Cultural growing pains in a rebuilt city
By Larry Blumenfeld
Near the end of Donald Harrison Jr.’s Congo Square Stage set on the opening Friday of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, after the saxophonist segued from groove-jazz to bebop to something too rhythmically slippery to name, he walked quietly offstage. Minutes later, announced by tambourines and shrouded by red feathers with black highlights, he was back; only now he was Big Chief of the Congo Nation, enacting a tradition inherited from his father, who, during his life, was Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Harrison led his band through “Hey Pocky Way,” a modest 1974 hit for the Meters (and later for the Neville Brothers) with a title adapted from the Indians’ inscrutable language.
The Mardi Gras Indians are the most mysterious and essential of the indigenous cultures that define New Orleans; together with traditional jazz musicians, brass bands, and the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs who mount Sunday-afternoon second-line parades, they’ve infused all strands of locally bred music since at least Jelly Roll Morton’s day. Beyond that, they’ve helped revive a city nearly left for dead in 2005. When Harrison fronts “A Night in Treme” at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons and Manhattan’s Jazz Standard this week, he’ll reference his ongoing roles—in cameo, as the basis for fictional characters, and as a script adviser—in HBO’s Treme, which showcases the primacy and power of New Orleans culture.
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