Donald Harrison Talks to Ned Sublette
Being a Mardi Gras Indian is not something you do casually – it’s a major commitment. On Mardi Gras Day 2005, I witnessed an encounter between two fully suited Mardi Gras Indian tribes: Big Chief Donald Harrison of Congo Nation met Big Chief Alfred Doucette of Flaming Arrows in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum (see photos here). Later, I asked Donald Harrison to talk to me about it. One of the most important figures of the hyperactive New Orleans music scene, he graciously took some time out from his busy schedule to sit down with me at Tipitina’s studio, where he directs an educational program for young musicians.
NS: Where in New Orleans are you from?
DH: I remember growing up on Orleans Street as a young person, then moving to the Ninth Ward when I was about 6 years old, upper Ninth Ward. Until I left for college.
NS: I remember you being in New York.
DH: Yeah, I moved to New York in 1982, and basically stayed in New York until maybe 2001. I was a New Yorker.
NS: What made you move back here?
DH: I don’t know, I just decided. My wife and I still have a place in New York. But I just decided to stay in New Orleans more than in New York. I could just go wherever I feel like going at this point so, right now I feel like staying in New Orleans more. Maybe in a week I’ll feel like staying in New York. I’ll go to New York and I’ll say oh, I’m going to stay for a couple of months. Its just like that; it’s not a conscious decision, it’s whatever I feel.
NS: I want to talk about your experience as a Mardi Gras Indian and your background in the culture. Could you tell me a little bit about your father?
DH: My father [Donald Harrison, Sr.] was — is — considered by many to be a legendary figure because he was the Big Chief of four different tribes. He’s one of the leading exponents from someone inside of the culture, who could interpret it from that perspective and also intellectualize what was happening with the Mardi Gras Indians. Simultaneously, he wanted to keep the roots of the culture and the things that were important alive, while bringing new elements to it.
NS: Did you mask as an Indian when you were small?
DH: Yeah, the first time I did it was when I was two years old. So I guess I’ve been doing it all my life in some facet.
NS: Were you trained to do this or did you just absorb it?
DH: Both trained and you absorb it. I can’t imagine life without it. Because it’s just natural for me, like many things in my household. You know my parents made sure that we understood a lot, just in terms of music. I could listen to Bach, to the UNESCO series of African chants, to Etta James, to Charlie Parker, to James Brown and Willie Nelson, the blues — just any kind of music that you can imagine. We always went to see musicals and plays. My parents were well-versed in a lot of areas. They just exposed us to as much as possible.
NS: Your father was not a professional musician…
DH: I would consider him a folk artist. He could have become a professional musician. He was a great blues singer, which many people don’t know. I was hoping that I would get a chance to record him in the blues context, but it never happened, unfortunately. He would have been a great blues singer had he made some of those records when he was young, you know. I think he would have probably been one of the most influential blues singers but he, he also knew about the culture, obviously of the Mardi Gras Indians, and how to sing those songs, and he knew all the old lyrics and what they meant.
NS: How did the culture come to him? You must have heard the stories of how he got it.
DH: When you join the tribe — I guess, I’m not sure — they choose the people who they consider to be the next generation of leaders and they groom ’em. So he was groomed by the great chiefs of his era to be a Big Chief.
NS: You mentioned your father was Big Chief of four tribes, what were they?
DH: My mother knows all of them. But I know he was Creole Wild West and the White Eagles and also the Guardians of the Flame. It may be five tribes if I’m not mistaken. It’s four or five tribes though. That’s the three I can remember the names of.
NS: Now one of the things that to me is interesting is the fact that you’re the only Big Chief I know who’s a trained professional musician. I mean, there are good musicians, good singers, but you’re the only person I know with conservatory kind of skills. Am I right about that?
DH: Yeah, I’m probably the only true be-bopper — a person who could write classical music and play jazz and write, play any kind of music — who came out of this culture. I guess you could say that I was a Mardi Gras Indian first and then I became a musician, but I love both just as much and for me right now, each hand washes the other.
NS: The music of the Mardi Gras Indians is so fascinating, and in a sense, so hard to pin down. I’m curious to find out what insights you might have developed about it through your years of living with it and playing it. How do you see this music as interacting with your musical skills?
DH: When I was a younger person, I thought of playing jazz as one part of my life and then the music of the Mardi Gras Indians as another part. And I came home, I guess in my late twenties, to participate with my father on Mardi Gras day as a Mardi Gras Indian. I was listening to the drums, and all of a sudden I heard like a merging of what I was doing in New York with the jazz music and the Mardi Gras Indian music. So that has led me to so many revelations in music — the fact that I was in two different things and I heard them mix together, so that that has helped me to be able to find new songs in a natural way. I didn’t plan it. Things happen for a reason, I guess.
NS: Are you a drummer?
DH: Yeah, well, that’s an interesting point too, because they used to hold what they called “practices” at my house when I was a baby, and my mother says I would beat on the crib ad infinitum and it was because I was listening to all of these drums from the Mardi Gras Indians, tambourines and drums and so on. I should have been a drummer, I do have facility on the drums, and I have made gigs on the drums, but I’m really a saxophonist now, but I can play drums. A lot of musicians say that I play from a drummer’s perspective, because I play so many rhythms on the saxophone.
NS: One the interesting things to me about the music of the Mardi Gras Indians is that it can fit into so many different musical styles so naturally. You can do it as ’50s r & b, you can do it as ’70s funk, and you can do it as hip-hop, as you’ve more recently demonstrated. What do you think that music is at its essence?
DH: Well, you know, for me there’s a lot of African-derived rhythms in a lot of music in America and the Mardi Gras Indians have their roots in African rhythm. So any music that has that same drive to it, it’s a natural fit. You can put it in hip-hop, r & b, soul music — you put those rhythms underneath it, they all merge well.
NS: But there’s African rhythm and there’s African rhythm. And they don’t all just magically fit together. I mean, sometimes you can hear people from one tradition and another getting together and it’s like oil and water. Now as I understand it, traditionally the music of the Indians is voices and tambourines. Am I correct?
DH: Well, there’s been a lot of discussion about that. No one really knows how the Mardi Gras Indians started. But the only thing that we do know about New Orleans culture — that I know — is that in Congo Square the practices were held on Sunday, and they were called practices. We also know that the people gathered by their tribes and they would practice and then they would challenge each other, to see who was the best. If you were Yoruba or Efik, you would challenge each other by tribes to see who was the best. And when they met each other it was called being in the circle. And you know that the Mardi Gras Indians still have practices on Sundays, and we know that when the Indians meet each other, that’s in the circle, and we know that they still challenge each other to see who’s the best. So those are elements that are still alive and for me, you know I have friends that are from Africa and it’s an immediate connection when they hear the music I do.
For me, it’s about either you can do it or you can’t, you know what I’m saying? Can you come inside of this? I give respect to a person who has all the elements. Like Michael Jordan, say, who’s gonna be good at something? The guy who doesn’t take shortcuts. So I just look at people and I say, oh yeah, he can sing, he can dance, he can sew, he can make a suit, he knows. He knows what he’s doing. Because when you come from the outside to figure it out, you really can’t get it. Everything comes from the inside out. That’s what it’s about. And you really mess things up when you try to figure it out from the outside in, because you put your spin on it and it’s not for you to put your spin on it and try to figure it out. Because all the books I read on, like, Charlie Parker? Art Blakey told me that’s wrong, that’s not how he did it. You know what I’m saying? You gotta learn from the inside. That’s how it stays alive. I couldn’t be a Mardi Gras Indian if I read a book to do it, you know what I’m saying? It comes from the soul. Books are cool to say you know that something is going on there, but don’t learn from a book, learn from doing it. You can’t be a doctor unless you actually go and cut somebody open, you know what I’m saying? You gotta! That’s why they have cadavers.
NS: Let me ask you about a different aspect of it. The Indians were known in another time for confrontations among each other. It was said that when Indians went out on Mardi Gras morning, they didn’t know for sure if they would come home alive at the end of the day. Is there an overlap between the Indian tradition and what we think of as gang culture?
DH: Well, yeah, you know what it is? In America, for African Americans, we’ve been emasculated to such a large extent, so really, the underlying code of what the Indians do is to say, “Today we’re going to be men.” And no one really realizes that. That’s what I was saying: my father was really able to intellectualize what happened to us as a people. If you look at music, African Americans came up with the blues, African Americans came up with jazz, they basically came up with rock and roll, funk, and so many styles of music. But there’s hardly any African American kings of music. You know, the king of rock and roll is not African American, the king of jazz is not African American. Everything that we have has been taken away from us. So another underlying element of that was, because we believe in it so hard that we’re willing to die for this, it would scare away people who would try to take it over. You know what I’m saying? So there’s a lot to that, more than meets the eye.
NS: Certainly in New Orleans it seems like there’s two Mardi Gras that go on in parallel.
DH: Well, yeah, I mean, another aspect, and I’m sad to say this, it’s still true. I took my little girl to see the Bacchus parade, and we were on Napoleon Avenue, and the riders, they throw trinkets to the kids and to the young ladies too — to a lot of young ladies. But a lot of times, most of the time — not all the krewes, but Bacchus, particularly in that parade, and some of the other krewes — they would look at my daughter and realize she was African American and turn the other way and not throw her beads. So, it’s unfortunate that that still happens. And so it makes you realize “Wow, this is not for me.” So I guess a long time ago it was even worse. So they used that day to create something for themselves, where they could have some grandeur and say that they were something too, for themselves. You know, maybe a krewe like Orpheus, or Endymion, those people, and Zulu, which is mostly an African American krewe, they’re fairer. I don’t know why some krewes are like that. That’s the truth, though. That is not told a lot.
NS: Well I think a lot of people who are outside of New Orleans don’t comprehend, because the Indians have become so well-known, don’t comprehend how underground the thing still is.
DH: I think it should be underground. Because if too much outside intervention comes into anything, it starts to water it down. There’s different things that people have done with it. I’ve been playing music with it, and some people may disagree with that. But I don’t consider that to be the pure essence of what they do. What I do on the jazz bandstand, I’m doing something that’s a hybrid situation, it’s not really the true essence, it has the true essence in it, but it’s not the pure essence, the pure form of what it is. So I know there’s varying degrees of what you can do with it, and I know what the pure essence of it really is.
NS: Could you tell me a little bit about Congo Nation? About where that comes from?
DH: Well, I agree with honoring American Indians and what our relationship has been with them. I don’t think there’s enough focus — for me — in honoring the people in Congo Square playing drums, and fortunately in New Orleans, I’m proud to say that you know they were given the opportunity to play drums on Sunday here when that wasn’t allowed in most places in America. But I’ve always felt that we don’t honor those people enough, so Congo Nation is actually in honor of the people who were in Congo Square, keeping culture and tradition alive from their homeland.
You know, I saw an interesting thing on TV, and it was an African-American, well, a guy who says he’s American, which I agree with too, but he says he’s “I’m not African-American, I’m American”. And I wish I could have met that guy, because I would have told him there’s Italian-American Day parades, there’s Irish-American Day parades, Puerto Rican Day parades, and so those people honor their culture and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s like saying “I don’t have any roots,” you know, and it’s like you hate yourself. But I think I have roots.
I’m still in America, and I’ve traveled the world, and I think that this country has the best chance at achieving the highest ideals for mankind and it’s closer to it than any other place. But still, I can have roots. I still think of everybody as being my brother, you know, from whatever age, race or creed or whatever, you know. I try to judge people by their hearts. But I should still love myself. As others should love themselves. That doesn’t mean that we don’t share one common thread, and that’s being human, that’s the common thread, but we all come from somewhere. That’s like saying “oh, I don’t come from my mother and father, that’s not my parents” I must hate my parents to say that. I must have a problem with them to say that. No, I love my parents, I’m proud to come from them. My ancestors came from Africa and I’m proud to say that, as the Italian Americans are and as the Irish Americans are, and as the Jewish Americans are.
NS: Did you create Congo Nation as an organization?
DH: Yeah, I created that. And once again, let’s say that no group of people is perfect, but we do have great things that we’ve achieved. I’ve seen in this country a big game, and the game is: demonize what you don’t want to be on the same level as you. In other words, this is no good because these reasons, keep those images out there. These people are no good because they do this, they do that. Teach those people to believe that they’re no good. Teach the rest of the world to believe that they’re no good. No good is the equivalent of trash, and trash you can throw out and you can do with it what you want to do. I said to myself, I would like to create something through this that says, “No, all people are people, we don’t have everybody perfect, but we have done good stuff, so look at the whole of what you’ve done, try to get rid of the negative if you can and try to accentuate the positive.” Maybe that’s wrong too, because maybe there’s a reason for everything, but that’s one of my goals is to say that we’re all human, man. We need to get past that. And then this country could be great.
NS: How many years have you been going out as a Big Chief now?
DH: Since 1999. [Note: This interview took place in 2005.]
NS: In the encounter I saw in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, what did I see?
DH: Basically it’s like two heads of state meeting and going through a pomp and circumstance. Two kings met, but from a different perspective. Two chiefs. And in order for each to greet each other, there’s rituals that have to take place. And you have to practice the rituals, because it’s sort of like a warrior culture. So you have to practice the rituals for the chiefs to meet each other.
NS: In the time that you’ve been doing this, have you encountered a situation where there was not a respectful greeting or where there was some kind of confrontation?
DH: Yeah, that happens. That’s part of it. So I accept that part of it.
NS: But it’s happened?
DH: Yeah, it happens every Mardi Gras. Maybe not to me every Mardi Gras , but you know yeah, it happens, for sure. [Laughs]
NS: I’m interested in this idea that sometimes there is respect and sometimes there is disrespect. Because you see this played out in a lot of different ways across town, not only in the Indians but in a lot of social situations and of course, these days everyone is very territorial, everyone is heavily armed. There’s a lot of confrontation these days.
DH: Yeah, I mean, that’s really human nature. You know, you go back to ancient times and I’m quite sure there was be the same thing happening. You go to Europe, and you have your systems in medieval times where you had a king and he had his people out there and they all fought each other. You go to Japan and they had their samurai, you come to America and you had the Wild West, and these times you have various forces fighting each other. Until human beings learn to respect each other’s differences. I don’t know that that’ll ever happen. But the same thing that happens in everyday life, happens with the Mardi Gras Indians. There are rituals. You gain respect by knowing what you’re doing. Basically if you know what you’re doing, and you do it in a concise manner. You show power, but also respect power, then it’s usually pretty easy.
NS: I thought you came with a very powerful music this year, as well as a powerful appearance, but let’s talk about the music first. I’m interested in how you think that the music you do might be a little different from what any of the others are doing.
DH: Well, my cousin, Bruce Jackson, he goes to Africa quite often, and he’s in the Yoruba culture. He’s bringing the authentic drum styles from Africa, mixed with the Mardi Gras Indians rhythms. So we had that element going. He’s really going back to Africa, really studying the rhythms and bringing that to the tribe. And then I’m writing songs all the time that go with what’s going on rhythmically. But it’s really not new rhythms, just sort of a re-connection with the old rhythms.
NS: It’s not new rhythms because it’s hard to come up with completely new rhythms. But you can write songs all the time. I had the impression at one time that the Mardi Gras Indians repertoire was basically entirely a traditional repertoire, but I’m realizing that that’s not true, that it is an evolving thing.
DH: Yeah, there are old songs that are forgotten. My father taught me some of the old songs, and you know, people are making up new songs as they go along. It reminds me of jazz, you know — you have to go through the tradition and learn as much as possible and you really never learn it all, so it’s a lifelong process of learning the tradition. But you also should — for me — think forward: how can we improve the look of what we’re doing? How can we improve the music? How can we improve the music? How can we tweak it? To say this is how we did it in this era. And you know, how can we do it in a way that makes young people want to become involved and realize that they have something here, keep it alive? How can we use it in other areas? How can we use this to educate? How can we use this to show that you’re my brother and I like what you’re doing with the bagpipes over there, but this is what I’m doing with this — but we’re still brothers?
NS: Could you tell me a little bit about your sewing this year? It was a very impressive look that you came with. Could you describe it?
DH: I do a lot of sewing on my costumes. I design them, I have help. Usually the last week because I’m on the road a lot, doing too much, I’m trying to put everything together, so my mother and my sisters, they all come to help me, and I also have a good friend of mine by the nickname of Nelson Thomas who helps me, and then usually the night before Mardi Gras I’m putting everything together, but I always have an idea of the design because I travel everywhere playing music and I’m always looking for things I can enhance. So I use Swarovski rhinestones — that’s probably the best rhinestone in the world. And I use so many different kinds of feathers that it’s mind-boggling to me. But I see how you can put them together and try to come up with a forward-thinking suit that’s still the tradition, has elements of Africa, tells a story and moves forward. And try to see how big I can make it and still be able to carry it. [Laughs]
NS: Those suckers weigh like a hundred pounds or something, right?
DH: This year’s suit was very heavy. We know how to make them lighter. In fact, I actually do make mine lighter than most because for me it’s not how much you have on but how you design it. I’ve seen people with more stuff on than me but not as full as me, because of the design factor. I spend most of my time thinking about design and what story this year. I had a lot of lions this year. I think I’m one of the first guys to actually put African faces and African people on my costume. I don’t use the red faces for Indians. I use Africans and African Americans on my costumes. Because I think it’s time to make a shift, for me, to say we need to honor ourselves for a minute — you know, maybe I’ll honor some other peoples at some point, but right now, for me, I need to honor my people and then maybe later on, and I may say, “Well, everybody’s everybody, so, I see some good that this guy did so, you know, I like Jonas Salk, maybe I’ll do, yeah, whatever.” Once I say, “I’ve done this for myself.” At some point you need to do something for yourself and that’s where I’m at right now.
NS: Now that the suit is made, now that Mardi Gras is over, what happens to it?
DH: Oh, it’s at home now. I have a place, a storage facility where I put all my suits. And my wife is asking me to put it up, but I’m just looking at it every day when I’m not on the road, admiring its grandeur. [Laughs]
NS: You were talking about, what you can do to make this attractive to younger people. How do you see the level of youth interest in the tradition at this point?
DH: There are a lot of youth involved with it. You know, for me right now, the youth — and maybe I’m wrong, if I’m wrong I apologize — but it seems to me that they’re not as interested — some of them, because there are some of who are — in knowing as much as possible. You know, they’re like, this is how I want to do it, this one way, whereas a lot of the older gentlemen are always talking about another chief from another era, always teaching and always trying to get you to understand as much as possible and always trying to grow themselves, you know, what can they add to it? Always moving forward.
NS: You’re working with an educational project here at Tipitina’s, right?
DH: This is to expose very talented high school students to a feeling of what the professional world could be like, playing music. And to help them to be on the highest level that they can be when they go on to college or go on to working in the music profession. Some kids come in playing trumpet and they might leave being an engineer. We have students who are getting scholarships in different fields than they came here. They can really come here as an engineer and wind up a saxophonist, or come here as a saxophonist and go out with one of the biggest names in music, hopefully, when they leave here, or get a full scholarship to college because of the program, so it’s a good thing.
NS: You played with Art Blakey, right?
DH: I played with Art Blakey from ’82 through ’86, four years.
NS: So that was your finishing school?
DH: Yeah, well, he’s groomed many musicians along with myself. Art was probably the greatest talent scout jazz has ever had. He had a knack for finding people who would become jazz greats. He knew how to teach you. The thing I love about Art is that he gave of himself and his only reward was that he helped other people to become great. That was his mission, to make sure jazz was around. And he groomed people into what the traditions were, then let them go on and do what they wanted to do.
NS: Can you express what you learned out of that experience?
DH: I guess how to be a good human being and how to be honest about music, and to play with a loving perspective to try to enhance the world with something of beauty and make people’s lives better.
NS: I would think that for the kids that you’re encountering in this program, the fact that you played with Art Blakey probably counts for less than that you knew the young Chris Wallace.
DH: Well, no, we have a lot of jazz musicians in this group. I think it helps to bring some people who may have been only thinking about Christopher Wallace and now they know about Miles Davis, now they know about Art Blakey. So that connection with him helps me to get someone to be serious about learning their scales and listening to this type of music. Like I say, you never know why things happen, but you try to use them to the best of your ability.
Chris Wallace was a good friend of mine — you’re talking about the Notorious B.I.G. [also known as Biggie Smalls] — and really, I didn’t agree with some of the things he was saying later on, but I helped him to understand about how maybe to take rap to another place.
NS: I understand he would come over and hang out at your place and you would play him music?
DH: He was at my house every day. I love rap music, but one thing – this was the first thing I told him, was, “You know, you would be a great rapper if I could understand what you were talking about. So you need to spend a lot of time really making the words where people can understand exactly what you’re saying.” Because a lot of the music, I don’t know what they’re saying. That’s gonna put you on another level, right there — the enunciation. Such a simple thing, but it’s powerful, though. And there’s a lot of things that we discussed, and he would go home and actually think about it, and come back and be able to do it.
NS: Was he musical in a traditional sense at all?
DH: Yeah, you know, one of the things I had him doing at one point, was learning solos, but learning how to scat ’em. And he was a brilliant young person, I must admit that. He would sing a Cannonball Adderley solo. I wish that he would have played jazz, but he went on the path that he deemed for himself. It turned out that he became one of the best in his genre, and unfortunately, it led to his early demise. I still miss the young Chris. He had two sides. His mother was a devout Christian. He had a very loving and good side, and then he had his gangster side.