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.

I’ve shared stories and stories and stories about you, in public and in more intimate circles. It’s fun and therapeutic to open doors to the the smart you, the humorous you, the affectionate you, the unpredictable you. Like the time in Delmas when I saw a woman in white whom no one else saw. Do you remember what you said? You insisted she was a spirit, and then you were annoyed that I hadn’t asked her for some numbers. Or how about the time you surprised us with a daredevil fire dance in a West Indian ballroom in Flatbush? That’s right, you put out the fire with your hands, then used those hands to beat out a killer ibo. Or my first drum lesson with you, when you told me to relax and ride with the spirits. That’s the one that stole me out of Manhattan to embark on a forever journey with you.

I’ve shared stories and stories and stories about you, in public and in more intimate circles. It’s fun and therapeutic to open doors to the the smart you, the humorous you, the affectionate you, the unpredictable you. Like the time in Delmas when I saw a woman in white whom no one else saw. Do you remember what you said? You insisted she was a spirit, and then you were annoyed that I hadn’t asked her for some numbers. Or how about the time you surprised us with a daredevil fire dance in a West Indian ballroom in Flatbush? That’s right, you put out the fire with your hands, then used those hands to beat out a killer ibo. Or my first drum lesson with you, when you told me to relax and ride with the spirits. That’s the one that stole me out of Manhattan to embark on a forever journey with you.

I sometimes feel that the Frisner I’ve neglected in these stories is the most obvious: the musical you. While I’ve presented plenty of photos, sound recordings, and videos of your drumming, I’ve said rather little about the stories that your compositions tell and the dimensions of your style that make your music special. You had little to say as well, but you did capture the essence of your music in pithy adages, most in the form of advice for your students, like “Take your time.” Simple as that sounded, few could figure out exactly what you meant. A somewhat less cryptic saying captured your emphasis on tone: “The drum is a piano.” Yes, I knew you were talking about the drum’s capacity to play as many sounds as we find on the black-and-white keys, and I loved it. Do you remember the time I recorded you on video at Hunter College in an arrangement of djouba with a dash of kontredans? As always, you knew what I wanted, and you gave me more: a meditation on tone. You’d like to hear it again? Okay, here it is, “Blue Djouba Alaso.”

That was a trip, yes? Pulling off all of those extended fent—the patterns married to some of the most complex footwork in all of Vodou dance—without losing the foundation of djouba evokes jazz, with its far-reaching solos. Each fent (e.g., at 0:17, 1:44, 3:52, but ambiguous endings) explores the sonic territory in a unique reconfiguration of tone. Was I watching your hands? Of course! That’s why I fixed the camera on them. They rocked across the “keys” of the drumhead. Look at those fingers dance, particularly in the kontredans section (2:53 to 3:23) with its saucy siye (glide, portamento)!

All right, this will be the year we begin your biography, and a deeper story of your music. Maybe then I can sort out exactly where the fent end. Meanwhile, Ti Kelep, a happy, happy birthday, and infinitely more.

Love you always!
Lois

Brooklyn, New York, 29 February 2020

Featured Image: Photo by Chantal Regnault, detail. Lois Wilcken and Frisner Augustin pose for a photo at Clara Barton High School, Brooklyn, 3 November 1985. Archived here for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.

Image: Photo by Chantal Regnault. Lois Wilcken and Frisner Augustin at the Third Street Music School Settlement, Manhattan, 15 June 1983. Archived here for the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.

Video: Shot and edited by Lois Wilcken. Frisner Augustin solos on djouba and kontredans in Brecher Hall at Hunter College, September 2008. Featured on the Troupe Makandal channel on YouTube, to be archived on the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive.

Story by Lois Wilcken

Author: makandal1758

Makandal channels multiple media to educate and enlighten the public about Haiti, the Haitian diaspora, and all those touched by the rich legacy of Haiti. The company's activities include research, archiving, theatrical productions, and the promotion of artists.

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