Special/Signature Issues » Richmond Folk Festival

Donald Harrison & the Congo Square Nation

Sweltering Pot

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One of the few good things to come from Hurricane Katrina is a renewed awareness of the living culture of New Orleans. It's no happenstance that the city, downstream from the American heartland and set in the geographic heart of the African Diaspora, was the birthplace of jazz and a wellspring of R&B, rock 'n' roll, and all the music that followed.

Keeping the New Orleans magic flowing is the mission of renowned saxophonist, native son and big chief of the Congo Nation Mardi Gras Indian tribe, Donald Harrison Jr. The Indians are a long-established Crescent City tradition, a unique African-American fixture swirling in feathers, marching and mystery. 

Harrison succeeded his late father, adding another dimension to a career that took flight when drummer and talent scout Art Blakey recruited him to replace Branford Marsalis in the Jazz Messengers. These two aspects will be united in Harrison's folk festival performance.

“The call-and-response chants with the drums are based on the rhythms prevalent in Congo Square,” Blakey says, referring to the famed New Orleans space where slaves were allowed to bring out their drums and play — ground zero for the explosion of styles and forms that have reverberated down the years.

A welter of forms are assayed by Harrison's category-transgressing Congo Nation band, which features two of the tribe “Flag Boys” — Gerald French and Shaka Zulu — on vocals and percussion, in addition to rising young players such as Joe Dyson on drums, Max Moran on bass and Zaccai Curtus on keyboards.

“We play cultural music in its authentic state,” Harrison promises. “If you want to see the root of much of America's music, you have to see this band.”

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