GUARDING THE FLAME OF LIFE
The Funeral of
Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. (1933 – 1998)
It was a summer day in December (1998). The sky was clear, high, an almost pastel blue dotted by mere wisps of clouds. The shine of the sun bounced beaming off the white of the church building facade. Coming around the corner, brother man pushed a blue shopping cart that held a yellow fifty-gallon trash can with an ice pick stuck on the top perimeter of the plastic container. Dude had a fist full of dollar bills in his left hand. I knew what he was doing. He was selling beer.
“Yeah. Probably that old cheap Budweiser,” my good buddy and internationally-exhibited visual artist Willie Birch wisecracked. About three-quarters of an hour later, the vendor had acquired a couple of cases of Lowenbrau in the bottle; had them stashed on the bottom rack of the grocery buggy now improvised into a moving beer kiosk.
I spied a man in brilliant yellow shirt — it does injustice to the shirt to call it yellow, just as it does injustice to the sun to call it hot. The man was standing still, no breeze was blowing but his shirt looked like it was moving. The hue of the deeply mellow, vibrant yellow fabric was so intense that it made gold-dust jealous. Turns out, as we talk, the brother reminds me we graduated from high school together.
Then Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Band, walked up holding his baritone sax. New Orleans musicians have a tradition of resplendent cleanliness — as in mean, clean and beautifying the scene. Roger’s sartorial eminence was such that just the hipness of his presence was musical. He stood on the sidewalk with a slight rearward lean, angled just enough to let you know he was hip and not so much that he looked like he was posturing or calling undue attention to himself. I heard strange and wonderful melodies in his insouciant stance, a bluesy riff in the way he unhurriedly unfurled a slow smile when I walked up to congratulate him on maintaining impressively high standards of beauty vis-a-vis male attire.
But before the praise song to Roger was fully out of my mouth, nightclub bouncer and renown gospel singer Joe Cool strolled by in a righteously pressed walking suit. The trouser hem draped softly over the tops of a pair of mustard colored, burnished, kid-glove leather kicks that looked so comfortable he could have worn them on his hands — as I dapped him I bent down and commented, “look at that,” pointing with my chin to his lovely loafers, “leave it to you to give them something to look at when they bow down.” Joe Cool has a beautiful grin when he is pleased.
Moments earlier, across the street I had seen our consigliori relaxing on the stoop next to one of Treme’s most responsible business people (as they were incognito I will not divulge their 9-to-5 identities but I will say they were not visiting, this was their resident neighborhood and everyone who passed them spoke and were spoken to). The three of us were passing pleasantries for a minute when up pops union organizer and environmental racism activist Pat Bryant dress in a black suit, looking like a Baptist preacher. In response to my ribbing about his get-up Pat joked he had a Bible in his back pocket. With a straight face I asked, “what caliber?” He just smiled and showed us neither Bible nor gun. After giving me a conspiratorial glance, Pat said something to our mutual counselor-friend about the low nature of lawyerly work. The attorney calmly parried, “Like Booker T. said, it beats working in the sun.” Yeah, that made sense; we knowingly head nodded. Pat leaned toward the counselor to discuss a personal matter, I bid them adieu and re-crossed the street to the church.
Back standing next to Willie, I surveyed the scene. Shimmering and shimmying down the street a block away you could see the feathered form and also hear the drums of new style Mardi Gras Indian, Fi-Ya-Ya. The distance but distinct sound cut through the cacophony of the crowd. Seemed like there was a couple of hundred people milling around the St. Augustine’s front entrance at the corner of Gov. Nichols and St. Claude.
Fi-Ya-Ya in all his Indian glory had his headgear on. The mask fitted over his head like a knight’s helmet, or like one of them old paper mache, black and white, skeleton skulls like, well, like community activist/professional agitator Randy Mitchell wore. Randy was belligerently waving a black, pirate-like flag and daring anyone to take a picture of his copyrighted costume.
As I turned to take in Fi-Ya-Ya’s arrival, another advertisement for African inspired, colorful splendor stepped softly around the corner. A man whose face I recognized from secondline parades, strode confidently through the crowd, his head cocked upward like a rooster squinting at dawn sky. He had on a black pin striped suit, a blood red silk handkerchief gushed out of his breast pocket, and he was crowned with a white Stetson hat. His spotless skypiece had a small feather stuck in the side that made peacock feathers look dull. I ran up to him, “man, ain’t no use in looking for the sun, cause you the only thing shining!” He waved at me good naturedly and laughed.
Earlier I had been inside the church for the musical tribute section but when the mass portion kicked in, the Indian drumming and chanting that was going on outside piqued my interest. Their sharp shouts and sounds that were unignorable as spear stabs periodically pierced the quiet of the church sanctuary. Seemed like the drums were calling me by name. And that’s how I came to be outside greeting a plethora of cultural stalwarts such as Greg Stafford, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band leader/trumpeter and founding member of the Black Men of Labor marching club. Greg was resplendent in white from head to toe, including a tall conical African-inspired headpiece.
While waiting for the body to be released from the church services many of us passed the time by greeting and hugging each other while reminiscing about good times and other great second lines. We were patient. Regardless of what was or was not going on inside, we knew Donald Harrison Sr. would be delivered over to us for a final procession to the burying ground.
(So far I have not talked about the women — there were a couple of sisters so fine that when they strolled through the crowd, men stopped talking and just stood with their mouths gapped open. A little later when my wife Nia came outside and started hugging me as she leaned against my shoulder, Willie started babbling about how beautiful Nia was. With every syllable, Nia’s smile got wider and wider. I know that the significance of this interlude of describing the beauty of the women is loss on some people, but at the risk of being misunderstood, I say to you that where ever there is no deep and profound appreciation of women and music, beauty and dance, in such absence you find a general pallor and dullness to existence, an existence that opulence and ostentatious sex only makes more sad. In any case, as clean as all the men were I described above, apply the splendor of their appearance to the pulchritude of the women.)
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).
The church is decored with the usual artifacts of Christianity, but closer inspection reveals banners proclaiming the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles). Moreover, high up in the balcony, taking up the top wall, instead of a traditional cross there is what looks like a ten to fifteen foot ankh.
The ankh is a traditional African icon — for those who would want me to specify that the ankh is Egyptian, I suggest that you miss the point that Egypt is African, or at least originally was before euro-centric scholars with cultural axes to grind kept trying to point to Greece to explain the science and culture of North Africa. Anyway, there, in St. Augustine Caholic church, the largest religious icon was an ankh.
The ankh represents not simply life in the abstract but also the male and female principle of life in balance. The shape of the ankh has the ovary over the phallus — the circle (actually an upside down teardrop, the pear shape of the earth itself), or female, sits atop, the rod, or male.
Also, unlike most churches which have the pulpit at one end of the church, in St. Augustine the altar is in the middle of the congregational seating and what had originally been the dais and choir area was now where the musicians performed.
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 build based on money raised by “gens libre de colouer” — free men of color — and by contributions from enslaved Africans who made money from trade and handicraft sales. Moreover, St. Augustine is located in Treme, which is the oldest continuously existing 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 sticking his hand in and over the bell of his horn as if his flesh were a rubber or metal mute. The two Willies (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 on 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.
On one side of the church sat All For One Records founder and former musical director for Sonny & Cher, Harold Battiste dressed in a formal length, black, white-embroidered top of African finery; his elderhood sagely complemented by the upside down halo of his magnificent white wisdom-beard. No one has made as significant an all-around contribution to New Orleans music as has Battiste who is prolific producer, composer and arranger in jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, and pop music.
On the other side of the church, the Big Chief of the Yellow Pochohantas and a man who has masked for over fifty years, Tootie Montana and his wife and chief sewing partner, Joyce Montana sat side by side. They could wear sackcloth and look regal. Throughout the services people walked up to Big Chief Tootie and paid almost as much respects to him as to the Harrison family. Though Donald Harrison Sr. was widely acclaimed for his intellectual prowess and historical insight into the significance of Indian culture, Tootie Montana is considered the most accomplished Mardi Gras Indian suit designer.
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 records Mardi Gras Indian music and his grandson Brian Nelson 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 highpoint 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 pictures 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 (I believe it was his mama’s house), 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.
The ritual participants came, some literally looking like they wore whatever they had worn to work yesterday or maybe even whatever they had worn when they fell asleep slumped over a bar table at three o’clock this morning; or, then again, they came like that fierce sister who wore a circular feathered, multicolored hat about which to say it looked like a crown belittles the splendiferous figure she cut every time she bobbed her head, don’t mention when she would turn and smile.
The ritual participants were the beaters of wine bottles and the bearers of babies on their hips. They were those who raided deep into the hearts of their closets to come out with their hippest threads and they were those who just heard the commotion, threw open their front doors, rose up off stoops and porches, and ran to add to the assembly because in the marrow of their being they “feel to believe” they are “called” to join in. These often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They came.
These 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 African 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 and 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?
It wouldn’t be so bad, if the non dancers would step to the rear and sit quietly or move out the way, and walk on the sidewalk, but no, some of them are so bold as to want to be up front and personal. And please do not misunderstand this as a veiled referenced exclusively to so-called “white” people. There are a number of Negroes who show through and come back into the hood only when someone dies, and then only for a moment — don’t blink your eyes or you will miss them. Like Dorothy, sometimes I wish I could click my heels and make all of them go away. Forever.
African American culture has always had to function under the scrutiny of outsiders, however, the mix is becoming so disproportionate that you can’t hardly feel the heat of the Black fyah because of the damp of so much chilly water.
Sometimes Donald Harrison (both Donald the father and Donald the son) and I would talk about these and other matters. In fact, more and more the nature and preservation of our culture is becoming one of the major topics of conversation wherever the culture bearers gather. Regardless of whether we are misunderstood, there are a significant number of us who will never liquidate our Blackness to indulge in indiscriminate integration, particularly integration of all things Black into anything White. Donald Harrison Sr. could hold court for days about this.
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 people outside the church was sparking like flint stones clacking against the hard rocks of our place and time. Mayor Marc Morial was inside expressing condolences. Outside Ferdinand Bigard had dressed his son in a Friday night, negroidal-red Indian suit. Donald Harrison, Sr.’s body was resting inside the coffin inside the church. Outside Indians were scurrying back and forth, chanting in the street. The fire was outside — also inside to a significant degree, but mainly outside — 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.
People do not want to talk about this cultural separation of church and street, especially since the street is the more celebrated. Perhaps, such celebratory discourse sounds sacrilegious and most of us who write and publish in mainstream organs are either Christians or are very reluctant to do anything that might be construed as anti-Christian, but facts is facts. 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 it’s 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 African-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 burn full up!
SPIRIT & FLAME
(for Big Chief Donald Harrison)
you think this a costume?
you think this a ball?
you think this a lark?
just for the fun of it all?
Hoo Nan Ney!
the ancestors are enriched / our lives had been made stronger / the flame has purified us / if only / for a moment / the moment / of his flashing / his flaming / his wit / his anger / his upholdance of the legacy / of resistance / intelligence / seriousness / sun seriousness / hot pepper / cayenne colors / the shout of life in the face of whatever / the cultural tourists are calling themselves today / they / will be at the funeral / but who marched with him / when he was alive / who carried the flame / in their mouths / stepped in the sun then / when / no cameras were allowed / who waved hard high / the banner in their hearts / what men and women / sons, daughters / & lovers / who manifested / the dance walk of black shine / guarding the flame of our time / beaconing bright / terrible / and badder than that / on our good days / in our wild ways / when nobody can’t tell us nothing / not a goddamn thing / and we sing / and we shout / and we act out / black & red / african culture / of many colors / don’t take no trail of tears to his coffin / donald harrison does not need your pity / your moans / about what we gon / do / now that he gone / the fire is not out / if you continue to carry the flame / if your are guardian / if you are in the groove / conscious of who / & what we are / & all we come from / don’t cry / don’t you moan / stand tall / walk proud / let every waist wind up / let every foot kick forward / let every mouth shout / let every eye shine / don’t bow down / go forth unbended / don’t bow down / in sorry sorrow / you never saw him sad / as a negro / hoping to become white / by committing cultural suicide / he said feed the fire / keep the burning / grab some knowledge / be a scholar / know yourselves / honor your mother / honor your father / love your people / all they been / and had to be / while working through the slaughter / moving forward / keep on dancing / beat the drum / the drums of life / sing the songs / of who we are / follow his example / don’t bow down / stand up straight / and guard the flame / the dark flame / of black fire / black fyah i tell you / fyah / & flame the spirit of struggle / spirit & flame / big chief / donald harrison / fayh chief / guardian / guardian of the flame / guardian of the flame / be a guardian / of the flame / the flame of life / shine on
—Kalamu ya Salaam
from Be About Beauty (2018 – UNO Press)