Donald Harrison Jr.'s Congo Nation baseball cap only partially hides eyes that look like they need some sleep. A week before Mardi Gras, his suit still isn't done, so "I was up until 5 last night, then I started again at 7," says the jazz saxophonist, who is also Big Chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian gang. "I started in August when I was out with the Headhunters. Bill Summers asked me about sewing (costumes) so I started a piece showing Bill. I thought I was ahead of the game because that's early for me, but I got distracted."
Now he has to hustle to finish his suit in what he calls "the Uptown style." That involves a wider variety of feathers ("ostrich feathers, pheasant feathers") and animal skins ("Nobody's ever done that before"). He's also applying Swarovsky rhinestones. "My father (the late Donald Harrison Sr., Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame) was the spearhead in the Swarovsky rhinestones," Harrison says. "They add iridescence, like a rainbow."
Besides finishing his Mardi Gras Indian costume, Harrison has also been completing The New Sounds of Mardi Gras, Vol. 2, an album of Mardi Gras Indian music that is largely rapped, with hip-hop beats merged with traditional rhythms. This mixture might seem odd, but substitute the relentless drum machine rhythms for tambourine rhythms, tales of chiefs and warriors for tales of playas and gangstas and the idea's not that far-fetched. Indian slang has become comfortable through familiarity, but "Jockamo fi na nae" once was as private and foreboding to those not in the know as hip-hop slang is today.
On the new album, the songs are about "Mardi Gras Day, getting along and having fun," Harrison says. That sort of positivity sounds a little "Up With People" on paper, but the raps aren't sugar-coated. On "All We Want Do," for instance, Manny Lee and Bayou Boy say, "I'm getting kinda tipsy/ And I'm rowdy as hell," and that "Tomorrow is Lent/ The day to become a better father to my daughter." The beats may not start car stereos bumping, but the rappers all have a credible flow.
That might not be what listeners expect from Harrison, whose saxophone is only featured on "I Know It's Mardi Gras," but when he lived in New York, "I was mentor to Notorious B.I.G., teaching him the science of what he was doing," Harrison explains. He was also involved with Digable Planets and Guru's Jazzamatazz. "I was supposed to be the bandleader on the road, but I went out with Ron Carter and Billy Cobham instead. I considered that my finishing school." His interest in rap and Mardi Gras music is not, however, a dalliance with "street" music. "They're an expression of culture," Harrison says. "They're street the same way Rex is street, and I don't think of Rex as street."
Ray Charles was 29 when he recorded "What'd I Say (Part I)" in 1959, and 31 when he recorded "Hit the Road, Jack" two years later. Bonnie Raitt was 26 in 1974 when she recorded Streetlights and its classic single, John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery." Art Neville was 27 when the Hawketts recorded "Mardi Gras Mambo" in 1954 and Aaron was 25 in 1966 when he recorded "Tell it Like it Is." Judging by this year's Jazz Fest lineup, Art and Aaron would likely have been booked in their youth because they were local talent, but it's less likely mainstays Raitt and Charles would have been scheduled. An unscientific examination of the out-of-town headliners shows that those over the age of 40 outnumber those under 40 by more than 2-to-1.
The Jazz & Heritage Festival understandably venerates the past, but it is disturbing to think it might have also left out Etta James and Smokey Robinson (who made pop music, for heaven's sake!) when they were making the music people will be waiting to hear this year. If Jazz Fest continues to wait for artists to mature and be validated by time, it will always be looking back, missing vital music in its moment.
Shot Down in Ecuador Jr. won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Emerging Artist in 1989, but the band broke up before completing its emergence. The band's name always got attention, but not much else.
"We couldn't quite land a record deal and it wasn't like today where you can record on your computer. You had to get in a studio," says guitarist Chuck Gwartney. When the band finally did sign a deal with "a rich kid who wanted things his way, in the best New Orleans tradition, we pissed him off and he ended up threatening lawsuits."
On Saturday, March 6, the band is reuniting with guitarists Gwartney and Bill Conley, bassist Steve Howard, drummer Bruce Raeburn (curator of Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive) and singer Joe Darensbourg for a show at the Mermaid Lounge. "People kept bugging us about it," Gwartney says of the idea for the reunion. "People told us we were a really good bar band." For the occasion, Conley is returning from Austin, Texas, and Darensbourg is flying in from Boston, where he is studying music at Harvard.
- Donald Harrison Jr.'s recently released CD, The New Sounds of Mardi Gras, Vol. 2, celebrates the Mardi Gras Indian music tradition using hip-hop beats merged with traditional rhythms.