Photo credit: Melvin Unger

By Reynald Althema

For audiophiles and history buffs, Frantz Casséus’s story blends historical perspectives, cultural innuendos, a life of neglect and posthumous tributes with a silver lining of positive contribution of friends at each stage.

Born in 1915 into a musical family, grandfather and aunt played classical saxophone and mandolin respectively. He became mesmerized by her playing, either solo or with his grandfather. Her sudden death at 15 and, “The sight of this mandolin on top of garbage and the memory of her music never stopped to haunt me.”  (Mathelier, M. Essai, 1995). He became very resourceful and built himself a rudimentary guitar on which he self-taught the mastery of this instrument barely 12 years of age. He also learned music theory by studying with neighborhood friends. A Haitian neighbor of German ancestry, Werner A. Jaegerhuber became impressed with his playing and gave him some scores of Bach, Beethoven and others.

His love affair with the guitar was on its way. After failing to get him a used one from a departing GI for then enormous sum of $5, his dad had to fork over $17 to a local Sears & Roebuck for a brand new one. He became inseparable from it but found it necessary later to build another, better one. Therein began his second, not so well-known career of a luthier. During his lifetime, he built close to 200 guitars as a means to supplement his meager income. In fact, the one guitar that he gave to Marc Mathelier is in permanent display at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) in its repository of historical/rare instruments. Marc made that gesture, he says, “to ensure its proper upkeep at an institution that showed an interest in the conservation of Casséus’s legacy.”

His talent soon became known when he started to mingle at the then exclusive Cercle Port-au-Princien at age 22. Although playing for the upper crust of society, he shared none of its historical disdain for our national culture. In Haïti-Journal in 1944, titled “Notre mérengue se meurt,” he made the point of lamenting the loss of this musical style, indigenous, but worthy of aristocratic lineage, part of systematic erosion of our cultural heritage. Nothing less than an epiphany since he had recently decided to forego simply playing the works of the masters but to also incorporate our national musical folklore. Arguably, incorporating mérengue into a classical repertoire is no different than the waltz.

During the 1940s, he gave several concerts in Port-au-Prince and toured Caracas. However, in 1946, he chose to leave the country and never went back. He came to NY hoping to forge ahead, write, compose and perform but faced headwinds: lack of fluency in English, an instrument lacking piano’s/violin’s pedigree in the very insular world of classical music at a time when the idea of a Negro giving a concert was still an alien concept. Just a few years before in 1939, Marian Anderson couldn’t get permission to perform at Constitution Hall!

Nonetheless his virtuosity was such that he was able to perform at Carnegie Hall and other venues but with limited success. His reputation was established among the cognoscenti and the likes of Andrés Segovia who befriended him, but he barely registered on the radar of the general public. Casséus did play with Belafonte for 2 years and his signature song Mèsi Bondye was recorded then.

He recorded 3 albums that are now part of the Smithsonian offerings and wrote several scores. In what amounts to perfect storm of clerical mishap (intentional?), his royalties’ payments were notoriously late or nonexistent. As such he resorted to baby-sitting, private guitar lessons and did a stint at the Mannes School of Music but never reached the position of a full-time faculty member. He lived a life of financial handicap but devoid of scandal.

Casséus’s lot benefited from the Ribot family’s friendship. The late Seymour Ribot, MD, a kidney specialist at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, NJ, confirmed to me years ago that Casséus, family friend and baby-sitter, was his son’s, Marc, guitar teacher. The Ribots’ relationship with Casséus practically spanned his whole life in the US. They had become part of his extended family, sharing Thanksgiving and Passover meals. They handled his funeral in 1993 and were involved in minutiae of his life. For example, he was once invited to perform in Montreal but because of a severe tendon ailment that didn’t improve with corrective surgery, Marc Ribot, now an accomplished guitar player did the performance as Casséus was not able to, although Casséus had made the trip for the purpose of doing the performance.

A long-time resident of W 87 St, almost amidst our enclave then, he had no contact with the community. Marc Mathelier, a world-class guitar player, took it upon himself to remedy the anomaly. He found Casséus after due diligence and began a mentor-mentee relationship with him. Casséus imparted some of his knowledge of the instrument to him and also allowed him into his inner sanctum. Mathelier in turn introduced him to the Haitian public and various artists and has since dedicated himself to “further the legacy of our legendary virtuoso on the guitar.” Mathelier described Casséus as being somewhat taciturn, disappointed of the lack of appreciation by his motherland for his contributions but never bitter and despite his threadbare existence, a proud man living with dignity. Briefly married but divorced, he remained single and had no children. At the time of his death at age 77 in 1993, he was survived by 2 brothers. Besides the unfortunate tendon impairment that stopped his playing ability cold, he had to contend with a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and later on he had heart failure.

The celebration of Casséus’s legacy reached fever pitch during the centenary of his birth. Both Marc Mathelier and Emeline Michel joined plaudits by teaming with Ribot. Frantz Casséus Young Guitarists Program as of January 2011, an initiative started by Marc Ribot and Haitiana Music Production at the St Trinity School of Music in Port-au-Prince and run by Caracoli, grants access to guitar learning to the destitute but talented youth. Frantz Casséus may not have known the spoils of stardom during his life but at least his legacy is assured as his music is recorded the world over and the elegance of his compositions will afford them the evergreens’ place in musicland.

Dr. Reynald Altema is a retired physician living in Florida

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