It was a summer day in December. We crowded into St. Augustine Catholic Church to send off Big Chief Donald Harrison.
Inside the church Fr. LeDeaux had said, there is something in us that celebrates life, celebrates through “music and dancing.” He said that: music and dancing. A Catholic priest conducting a mass lauds the centrality of “music and dancing”—obviously this priest is a Black man (and I don’t mean biologically, I mean culturally).
Need I tell you that this is a Black church? St. Augustine Catholic church is one of the oldest churches in the city and was built based on money raised by “gens libre de couleur”—free men of color—and by contributions from enslaved Americans who made money from trade and handicraft sales. Moreover, St. Augustine is located in Treme, which is the oldest African American neighborhood in the United States.
For an hour before the formal funeral mass, there had been jazz and Mardi Gras Indian drumming, dancing and singing. Trap drummer Shannon Powell and djembe master Luther Gray traded funky pre-funeral licks. Bassist Chris Severin held down the bottom. Milton Batiste bested the younger trumpeters with some absolutely, hideously awe-inspiring trumpet flourishes that favored all the tones that hang around and in between but never at the center of the tempered scale—although, I must say that “Twelve” (aka James Andrews, bka Satchmo of the Ghetto) was right up under Milton with some trumpet wah-wah effects he made by using sticking his hand in and over the bell of his horn as if his flesh were a rubber or metal mute. The two, Willie’s (Willie Tee and Willie Metcalf) played the keyboards like balaphons, that uniquely African mixture of melody and percussion. And only son, Donald Harrison Jr. was out front with saxophone—he was on alto, his prettiest voice. And there were plenty more hornmen and drummers coming and going, including the ever effervescent vocalist/trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.
At the end of the musical tribute section I was called to deliver a poem. I recited “Spirit & Flame.” Much of what I said was chanted, some was not even in English but, nevertheless and unfailingly, most of the people understood every sound I uttered.
After my threnody, members of Chief Harrison’s gang shake tambourines and sing over the coffin, offering a last testament of fidelity to the principles and beliefs of their Big Chief. Also on hand to pay their respects were a number of other Indian chiefs, including some who are from rival uptown gangs.
A veritable who’s who of Black street culture slow marches up and down the church aisle for the last viewing of a man, who perhaps more than any other, argued for full recognition of the cultural significance of Mardi Gras Indians— a calling which significantly his children and grandchildren have actively taken up. His oldest daughter Cherice Harrison-Nelson teaches Mardi Gras Indian culture in the public schools and in community workshops. His son, Donald Harrison Jr. is a professional jazz musician who has constantly recorded Mardi Gras Indian music, and his grandson Brian, has become a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Though, thankfully, his work continues on, undoubtedly Donald Harrison Sr. will be missed.
These services are unlike Catholic funeral services anywhere on this continent. The presiding priest both sings and preaches as legendary blind pianist Henry Butler plays in accompaniment. A trio of women read scripture. The high point is Donald Harrison’s instrumental rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Predictably, this is truly a memorable New Orleans funeral.
Unfortunately, but also predictably, there were too many cameras (a couple of photographers had been requested by the family, but most were uninvited). Used to be you would only see the small, hand-held deals, now there are camcorders and video crews with ungainly boom cranes and artificial lights. All of this despite two big signs posted on the church’s front door “no camera’s inside.”
Most of the picture taking was futile. No matter what they shot with, none of those picture could show you the spirit swirling around this gathering for the send off of Big Chief Donald Harrison, the Guardian of the Flame. Only the human soul can appreciate the profoundness of the spirit. A machine at best captures but a pale reflection. If you really want to make a memento of such moments, you should go and osmose the spirit through your pores, inhale the bouquet of real emotions and deep sentiments.
After over an hour of church services, the second line finally began. For a block or so, I slipped inside the eye of the procession, pranced just behind the trombones, saxophones at my side and trumpets nappying up my kitchen with corkscrew tones blown at the back of my head. We proceeded up Ursulines past where James Black used to live, where, when brother Black had passed on, the hearse stopped in front the door and the coffin was pulled out and literally thrown up in the air in ritual salute.
Earlier I had hovered at the heart of Indian drumming and chants as we prayed in our own secular way for Big Chief Donald Harrison’s safe journey to the ancestor realm. I am not an Indian nor a musician, but these are my people. I was here to bear witness with the vibrancy of my being, with my tongue chanting and body dancing, with my soul intertwined in celebratory resistance shout with all the others of us all in the street-no building, no structure, no coffin, nothing could contain us. This is why we don’t die, we multiply. Every time the butcher cuts one of us down, the rest of us laugh and dance, defying death. It’s our way of saying yes to life, saying “fuck you” to death and his nefarious henchmen, poverty and racism.
The funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison raises two important questions. First, when does spectacle overtake ritual and, second, in light of the significance of the transition of this particular Big Chief, where do we go from here?
From the beginning in Congo Square on down to the jazz funeral of today, there have always been two kinds of audiences: those of the culture who came to make ritual, to affirm and renew; and those who came to witness (a few to gawk) and be entertained. Both audiences understood something powerful was going on, which is why they both were there/are here.
Although the ritual participants are often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They are the ones who would have been dancers and not just onlookers in Congo Square—the musicians, the singers, the hip, swingers, hollering until hoarse, and then shouting some more. These are the people whose existence in and of itself affirms the dynamic of the American way of knowing and celebrating life.
The others, the onlookers were there to be touched by the profundity of the ritual—and while they are welcome to watch, we must understand that no matter what they think of what they see (or what they write or how many pictures they print up and put in books), the onlookers are an appendage and ultimately not even necessary for the functioning of this culture.
Sometimes there are clashes between these two audiences, sometimes there are mergers. These two groups of people are connected in time and place, but are separate in culture condition. Harrison’s funeral makes me pause and ask: when does the spectacle of it, when does the gathering of onlookers, gawkers (especially the wanna-be sly cultural vultures—and you know who you are), when does this press of outsiders become so critical that they color, no, they mar the beauty and integrity of the proceedings.
Big Chief Harrison was a studious man, who read voraciously, and thought deeply about being and the meaning of life. I shall not attempt to put words in his mouth, nor to project my own sentiments through him. We need only tell the truth about him. We need only note that he gave name to the “Guardian of the Flame.”
What fyah was it that he wanted to keep burning?
The fire is in the hearts and soul of the people who sang and danced during the musical tribute and retreated to the street to wait out the formal religious part of the funeral. Those who maintain the street culture of New Orleans are mainly blues people who are often very spiritual but who are not necessarily very religious.
Yet, the street folk don’t deny the church its place in the community. A significant section of the Black community goes to church, and most Black people, be they Christian or not, believe in “God,” but spiritual beliefs on one hand and strict adherence to Christian doctrine on the other are two different concepts. This American Based spirituality sans Christian religiosity is the difference which demarcates the Black blues people from their fellow Blacks in the community.
Moreover, the blues people are generally the marginals of society, the most impoverished materially, but, at the same time, they are the richest in terms of cultural creativity and integrity, and particularly in terms of African retentions (both conscious and unconscious).
New Orleans would be a piss poor place to live were it not for the presence and culture of the Black poor/blues people of New Orleans. The people who don’t own a pot to urinate in nor a window to throw it out of (over sixty percent of them are renters!), these are the people whom Donald Harrison spoke of, with and for. These were the people who marched with him on Mardi Gras day. These and another element: the conscious brothers and sisters, kin and kind, who might work at City Hall or for the School Board but who dress out at appropriate occasions and shake their backfields like a saucer of jello in the hands ‘of a four year old. It is the poor and the conscious elements who align themselves with the poor who keep New Orleans Black culture alive— the ones who will dance at the drop of a hat and can’t imagine life without music.
This is what Donald Harrison asked us to keep alive, and this mission speaks directly to the second question: where do we go from here?
The best way to preserve New Orleans culture is to support the people who make the culture. Open doors for them. If you live or work in the big house, then throw food and resources out the window, pass on strategic information. But do it as a religious offering not as a material acquisition or purchase. Make your sacrifice and then go home. Let the spirit carry on. Let those who make music and dance, those who sing and chant, let them be and do what they gotta do without the interference of outsiders of whatever color who have a vested interest in becoming experts on what they have never and can never produce: a culture as vibrant and exultant as New Orleans street culture.
There is room for all at the table, but if you can’t cook, get out the kitchen. Make whatever contribution you can and where you can’t, get out the way and give the dancers room to do their thing.
Whether onlooker or participant, the passing of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. speaks to us, encourages us, cajoles us—we must carry on support New Orleans culture. Guard the Flame with the seriousness of your life, because that is precisely what the flame is: life. The flame is all about the joy and celebration of life. Be a guardian of life. Regardless of how cold it does or does not get, let the fyah bum full up!