At a time of emotional crisis, the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi visited Victor Harris to lift his heart and offer him direction. After 18 years “running flag” with the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians, he departed the gang led by the highly respected Chief Allison 'Tootie' Montana. “Everything seemed hopeless to me – I had no tribe,” Harris remembers of this time in the early 1980s.
“It was at night, I was all alone. I turned off every light in the house, the clock that was ticking, I stopped it. I made sure the TV and the refrigerator were unplugged because I didn't want to hear a humming sound. I just wanted to be alone with the spirit in the dark.
“I woke up that next morning and I felt very good and I just started stretching and flexing my arms and started to say 'Yi Yi.' Suddenly I stopped and then I said 'Fi Yi Yi' and the third time I screamed it 'Fi Yi Yi!' That was the first time the word was ever mentioned. That was my given spiritual cultural name and it represented Africa.”
Big Chief Harris, who celebrated 50 years of masking Indian in 2015, boasts both old school Indian ways and a forward-thinking attitude. He's very aware that the aim of his year-round labor of sewing a suit and his reason for taking to the streets on Carnival Day is to bring joy to friends, family and onlookers in the neighborhoods. “It's like being a medicine man. It heals the community.”
Now, The Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors have released a new album, When That Morning Comes. This Mardi Gras Indian tribe has been on the streets of New Orleans for over thirty years. The record features the drums of their African roots and the brass sounds synonymous with New Orleans.
Morning is much more than Indian chants and calls. It's deeply moving, with the tribe's heart and soul bared in a way that rarely happens on more straightforward music releases. The second track, 'Calling All The People (Come Back Home)' is a spiritual homage to Katrina and the longlasting effects the hurricane had on the city and its people. The passion and fire are on display in a field recording of 'Mandingo Warriors Indian Practice' and the feeling of the street is captured well on 'Big Chiefs Meet' and 'Back Street Jam (Sylvester Sr.'s Second Line),' a nod to their headquarters at the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
'Healing Process' espouses the importance of going by to see the elders who can't come by the tribe on Super Sunday. "Let's go get 'em... that's the healing process,' Big Chief Victor Harris says of seeing the people of the neighborhood on Super Sunday, adding a meaningful new twist to the old Indian refrain.
Fi Yi Yi embraces a modern soul/funk sound on a few of the tracks. 'Sew Sew Sew' gets funky with a wonderful vintage '70s sound, and the group goes soulful on 'I Don't Wanna Go' and 'Coach (He Made It!).' There's also a fantastic blues-infused version of 'Indian Red.'
Joining the gang for this release are some familiar names in the New Orleans music scene today. Big Chief Victor Harris, of course, leads on vocals and percussion. Other members and contributors include Jack Robertson (vocals, percussion), Wesley Phillips (vocals, djembe, talking drum, congas, percussion, spoken word), Spyboy Ricky Gettridge (vocals, percussion), Cinnamon Black (spoken word, vocals, percussion), Sula Janet Evans (vocals, spoken word), Leon 'Kid Chocolate' Brown (trumpet), Derek Douget (tenor saxophone), Khari Allen Lee (alto saxophone), Delfeayo Marsalis (trombone), and Kipori Woods (guitar).