Image: Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2012. Credit: Clayton Call/Redferns.
“Shallow Water” is a song I listen to every day. The specific recording that I listen to is one of my grandfather, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr., singing the song on a record of my uncle’s [saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr.] called Indian Blues, released in 1992. It’s a traditional song from my culture, the Afro New Orleanian or Black Indian culture of New Orleans. This is the last known recording of my grandfather and his tribe before he passed away in 1998. My granddad is the only man in our culture to be a chieftain of four different tribes of Black Indians in Louisiana. The most common way to refer to this culture is “Mardi Gras Indians,” but that is a pejorative term. When Carnival festivities started in Louisiana, Black citizens were not allowed to take part, so essentially you’re painting an entire culture of people with the name of a cultural exhibition that they were not allowed to participate in.
This particular song is one of the anthems for the culture. It was composed by Bernard Lomax, and is essentially about resilience. It’s about being able to endure anything, about tapping into those moments that seem insurmountable. What they’re talking about in the song is having the types of experiences that the people in my culture have gone through, but being so resilient, so well built from the things that the American republic has forced them to endure, that even the most difficult things seem casual. You’re saying that whatever you’re going through is like walking over shallow water.
I listen to it every day, in all kinds of contexts. When I’m in the shower I have it blasting and I’ll sing along to it. It arms you for what you have to go through. If I wake up and know I’m going to be bombarded with things, if I’m going out to protest or even if I’m just at home looking at the feed to see what’s going on in the world, this is something I use as a conduit for shifting energy. For me personally, it has my ancestors, my uncle and my grandfather, so hearing their voices and the power and strength of what they did musically is also very arming.
I probably heard “Shallow Water” in my mother’s womb. I know that there are home videos of my brother and I, with my cousin, my grandparents and aunts and uncles, singing these songs when we’re very small. I think there’s even a video of us in Congo Square, which is ground zero for the Afro New Orleanian experience. So it’s cathartic in the way that it has existed in my life. It’s a song that has never left me, and it’s a song that has carried me through some very difficult and rough times as well.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard my uncle’s version, because it ties into one of the reasons I ended up playing the trumpet. My uncle is a legendary figure in our music, who played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Roy Haynes, Eddie Palmieri, you name it. When I was a kid there was no one on the planet who was cooler to me than him.
For years he co-led a quintet with the trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who is also one of the great musicians and composers in this area. I was in love with that band, but one day I was riding in my grandmother’s Astro van and they played this song on the radio station WWOZ in New Orleans. They said it was my uncle playing but I didn’t hear the trumpet, so I asked my grandmother where Terence was. She said, “Well, they’ve gone their separate ways now,” and a light blub went off in my head. I said, “I’m gonna get a trumpet,” because I wanted to be in that band. It was my uncle more than anything else; I just wanted to be near him. I picked up the trumpet not two weeks later, and a few years later I was in the band.