FI YI YI & THE MANDINGO WARRIORS
THURSDAY, APRIL 28—JAZZ & HERITAGE STAGE, 5 P.M.
Same as every year for the past half-century, Big Chief Victor Harris’ Mardi Gras Indian suit for 2016 is entirely homemade, with each bead stitched on individually by hand. “Even if they come from the store on a string, I break it and sew them on one by one.” The intricate, geometric designs are spellbinding, but as Harris explained, “I have no idea of anything until I start. I just sew, I sew, I keep sewing—wherever the spirit moves me. I don’t sew the same pieces, I sew different pieces. And then I start playing puzzle with them.”
Masking for a half-century is a rare distinction, one that puts Harris up there with his own former chief, Big Chief Tootie Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas, who had masked for 52 years at the time of his death in 2005. “Not many do fifty years of masking Mardi Gras Indian, and I’m honored to sit at the table with my Big Chief,” Harris said. “He’s a great man, a great artist, a great leader. He was my trailblazer, he’s my hero, and he’s my legend.”
In the years since Harris’ time with Yellow Pocahontas, he’s become a great spiritual leader in his own right. As he notes, though, sometimes things of great beauty can only come out of great suffering. “That’s a story, how that Spirit of Fi Yi Yi finally came to be…” he began, relating the tale of a misunderstanding back in the sixties that led to his exile from the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. The profound sense of social isolation he felt in the aftermath was one of the greatest hardships he’s faced. “I had to pray, I had to pray to the Lord, because in that situation, I was truly lost.”
The wounds in his community healed with time, but Harris says the suffering and self-reckoning he went through gave him a newfound purpose as a healer and community leader. As one of the only Indians to mask and come out for the Mardi Gras immediately following Katrina, he was an immense symbol of hope for the countless people trying to get back home. His celebrated tribe of “Mandingo Warriors” is very rooted in African tradition and centers around the notion of “a fiery spirit, a healing spirit for the people” that imbues Harris’ music, his beadwork, and his role as a community pillar.
“If all that hadn’t have happened, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m satisfied. This is what I do,” Harris said, gesturing at his 51st suit. “This is what I present to the community. This is medicine for the people.” It’s an invaluable medicine, and the community awaits suit 52.