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.

The thrill would be a refrain throughout the performance. Rock star David Byrne hosted the evening, and the show kicked off with the rolling rhythms and melodies of Milton Cardona’s Afro-Cuban group Eya Aranla. Makandal followed after the intermission. I felt goose bumps again when Frisner took possession of a nearly black stage, flashing imagery of Haiti’s struggles and victories: a t-shirt that flaunted white skull-and-bones, a whip to cleanse the stage, and a conch shell to announce a battle to the death. He took his place with the ensemble and blasted it out, a mix of straight drum and percussion music and Vodou-jazz, the latter unfurling with trumpet, sax, trombone, and bass guitar. Here’s one number for your enjoyment.

“Danbala Wedo, Se Bon, Se Bon”

The song refers to the Vodou* spirit Danbala Wedo, who represents the rainbow with his wife Ayida Wedo, also named in the song. Both carry primal energy and forecast fertility.

Danbala Wedo, se bon, se bon, Ayida Wedo, se bon, se bon
Lè m ap monte chwal mwen, gen moun k ap kriye
Danbala Wedo, it’s good, it’s good, Ayida Wedo, it’s good, it’s good
When I mount my horse [possess a medium], someone will cry

That last phrase is enigmatic. What do you think it means? Doesn’t the sweetness and poignance of the jazz ensemble capture the feeling?

The critics must have had goose bumps, too. Check it out:

“[Augustin] left the audience very happy indeed, on their feet and screaming for more. Serious drumming deepened by a low, rumbling electric bass and taken in another direction by a soaring horn section set off Augustin’s inspired, richly melodious voice and his atomic, bacchanal energy.”

Elena Oumano, The City Sun

“Damping his drum head with chin or hand or rubbing his thumbs along it, striking the drum’s head and wooden body with a hammer-headed stick, Augustin produced a staggering array of sounds, from bone-dry thwacks to liquid burblings, that earned him repeated ovations.”

Gene Santoro, New York Post

“Mr. Augustin’s show really took off when he and his drummers…muscled their way through a hard and propulsive groove that had the audience cheering.”

Peter Watrous, The New York Times

So there I was in the front row having the audience experience of a lifetime. Despite my euphoria, I did manage to catch a few photos, and I share one here.

Makandal at The Town Hall, 22 September 1989

Standing, from left: Paul Uhry Newman, unidentified musician, Tim Newman, Alberto Plummer, Tom Mitchell, and Chris Jefferson. Seated, from left: Jean Robert Morisseau, Jean Alphonse, Steve Deats, Frisner Augustin. Photo by Lois Wilcken

*Vodou is an Afro-Haitian spiritual practice, focused on serving ancestral spirits and the forces of nature in order to maintain personal and collective balance.

Story by Dr. 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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