation here.
Image: Vèvè (sacred diagram for Ountò, the drum spirit
Video 2: Video collage by Kesler Pierre publicizing Makandal’s Rele Ountò concert.
Story by Lois Wilcken