Perfect Sound Forever

A Salute to Sylvester "Hawk" Francis
By John Sinclair

There was a time, back in the late 20th century, when the venerable street parade traditions of the Crescent Cityís African American community -- a staple of daily life in New Orleans since the end of the War between the States a hundred years before -- seemed to be fading into the past. The veteran traditional jazz and brass band musicians were entering their senior years, and there seemed to be no interest among the younger generations in replacing them.

The cultural fabric of the African American community had been cruelly ripped by the societal disruptions of the í60s and the draconian measures taken by the authorities to insure that they would not happen again. The traditionally warm, familial neighborhood life which had given birth to the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, second-lines, Mardi Gras Indians and "jazz funerals" had been reduced -- by the welfare state, drug sales cartels, planned unemployment, bad school systems and unabated crime -- to a grotesquely shrunken shadow of itself, sharply outlined against the desolate post-industrial landscape and its relentless gangster-rap soundtrack.

The precious seeds, rhythms and practices of ancestral culture -- brought to America on the slave ships, enriched in Haiti and the Caribbean, and allowed to survive and develop in New Orleans -- grew ever fainter as the social structure collapsed, but were never allowed to die out. The beat of daily life in the cityís streets sustained the root forms through even the worst of times, and the care and nurture invested by the master musicians of New Orleans and the Mardi Gras Indian gangs began to be rewarded by the gradual re-birth of the glorious communal rituals and the culture of joyous resistance.

The renaissance of the brass band in the streets of New Orleans is usually traced to the reappearance of guitarist/composer/author Danny Barker in the mid-í60s after 30 years residence in New York City. Working with the Fairview Baptist Church ministry, Mr. Danny recruited a collective of aspiring young musicians and immersed them in the spirit and forms of their ancestral culture to create a brilliant new generation of bands and players who were as much at home in the streets as in nightclubs and corner bars -- young men who were blessed with the understanding of the functionality of their music and the central role it plays in the life of their people.

The Fairview Baptist Church band incubated a succession of important young players -- Greg Davis, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, Michael White, Leroy Jones, Greg Stafford, to name just a few -- who would go on to form the brass bands that would carry the culture forward into the 21st century: the Hurricane, the Young Tuxedo, the Dirty Dozen, the Chosen Few, Re-Birth, the Treme Brass Band, New Birth, the Liíl Rascals. Their emergence also served to rejuvenate the established brass band community, creating an exciting new context for Dejanís Olympia Brass Band, the Algiers, the Pin Stripe, and others who had continued to function within the tradition despite a diminishing demand for their services.

With the music now surging in place and eager to serve the culture, the second line began to swell again behind the resurgent Social Aid & Pleasure Club parades and the traditional funeral processions which had all but crossed over into the historic past. A newly invigorated spirit could be felt, seen and heard in the streets of the city, altogether in spite of the continuing degeneration of the economic and physical environment.

Once the stuff of immeasurable myth and legend, the street culture of the modern era has been thoroughly documented by a succession of recording companies, artists, photographers, filmmakers and videographers who manage to capture many fascinating aspects of the music and public rituals of today. Their work will help provide future generations with a clear picture of what people were doing in the streets of New Orleans in the late 20th century and the first years of the 21st.

There is no closer nor truer witness to the most jubilant nor the most deeply sorrowful moments of public ritual in the streets of our city than Sylvester Francis, the contemporary "Tribal Hawk" who describes himself as "New Orleans native photographer, camera man and historian who specializes in keeping urban street culture alive by documenting the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians, traditional jazz funerals, social aid & pleasure clubs, and second line parades."

Sylvester is always on the scene, at once a full-fledged participant and a fiercely dedicated documentarian who stays in the middle of the action on every level and gets it all down on film and videotape, driven beyond reason by his love for the people and their ancestral culture in all its magnificent emanations. Since 1980 Sylvester has committed every available resource to his mission with little hope of recompense beyond the delighted responses his work invariably elicits from the people whose cultural life he has so brilliantly documented and preserved.

His annual publication, Keeping Jazz Funerals Alive -- A Powerhouse of Knowledge, is a valuable resource which contains important cultural information not otherwise available: a chronicle of the jazz funerals he has witnessed in the past 20 years, plus lists of social aid & pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indian tribes, brass bands, and even the cemetaries where the people are laid to rest.

Now Sylvester has expanded his already considerable service to the community with the establishment of the Back Street Museum on St. Claude, just a block and a half from Armstrong Park. This facility, located in the former Blandin Funeral Home, provides a permanent home for his exhibits and other vivid evidence of the cultural life of the community. Thereís nothing quite like it, and it stands as a monument to the spirit and selfless commitment of Sylvester Francis -- a fearless cultural warrior and true keeper of the flame of African American culture.

--New Orleans
April 26, 2000
© 2000 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.

See the other Sinclair articles

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER