Frisner Augustin, Haitian Vodou Drummer, Dies at 63
By JON PARELES
Frisner Augustin, a Haitian vodou master drummer whose deep knowledge of traditional rhythms and leadership of the Brooklyn-based Troupe Makandal made him a major force in preserving and popularizing his Afro-Haitian heritage, died on Feb. 28 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was 63.
The cause was a brain hemorrhage, said La Troupe Makandal’s executive director, Lois Wilcken.
Mr. Augustin had an encyclopedic knowledge of the rhythms of vodou (the word is the Haitian Creole spelling of voodoo), in which more than 100 spirits are represented and summoned, each by a distinctive rhythm.
Leading La Troupe Makandal, a drum and dance group, and performing in both vodou ceremonies and secular events, Mr. Augustin devoted his career both to preserving those rhythms and to battling negative stereotypes and misconceptions about vodou. His personal style was meticulous not only about rhythm but also about the melodies made by drum tones. “He would say the drum is like a piano,” Ms. Wilcken said.
In 1999, the National Endowment for the Arts named Mr. Augustin a Heritage Fellow, the nation’s highest award for traditional artists.
Mr. Augustin was born in Port-au-Prince on March 1, 1948, to a poor family. He began drumming as a child on water buckets and whatever else came to hand. An uncle was a drummer, and after watching and listening to him, Mr. Augustin began playing with drum groups while he attended a trade school for welding. He was illiterate throughout his life, but by the time he was 10 or 11, he had learned parts for the various drums in vodou ensembles and had already begun to play the maman, the lead drum, despite his youth. “They had to put me in the chair and put a rope around the chair to hold me and the drum up,” he once recalled.
In 1961, he left welding behind to become a full-time musician. He was initiated as a ountògi, a sacred drummer, during his teens in Haiti, and as an oungan sou pwen, on the threshold of vodou priesthood, in 1984 in the Bronx.
Mr. Augustin immigrated to New York City in 1972 and worked with various groups as a drummer; he also began his lifelong second career as a drumming teacher. In 1981 he took over as artistic director of La Troupe Makandal, a Haitian ensemble named after a Haitian revolutionary and mystic, when it relocated from Port-au-Prince to New York.
La Troupe Makandal has performed for both Haitian and world-music audiences. When it brought abridged vodou ceremonies to public stages, the rhythms were so traditional and intense that unplanned spiritual possessions sometimes took place in secular spaces. The troupe also performs choreographed programs devoted to Haitian history and culture. It has made four albums of traditional Afro-Haitian music: “A Trip to Vodou,” “Èzili,” “The Drums of Vodou” and “Prepare.”
In 1983, Mr. Augustin began teaching the Haitian Drum Workshop at Hunter College, with instruction not only in vodou but also in other Haitian traditions. He also taught drumming at regular workshops in Brooklyn neighborhoods and worked with a Haitian-American children’s dance company, Tonel Lakay.
When the Rolling Stones began their Voodoo Lounge stadium tour in Washington in 1994, Mr. Augustin was a member of the vodou drum group that opened the concert. He also worked on the soundtrack of the Jonathan Demme film “Beloved,” and appears on albums by the genre-defying composer Kip Hanrahan and on a 2011 album, “Route de Frères,” by the Haitian-American jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille. In 1998, when the New York folklore group City Lore inducted Mr. Augustin into its People’s Hall of Fame, Mr. Demme called him “the Arnold Schwarzenegger of transcendental drumming.”
A year later, Mr. Augustin received the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship. “He wanted his drums to both call the spirits and to speak to a broad public,” said a statement by Rocco Landesman, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mr. Augustin, who was married and divorced once, is survived by seven children — Garry Augustin, Gregory Augustin, Dominique Augustin Rosa, Johnny Augustin, Nicolas Breland, Niguel Breland and Courtney Mathurin — and five grandchildren. La Troupe Makandal will continue to perform, with a lineup including longtime students of Mr. Augustin.
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Obituaries, of Saturday, March 10, 2012.