Frisner Augustin at a Vodou dance in Brooklyn, 1980s
March 1, 1948
|Died||February 28, 2012
|Other names||Ti Kelèp|
|Known for||Haitian Vodou drumming|
Frisner Augustin (Haitian Creole pronunciation: [fɣisnɛ ogistɛ̃]; March 1, 1948 – February 28, 2012) was a major performer and composer of Haitian Vodou drumming, and the first and only citizen of Haiti to win a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, where he resided for forty years.
A youth prodigy on the traditional drums of Haitian Vodou in ritual context, Augustin took his genre to the modern stage, often exploring its common roots with various jazz styles. From his initial forays in Haiti with Lina Mathon Blanchet, Jacky Duroseau, and Jazz des Jeunes, he went on to work in the United States and Europe with Kip Hanrahan, Edy Brisseaux, and Andrew Cyrille. He also recorded for the late filmmaker Jonathan Demme.
Augustin led his own ensemble, La Troupe Makandal, from 1981 until his death. He used the group not only to make music but also to change popular misconceptions in the public mind regarding Vodou, a poorly understood but richly developed Afro-Haitian spiritual discipline.
Early life in Haiti
Frisner Augustin was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 1, 1948. His mother, a poor retailer named Andrea Laguerre, gave birth to Frisner, her first child, under a tree outside the city's General Hospital while waiting for a room that never became available. Andrea took her son to the dirt-floor shack that was their home in the capital's Portail Léogane district, specifically, a community called "behind the cemetery" because of its location along the west side of the major burial ground at the south end of the city. The child's father, a carpenter named Julien Augustin, left their home not long after the birth of his second child, a girl. Growing up without the presence of a father in the home, the boy decided it was up to him to support his mother and sister. Since the family had no means to put him in school, and since his passion was music, he began to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Catelus Laguerre, a drummer in the oral tradition, at the age of seven. He earned the nickname Ti Kelep (Tee Kay-lep), which means "Little Kelep", the second word referring to a pattern unique to the third drum of the Vodou ensemble. By the time Augustin had reached his early teens, the Vodou houses of his community had recognized his genius for drumming, and one house initiated him as its ountògi (oo-taw-gee; sacred drummer).
Julien Augustin returned to the family and placed his now adolescent son in a welding school at about the same time that André Germain, a director of Haiti's La Troupe Folklorique Nationale (National Dance Troupe), discovered him playing at a Vodou ceremony just outside Port-au-Prince. To his father's consternation, Augustin dropped out of the welding school when Germain introduced him to Lina Mathon Blanchet, a classical pianist who had organized Haiti Chante et Danse (Haiti Sings and Dances), one of the country's first companies performing folklore, a word used in Haiti to denote both traditional culture and a genre that represents traditional culture on the modern stage. Blanchet also taught piano and guided the career of Jacky Duroseau, who went on to develop a unique style of Vodou jazz. Augustin soon found work with a small jazz combo featuring Duroseau, with Haiti Chante et Danse, and later with the folklore companies of African-American dancer Lavinia Williams and Haitian dance professor and choreographer Viviane Gauthier. While continuing to play in Vodou temples and in a Mardi Gras band of his own creation, he entertained tourists in theaters and hotels, inside and outside Haiti.
In 1972, one year into the tenure of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Augustin accepted an engagement in New York with Jazz des Jeunes, the orchestra that accompanied La Troupe Folklorique Nationale. Like all other members of the company, he used the opportunity to emigrate from Haiti and settle in the burgeoning Haitian diaspora of New York City.
Life and work in the United States and abroad
Soon after his emigration to New York City in 1972, Augustin re-connected with childhood friend Oungan Emmanuel Cadet, who had established a Vodou society in the Bronx. In October 1973 Cadet performed a spiritual marriage between Augustin and Èzili Freda Dawomen, a Vodou spirit with roots in West Africa who represents romantic love. Such a marriage, according to Vodou practitioners, brings prosperity to the human partner in exchange for special devotion. Augustin would also go on to a real-life marriage with one of Cadet's initiates, who helped him secure his permanent residency in the United States in 1976. As he became Cadet's lead drummer, word of mouth helped him to find work in other Vodou societies taking root throughout New York City.
Dancers and choreographers who had played with companies in Port-au-Prince since the 1940s were leaving Haiti during the 1960s and '70s and re-forming in New York. Augustin found work drumming for Jean-Léon Destiné, Louinès Louinis, Troupe Shango of Arnold Elie, and the Ibo Dancers of Paulette St. Lot; however, throughout the 1970s, he aspired to leadership of his own group even though dancers typically led folklore companies. In 1981 La Troupe Makandal, a company established in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Upper Belair and named after the eighteenth-century revolutionary and messiah François Makandal, arrived in New York and sought Augustin out for help in establishing itself in the diaspora. He took the group under his wing and introduced it to the Haitian community in a Thanksgiving festival at Brooklyn College. The company immediately and thereafter distinguished itself for its raw authenticity and bold presentation of the sacred gesture. Together with his drumming student, musicologist Lois Wilcken, Augustin established the company as a not-for-profit organization incorporated in New York State.
Directing his own company gave Augustin the opportunity to develop a singularly powerful style of Vodou drumming and to train an ensemble in his own manner. He and the company soon attracted the attention of entrepreneurs, particularly with staged representations of Vodou rites that balanced the mystical with a mission to re-educate the public about Vodou and Haiti itself. Augustin carried this mission forward from the 1980s on, both in on YouTube and in on YouTube, on YouTube, and on YouTube. He took Makandal across the United States and abroad; venues included Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History, New York's Town Hall, the Festival International de Louisiane, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the 1995 Bouyon Rasin Festival in Port-au-Prince, Banlieues Bleues in France, and the Tokyo Summer Festival. Throughout his performing and teaching career, he continued to drum for Vodou houses both in and out of New York. In his own analysis, he placed greatest value on drumming directly for the spirits in a consecrated space.
Recognition arrived in 1998 when the cultural center City Lore inducted Augustin into its People's Hall of Fame. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, whose film Beloved included Makandal on its soundtrack, presented the award and dubbed Augustin "the Arnold Schwarzenegger of transcendental music". One year later the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarded him its National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the United States confers in folk and traditional arts. He was the first Haitian artist to earn this distinction. A Certificate of Achievement from the National Coalition for Haitian Rights followed on the heels of the NEA award; Tonèl Lakay, a children's troupe, gave him a plaque of honor; and in 2011 dancer/choreographer Peniel Guerrier paid tribute to Augustin with his annual Kriye Bòdè award. Augustin's company, La Troupe Makandal, has received awards from New York's Caribbean Cultural Center and from the Haitian Studies Association.
Through frequent visits back home during his residency in New York, Augustin maintained his ties not only to Haiti but also to the community in which he grew up. When the Haiti earthquake of 2010 destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, he and Dr. Wilcken raised funds and brought relief to on YouTube. In the next two years, his company organized a Haitian Carnival for on YouTube. During his visit in the winter of 2012, he made plans with the École Nationale des Arts (ENARTS) of Port-au-Prince for a drumming course beginning in the fall of 2012. ENARTS also presented him on YouTube at the Institut Français in Port-au-Prince as part of a collaborative series of the two organizations. Augustin met at that time with organizers of the annual International Jazz Festival of Port-au-Prince, and they were considering his participation in the Festival.
During the same 2012 visit to Haiti, on the night of February 23–24, Augustin suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and died in the Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince on February 28. He was buried in the Grand Cemetery in his on YouTube. The night before the funeral a local mambo conducted the traditional Vodou desounen, rites that formally separate the spirit of the dead from the body and send it beneath the cosmic waters. One year and one day later, as per tradition, a Vodou priest near Jacmel, a city in the south of Haiti and the source of Augustin's maternal line, reclaimed his soul and installed it in a place of honor. In June 2012 Makandal, together with Ayiti Fasafas, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and the Haiti Cultural Exchange, presented a memorial performance to Augustin in Brooklyn, New York. Other memorial projects in process include an annotated online archive (NEA 2013 Spring Grant Announcements, page 111) of his life and work, a biography, and ongoing performances and workshops that promote his style and aesthetic.
Frisner Augustin was married and divorced once. Seven children, five grandchildren, his father, and his sister survived him.
Frisner Augustin distinguished himself for his powerful, precise, and complex style of Vodou drumming and composition. Understanding his singularity calls for a brief discussion of the stylistic elements of the tradition. The following background supplements Haitian Vodou drumming.
Dozens of different styles of drumming have evolved from the repertories of the West African and Congo nations that came to Haiti through the Middle Passage, but they share certain organizational principles. Most utilize three drums, an iron idiophone, a rattle, and a frame drum, and all work with song and dance. A slow pulse, visible in the dance and audible in the drumming, marks measures or phrases. Drummers draw from a wide palette of tone to articulate points on and between the pulses; the strokes render a sense of off-beat phrasing, or the interplay of duple and triple time. The lead drummer, also called "master drummer" because he qualifies to play the manman tanbou (mother, or lead drum), may launch into a kase (kah-say; in English, break), a pattern that musically opposes the main pattern, for example, it sets up a counter-pulse or emphasizes a contrasting sonority. Apart from the kase, the drumming seemingly consists of repeated ensemble patterns, but a discerning ear will note that the cycles vary according to song phrasing and ritual action. In other words, each instrument draws from a considerable set of patterns available in each of the multiple styles, and further variation and invention arise from dialogues among the musicians and dancers. Haitian Vodou drumming is not formulaic, and a master drummer works on the same levels as arrangers and composers in other traditions.
Frisner Augustin's drumming style featured a refined balance of aesthetic cool and volatile energy. Critic Robert Palmer noted after a performance in Manhattan, "...Augustin embroidered explosive improvisations...over the ensemble's deftly layered rhythmic conversations while always keeping an eye on dancers and singers and guiding the ebb and flow of relaxation and intensity". Dancers recognized him for his intimate terpsichorean exchanges: "He lays luscious melodies like flowers at your feet, almost within reach, then yanks them away just as you are about to grab them". He exploited the full tonal/timbral palette of the drum and often insisted, "The drum is a piano". Equally accomplished in hand and stick technique (both used in Vodou drumming), he delivered crisp, clear articulations of open and closed mid-range tones, bass tones, portamento glides, rimshots, etc. When a student failed to render the strokes properly, he admonished him or her to "clean it." On the temporal side, Augustin broke new ground with his kase, which tested the limits of how far one can travel from the principal rhythmic framework without losing it: "More so than any traditional drummer, Augustin has the ability to drop out of the rhythm completely...riffing brilliantly in stunning jazz-like improvisations for carefully calculated intervals, then coming back in, skeletally at first, and finally resuming full melody".
Augustin made several recordings, some of which featured his compositions for La Troupe Makandal. The Troupe will publish a comprehensive annotated online archive of recorded documentation of his performances and workshops. The company projects late 2018 for the archive's official launch.
With La Troupe Makandal
- A Trip to Vodou. 1982. CD. La Troupe Makandal.
- The Drums of Vodou. 1992. CD. Produced by White Cliffs Media Company, distributed by Pathway Book Service.
- Èzili. 1986. CD. La Troupe Makandal.
- Prepare. 2004. CD. La Troupe Makandal.
- Ban'm Mizik, Vol. II. 1997. CD. Edy Brisseaux + Bazilik, with Frisner Augustin on selected tracks. Bazilik Productions.
- Beloved. 1998. Original motion picture soundtrack. Featuring Frisner Augustin and La Troupe Makandal on tracks 3 and 19. epic/Sony Music Soundtrax EK 69656.
- Conjure, Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed. 1984 and 1995. CD. Kip Hanrahan, with Frisner Augustin on tracks 2, 7, and 9. American Clave AMCL 1006.
- Desire Develops an Edge. 1983. CD. Kip Hanrahan, with Frisner Augustin on tracks 2, 11, and 14.
- New York City, Global Beat of the Boroughs. 2001. 2-CD set. Featuring Frisner Augustin and La Troupe Makandal on Disc II, track 9, “Rara Processional.” Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40493.
- Rhythms of Rapture, Sacred Musics of Haitian Vodou. 1995. Featuring Frisner Augustin and La Troupe Makandal on track 7, “Simbi Dlo.” Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40464.
- Route des Frères. 2011. CD. Featuring Andrew Cyrille and Haitian Fascination (Hamiet Bluiett, Alix Pascal, Lisle Atkinson, Andrew Cyrille, Frisner Augustin). TUM Records 027.
- "Frisner Augustin, Haitian Vodou Drummer, Dies at 63", The New York Times, March 10, 2012.
- Lois Wilcken, The Drums of Vodou (Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs Media Company, 1992), 12.
- James Ridgeway and Jean-Jean Pierre. 1998-99. "Haitian Drums Call from Port-au-Prince to Brooklyn". Natural History, Volume 107, Number 10 (December - January), p. 30.
- Transcript MAK_LW_INT.001_0001td_co_19820324.pdf (Lois Wilcken); interview with Frisner Augustin, March 24, 1982; Makandal Archive, Brooklyn, NY.
- Carol Amoruso, "Frisner Augustin, Vodou Ambassador: A Master Spell Caster Drums the Spirits In". RhythmMusic Magazine, Vol. V, No. 12 (December/January 1998), p. 20.
- Lois Wilcken, The Drums of Vodou (Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs Media Company, 1992), 111.
- Transcript MAK_LW_INT.007_0001sr_ma_19940815 (Lois Wilcken); interview with Frisner Augustin, August 15, 1994; Makandal Archive, Brooklyn, NY.
- Transcript 20110312 (Rebecca Dirksen); interview with Frisner Augustin, March 12, 2011; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Lavinia Williams Yarborough, Haiti-Dance (Frankfurt am Main: Brönners Druckerei, 1959), 3.
- Lois Wilcken, "Music Folklore among Haitians in New York: Staged Representations and the Negotiation of Identity" (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1991), p. 5.
- Lavinia Williams Yarborough, Haiti-Dance (Frankfurt am Main: Brönners Druckerei, 1959), 7.
- Unpublished document 19731021 (Gros Roche Beau Hougan, priest); certificate of Vodou marriage with Èzili Freda Dawomen, October 21, 1973; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 1983), 137-45.
- Leslie G. Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 131-45.
- Alfred Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, translated by Hugo Charteris (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), 212-15.
- Lois Wilcken, "Music Folklore among Haitians in New York: Staged Representations and the Negotiation of Identity" (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1991), pp. 177-95.
- Transcript MAK_LW_INT.013_0001td_ma_19860330 (Rafael Smith of WKCR-FM Radio); interview with Frisner Augustin, March 30, 1986; Makandal Archive, Brooklyn, NY.
- Lois Wilcken, "Music Folklore among Haitians in New York: Staged Representations and the Negotiation of Identity" (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1991), pp. 202-203.
- Lois Wilcken, "The Changing Hats of Haitian Staged Folklore in New York", Ray Allen and Lois Wilcken, eds., Island Sounds in the Global City, Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New York (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 175.
- Anonymous, "Ansy Derose à New York," La Nouvelle Haiti Tribune, 2/9 (June 2, 1982), p. 16.
- Robert Palmer, "Stage: Voodoo Rituals", New York Times, May 25, 1983, n.p.
- Susanna Sloat, "La Troupe Makandal—February 4, 1998", Attitude, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring/Summer 1998), pp. 32, 34.
- Unpublished document 19840207 (New York State Department of State); Certificate of Incorporation, February 7, 1984; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Unpublished document 20120228 (La Troupe Makandal); professional resume, through February 28, 2012; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- McLane, Daisann, "Dead Heads, Saturday Night Voodoo in Brooklyn", Village Voice, November 27, 1990, 63.
- Dr. Loïs Wilcken, "Frisner Augustin: 'Ountògi'", Voices from Haïti.
- Chrisena Coleman, "Awards for Guardians of New York City Spirit". Daily News, November 19, 1998, n.p.
- Award No. 19981119 (City Lore); People's Hall of Fame, November 19, 1998; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- La Troupe Makandal, performance of traditional Haitian Rara music on Beloved, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, epic/Sony Music Sountrax EK 69656, compact disc.
- Lawrence Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Footlights". New York Times, May 27, 1999, p. E1.
- Award No. 19990928 (National Endowment for the Arts); National Heritage Fellowship, September 28, 1999; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Award No. 19991105 (National Coalition for Haitian Rights); Certificate of Achievement, November 5, 1999; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Harold Jean-Gilles, "Tonèl Lakay honore le tambourineur Fritzner Augustin", Haïti Observateur, 8–15 March 2001, p. 21.
- Tequila Minsky, "History of Haiti thru Drums and Dance", Caribbean Life, June 8–14, 2011, p. 22.
- Award No. 20110521 (Peniel Guerrier and Kriye Bòde); Certificate of Appreciation, May 21, 2011; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Award No. 19891010 (Caribbean Cultural Center); The Annual African Diaspora in the Americas Award, October 10, 1989; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Award No. 20121110 (Haitian Studies Association); Award for Service, November 10, 2012; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Lois Wilcken, "Drummer, Give Me My Sound, Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Frisner Augustin", Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore (forthcoming).
- Philippe Dodard, email message to Lois Wilcken, February 5, 2012.
- Claudia Labissiere, email message to Lois Wilcken, December 29, 2011.
- Unpublished document 20120228 (Hopital Bernard Mevs); Certificat/Constat de Deces (Death Certificate), February 28, 2012; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen, The Living Gods of Haiti (Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 1983), 45-6.
- Video Recording (Paul Uhry Newman); Vodou reclamation of Frisner Augustin's soul, March 1–4, 2013; New City, NY.
- Video Recording 20120622 (Jeremy Robins); Rele Ountò, Remembering the Life and Legacy of Frisner Augustin memorial tribute, June 22, 2012; Makandal Archive Archived 2003-07-15 at the Wayback Machine., Brooklyn, NY.
- Gerdès Fleurant, Dancing Spirits, Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite (Westport, Connecticut ● London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 24-25.
- Claude Dauphin, Musique du vaudou, fonctions, structures et styles (Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada: Éditions Naaman, 1986), 31-52.
- Gerdès Fleurant, Dancing Spirits, Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite (Westport, Connecticut ● London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 24-33.
- Lois Wilcken, The Drums of Vodou (Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs Media Company, 1992), 92-108.
- "Vodou Music".
- Lois Wilcken, The Drums of Vodou (Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs Media Company, 1992), 54.
- Yuen-Ming David Yih, "Music and Dance of Haitian Vodou, Diversity and Unity in Regional Repertoires (Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan University, 1995), 145-50.
- Gerdès Fleurant, Dancing Spirits, Rhythms and Rituals of Haitian Vodun, the Rada Rite (Westport, Connecticut ● London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 66.
- Lois Wilcken, The Drums of Vodou (Tempe, AZ: White Cliffs Media Company, 1992), 109-112.
- Claude Dauphin, Musique du vaudou, fonctions, structures et styles (Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada: Éditions Naaman, 1986), 33.
- Yuen-Ming David Yih, "Music and Dance of Haitian Vodou, Diversity and Unity in Regional Repertoires (Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan University, 1995), 152-56.
- Carol Amoruso, "Frisner Augustin, Vodou Ambassador: A Master Spell Caster Drums the Spirits In." RhythmMusic Magazine, Vol. V, No. 12 (December/January 1998), 23.