Ountògi ba mwen son mwen e
Tanbouyè ba mwen son mwen e
Ountògi ba mwen son mwen
Sacred drummer, give me my tune, oh
Drummer, give me my tune
Sacred drummer, give me my tune, oh
The sun rises
I write in praise of Ountò, at the same time one of the least noted and most vital of the lwa (spirits) of Haitian Vodou. Few of the classics on Vodou explicate this potent lwa, who lives inside the drum and animates the drummer. Most of these books will repeat the cliché that the Vodou dans (the nightlong temple ritual) opens with salutations to Legba, the gatekeeper. Not quite true. Ountò comes first, because nothing can draw breath without this cosmic heartbeat. And so I write in praise of Ountò. I write, too, in praise of the ountògi, the initiate who serves the lwa with his drum. And I write in praise of my own ountògi, my companion of thirty-two years, the great Master Drummer Frisner Augustin, who left us on February 28, 2012.
He knew what it was to stave off hunger through the night with a little bit of salt sprinkled in water. Born on March 1, 1948, in Port-au-Prince to vendor Andrea Laguerre and carpenter Julien Augustin, he watched his mother struggle on her own with poverty. Julien was absent until Frisner reached his teens, at which point a passion for the drum had consumed the child. He learned the craft in his neighborhood’s half dozen or so Vodou temples, the only schools he ever really attended. At the same time, his uncle was traveling with two of Haiti’s premier troupes and coming home with rent money, and the boy saw this as a way to help his mother. When Julien returned to the family, he placed his son in a welding school. It was too late. Frisner quit the welding school the day his first gig with a folklore company materialized.
He was a young man when the prominent Vodou-jazz band Jazz des Jeunes engaged him for a stint inNew York. Like all the other members of the band, he decided to stay. Over the next forty years (1972-2012), he established himself in theUnited Statesas a path-breaking master drummer, a teacher, and an electrifying performer. In particular, he assumed artistic direction of La Troupe Makandal in 1981. The cultural center City Lore recognized the significance of his contributions in 1998 when it inducted him into its People’s Hall of Fame. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme presented the award and dubbed him “the Arnold Schwarzenegger of transcendental drumming.” Frisner wept on the occasion as he measured the distance he had come and recalled his mother’s tears. He wept again the following year when the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him its National Heritage Fellowship, theUnited States’ most distinguished recognition of folk and traditional artists. His other awards included the National Coalition for Haitian Rights’ Certificate of Achievement, an honorary plaque from the children’s troupe Tonèl Lakay, and dancer Peniel Guerrier’s Kriye Bòde award.
Frisner Augustin’s knowledge of the Vodou drum and song repertory rivaled the mountains of Haitiin its sweep. Over the years he became a repository for drumming styles rarely heard in today’s performances. He distinguished himself as well for his fastidious attention to tone, an element of drumming often neglected in favor of the temporal (rhythmic). He was fond of saying, “The drum is a piano.” Dancers, both in the temple and on stage, loved him for his careful modeling of the drum phrase to the dancing body. He played with (as opposed to for) everyone—the priest, the ounsi (initiates), the audience, the dancers and singers, his fellow drummers in Makandal, and best of all, the lwa. He was famous for telling his students, “Take your time,” which meant, “Relax.” His own easy flow masterfully unfolded in equal balance with a bombastic energy that none who heard him, or played or danced with him will ever forget.
In his final analysis, he lived for traditional music in traditional context.
Lè pa egzanmp m bat tanbou nan bann rara, m bat tanbou anba peristil, m bat tanbou sou sèn nan, de bagay ki pi bon pou mwen se peristil la avèk rara avèk madi gra. Yo pi bon pou mwen paske se yo menm ki “mean” rasin nan. (Interview with the author, September 28, 2003)
When, for example, I drum in the rara band, I drum beneath the peristyle, I drum on the stage, two things more important to me [than the stage] are the peristyle, and the rara and Mardi Gras. They’re better for me because they signify the roots. (Author’s translation)
Frisner Augustin was a dedicated ambassador of Haiti’s roots culture, yet above all the ountògi. Recognizing him as such, his Vodou community in Haiti sent him off on March 3 of this year in the traditional desounen (separation of the soul from the head of the deceased). After one year and a day, they will guide him back from anba dlo (under the waters) and install him in his proper place of honor among the ancestors. From that celebrated place he will continue to inspire others and thus share his boundless love for his country and his culture. Ountògi ba mwen son mwen. Solèy leve!
Recordings featuring Master Drummer Frisner Augustin
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 La Troupe Makandal.
Èzili. 1986. CD. La Troupe Makandal.
Prepare. 2004. CD. La Troupe Makandal.
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 Freres. 2011. CD. Featuring Andrew Cyrille and Haitian Fascination (Hamiet Bluiett, Alix Pascal, Lisle Atkinson, Andrew Cyrille, Frisner Augustin). TUM Records 027.
All recordings with the exception of Beloved, Conjure, and Desire Develops an Edge are available for purchase at http://www.makandal.org/boutique.html