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.
Just about any creative person needs good working hands—the sculptor, the chef, the seamstress, the kora player, the puppeteer, the gardener—not least, the drummer. Too many on this side think of the drummer as simply beating a drumhead to produce danceable rhythm. Drummers know better than that. As Meki Nzewi, a drummer and musicologist from Igboland, says, “African [read Haitian] drum music is primarily conceived and expressed as drum song, not drum ‘strokes’.” And you once said, in speaking of the Vodou temples of your youth, “Any dance you passed by, you found three drums with the iron and a bass. Right? Which gave you the richest melody.” (1994, my translation, emphasis added)
You teased a wicked variety of tones out of the drumhead and produced the richest melodies. The drum was your piano, and you never hesitated to say it. Lucky for us, Jean Jean-Pierre left us a beautiful set of drum solos by you. He recorded the set for his Happy Birthday Haiti celebration in 2004, then passed it on to Makandal, who released it as The Intimate Touch album. The ten tracks are available to the public here. Every subtle nuance that your hands could conjure from fingertips on up lives in that recording: from thundering basses to muted slaps to ringing open tones to rippling flams to seductive siye to twinkling rimshots… Your palette expanded to vocabulary and then conversation. (Again, readers, album available here, free album notes here.)
The Intimate Touch is taking me on a journey as I write your biography, with your spirit looking over my shoulder. Yes, I know you’re there. The other side can be very close sometimes. I blow you a kiss, my beloved friend and companion, as we stand catty-cornered at the crossroads. Happy birthday, Frisner!
Featured image edited from photo by Chantal Regnault, Litchfield Mansion in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 14 June 1987
Photo by Chantal Regnault, Battery Park, Manhattan, 5 July 1986
Cover of The Intimate Touch album, photo by Chantal Regnault, Rutland Road, Brooklyn, 15 March 1987, design by Kesler Pierre