This month's "Guardian of the Groove" is known to many in the Crescent City as Queen Reesie. Cherice Harrison-Nelson is the daughter of Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr. She sits down with WWOZ show host, Maryse Dejean to talk about making those beautiful suits and masking on Mardi Gras Day.
Dejean: As you go out on Mardi Gras Day, in your suit, what does that mean to you?
Harrison-Nelson: In our group, we make what we call "Sites of Memory" stops. So we go to elders in the neighborhood. We go to people who connect our children, we have lots of children in the group, we connect the children to my father and his legacy. So we stop at Al "Carnival Time" Johnson's house, and we sing a Mardi Gras Indian-esque Carnival Time. And we stop at Chuck Badie's home, we stop at Mrs. Perkins home in the next block, and our last stop in the neighborhood is at Smokey Johnson's house and we do a Mardi Gras Indian-esque, "It Aint' My Fault" and he loves it.
Dejean: Many of us look at the Indian parades, listen to the songs, just as you did growing up, but how did you understand the deeper meaning of it all as you were growing up?
Harrison-Nelson: Well when you're a child you don't really know that its not like that at everyone else's house. You just think its part of the world, everybody has a daddy that picks up a tambourine and breaks into song, everyone has a dining room table with the materials to make this beautiful ceremonial attire. You think every little girl goes out on Mardi Gras day and looks up and takes her dad in with the magnificent suit on. But it wasn't until I was much older that I realized it was something that was something very special.
Dejean: How important is it for tradition bearers and cultural warriors to tell their story in their own words?
Harrison-Nelson: It is extremely important because everyone has a different story, everyone has a different path, I do believe this is a calling, it's a spiritual calling and my path is not everyone else's path, we all find our truth within this tradition. For me, my truth is as my father would have wanted it, for us to shine a light on others who participated, but also as a way to stich myself back, bead by bead, rhinestone by rhinestome, to my ancestral homeland, to my place where I came from. It gave me roots.
It is my calling, I am not in control of it, really I'm not. My father said you have to commit your time and your money to masking, it's very true. I shared my bed many nights, with a tray of beads because if I wake up in the middle of the night, I want to be able to sew. It is my lover, and it is a jealous, selfish lover. You can not just walk away from it. Even if you decide you're not going to mask anymore, and for me it's not masking, it is unmasking. This is the mask. You can get one like this, but you can't get one like that. That's what I want to be.