Chief Smiley Ricks & Donald Harrison, Jr.: The Mardi Gras Indian Connection

First came the drums and tambourines. A hot, dense, exquisitely layered syncopation, rumbling from the back of the upstairs bar at Tipitina’s Uptown. Then came the shouts and chants: “Hi-yo!” “Coochie Malay!” It could only mean one thing: Mardi Gras Indians.

The crowd downstairs could not yet see the source of this mighty clamor, and anticipation built as Chief Smiley Ricks and the Indians of the Nation worked their way downstairs through the dressing rooms and finally took over the stage, three of them garbed in brightly plumed, awe-inspiring Mardi Gras Indian costumes. The hefty Tip’s sound system now granted full voice to the extraordinary texture of percussion, tuba, steel drum, electric guitar, and tabla hand drums as they sang and chanted their way through several original songs. It was a powerful sound—music steeped in New Orleans roots that also suggested Afro-Caribbean exoticism—and the crowd was duly astounded.

As it turns out, this recent show was more than another ephemeral moment in our vibrant live music scene; it was a preview of a groundbreaking record, Feathercraft, due out before Mardi Gras. (A record release party is planned for February 25 at Rosy’s Jazz Hall.)

Produced by prominent jazzman Donald Harrison, Jr., who also plays alto sax and keyboards on the CD, it features diverse original material that maintains a strong link with raw Indian funk while also exploring a wide range of fresh territory. Percussionist/singer Smiley Ricks, an alum of Dr. John’s band and Chief of the Renegade Hunters, is joined by a number of fellow Indians from various tribes, as well as an impressive roster of local talent, including drummer Willie Green (Neville Brothers), bassist Jim Singleton and drummer Johnny Vidacovich (Astral Project), tubist/trombonist Craig Klein (Nightcrawlers), steel drummer Gregory Boyd, tabla drummer Andrew McLean and guitarist Chris Mule.

It’s an independent, grassroots production, but by no means fly-by-night. In fact, the seeds for Feathercraft were sown some 12 years ago, at a “Super Sunday” Indian parade in Algiers, when Ricks first met Harrison.

Harrison had come over with his father, Donald, Sr., who was Chief of the Guardians of the Flame (until he died in 1998). Ricks, who grew up in Algiers, was 20 years old and already Chief of his own tribe, the Comanche Hunters. (He founded the Renegade Hunters later on.) Like many New Orleanians, he had been mesmerized at an early age by the Indians and their magnificent, hand-sewn suits.

“When I was like five years old, I saw this Indian pass one time in the neighborhood and that was it,” he remembers. “When I saw them suits, it was just me, you know? I said, ‘That’s me.’ Oooh, did it leave a mark.”

But it was Ricks’ natural talent for drumming, enhanced by early tutelage from three percussionist uncles, that provided a ticket into this colorful world. When he was 11, his cousin, Tyrone Casby, Chief of the Mohawk Hunters, asked Ricks to play drums with his gang. “He was looking at the drums, I was looking at the Indians,” says Ricks. “I said, ‘Let me cut a deal with you. You help me to mask Indian, I’ll play drums behind you.”’

This arrangement worked well for Ricks, and he rose quickly through the ranks of the tribe as a teenager, learning valuable life lessons along the way. “I learned the importance of hard work and respecting the elders and the order of things,” he says. “Also, when you sit down at the table and you put in a lot of time sewing, it’s like meditation, you start seeing what is really happening. You have to believe in it though, because real things don’t get revealed to you right off the bat. You don’t get it easy. Anything worthwhile you have to work for.”

When they met, Ricks was unaware of Harrison’s stature as a leading saxophonist in the jazz world. He didn’t know that, at age 28, Harrison had already toured with legendary bandleader/drummer Art Blakey, moved up to New York City, co-led his own band with Terence Blanchard, and helped generate, along with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, a resurgence of interest in acoustic modern jazz in 1980s.

But he did know they were both musicians who shared a deep connection with the Mardi Gras Indian culture. And he could sense something positive and intriguing about Harrison. “When I started seeing this cat,” Ricks says, “the way he presented himself in public, with such class and dignity, I knew he was someone I could learn from.”

The two men talked music, and Harrison encouraged Ricks to keep practicing his drumming. He also told him, “If you get to New York, give me a ring.” It was the same thing he told most young musicians in New Orleans who approached him, and it rarely led to anything. But only a short time later, he got a call from Ricks.

“He came up to New York,” Harrison says, “and we just started hanging out, practicing, talking about the Indians. It was sort of perfect timing for what I was going through at the time.”

Harrison’s partnership with Terence Blanchard had just ended, and he was at a crossroads in his career. Meanwhile, he had started “masking Indian” with his father again, and he felt closer to his New Orleans roots. An idea for a recording began to brew in his head.

“That’s when I started hearing modern jazz music mixed with the Indians,” he says. “Smiley being in New York further cemented that, because I had an Indian around me. At that point I felt that the Indian culture needed to be presented in the light of jazz ideals, which is to try to make it as positive as possible, and to strive for the highest level of creativity. I also could see the connections in the concept of freedom within a group setting. I’ve been saying for years that jazz is one of the true representations of democracy, and I can also see that in the Indians. Each Indian has his own suit that he makes himself. They’re all individuals, but to make a good tribe everyone has to come together. With jazz, each person tells a story with the music, but everyone has to really relate to each other to make a good band.”

These concepts came to fruition on Harrison’s 1990 recording Indian Blues, a landmark collaboration between Harrison, his father, Ricks, Dr. John, and modern jazzmen Cyrus Chestnut and Phil Bowler that fused Indian rhythms and chants with jazz, blues and R&B. An extended jazz interpretation of the Indian prayer song “Indian Red” proved particularly stunning, and the album as a whole has remained influential in music circles, even though it’s currently out-of-print. (Candid Records plans to re-release it soon, Harrison says.)

“I didn’t realize what we were doing would be considered so important at the time,” says Harrison. “I was just doing what I felt I had to do in my heart. It’s a great thing to see. You put something out there from your heart that you truly believe in, and people can see that you’re really being honest, and it’s worthy of something. It’s a truly great feeling.”

During the Indian Blues session, Ricks formed a close bond not only with Harrison, but with Dr. John, another expatriate New Orleanian living in New York who would also become an important mentor to Ricks. “Doc taught me how to shut up. How to hush and be humble,” says Ricks. “I was young and green, and he told me one time, ‘For every action, there’s reaction. Don’t react.’ And that stuck with me until today. I talked to him a lot in New York. Me and Doc would stay up all night and listen to music. Then I’d go hang out with Donald all day…He turned me on to studying all these Latin and African rhythms…I just learned so much from these two amazing people, and they also happened to be from my home town. I was blessed to bump into that.”

Harrison and Ricks had already discussed plans to work on Ricks’ own album, a kind of sequel to Indian Blues, but from Ricks’ unique perspective as an Indian percussionist. Those plans were quickly put on the back burner, however, as Ricks went to work with Dr. John on his Grammy-winning 1992 record Goin’ Back to New Orleans, which led to a permanent spot for Ricks in Doc’s touring band for most of the ’90s. Meanwhile, Harrison was signed to major label Impulse! and began developing his “Nouveau Swing” concept on several acoustic modern jazz recordings.

It would not be until the year 2000 that the stars once again aligned themselves so that Feathercraft could be made. Ricks, no longer touring with Doc, had time to write music and assemble a band; and Impulse! disintegrated, a victim of a giant corporate merger, leaving Harrison without label support but also free to pursue his many diverse interests.

In developing the project, Ricks first looked for talent within the Indian community, and he found “some real heart and soul from inside the Indian culture” in bass drummer Walter Harris (who masks with the Seminole Hunters), percussionist Kenneth “Skeeter” Bruce (who masks with the Apache Hunters) and singer/percussionist Wild Man Ivory Holmes (who masks with the Golden Arrows). Holmes, in fact, co-wrote the bulk of the record’s ten songs with Ricks, and his soulful, versatile voice is a dominant force throughout.

Then Ricks looked to expand the scope of the music with unusual instrumental textures, which he knew would pique Harrison’s interest. “What I think caught Donald’s eye is the instrumentation. We had tabla drums, the steel drums, the bass horn. We wanted this Caribbean feeling, but still with this energetic Indian bass drum, tambourine drive. When he heard it, just from him knowing so much about the Indian culture, he knew it would fit,” says Ricks.

Indeed, Harrison’s far-ranging experience allowed him to apply a broad musical perspective to the project, integrating each unique element so that it would work organically. “It’s like putting together a puzzle, you know,” says Harrison. “This piece connects to this piece. If you don’t put them all together right, then you can’t put the puzzle together. No matter what style of music, there’s always a connection, and the key is, I’ve studied enough music and have a feeling for enough music, that I can find a connection.

“But the thing that really brings it to fruition is that Smiley and I have masked as Indians, so we know what the feeling should be. That’s always got to be the root…that feeling. When I’m listening to something, there’s a gut instinct. You know when something is honest, and when something is dishonest. We’ve masked Indian, so it’s honest.”

Taken as a whole, Feathercraft is intended to function as more than a fascinating artistic statement. Ricks and Harrison want the record to help promote and preserve the Indian culture, reflect its soulful beauty and counteract the belief—still widely held—that the Indians represent a dangerous, violent force in society.

“This country has a long history of violence, in almost every walk of life, from politicians starting wars to the cowboys,” says Harrison. “So the Indians have had their share of violence, but the main thing we need to focus on is that in a place where a people have been stripped of everything that they would consider themselves, from their name to their music to their whole being, that there is an entity still left in America that keeps a certain thread back to the people who had everything taken away from them. That thread is still alive today, and that’s the part that gives you hope, because this country is about hope, and the Mardi Gras Indians are about hope, about a people who are just as great, who can achieve the highest ideals also. A lot of guys, they know this in their hearts. They may not be able to articulate this, but that’s the reason why a lot of them are doing it.

My father knew that, and he articulated it to me. That’s why you would see him in all the schools teaching kids about it, keeping that thread alive. That thread is the hope. That thread is one of the things that will make this country better. Because the ideals of the Constitution are great, but the problem is achieving those ideals, and that’s the fight that all of us, if we really are about that, have to get up every day and try to achieve. The Mardi Gras Indians are a part of that, and jazz music is a part of that, so I align myself with those things I feel are a part of that.”