Malon McGee remembers the first time she hit the stage at Jazz Fest. She was 7 years old and performed with the group Young Guardians of the Flame of the Maroon Society.
“As far as I can remember, it was a lot of dancing,” McGee, 22, said. “I would be the lead singer to the song ‘Guarding the Flame.’”
The Young Guardians of the Flame have been performing at Jazz Fest since 1992. The show, which features youths up to 12 years old, is an “educational presentation that shares the cultural and historical aspects of masking through the performance of children,” Roslyn Smith, one of the coordinators for the performance, said.
The annual presentation is a family tradition created by former Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., who founded the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society in 1988.
“The children made their Jazz Fest debut in 1989 on the big stage with my dad,” said Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson. Young Guardians of the Flame formed their own group in 1990, she said.
The showcase is a part of the Guardians Institute’s Donald Harrison Sr., Book Club and Sankofa literacy program. The Institute’s Sankofa Saturdays features a variety of programming including a book club focused on fiscal and reading literacy, creative writing workshops and community service. There are also beginner music classes for aspiring musicians, poetry recital workshops and classes on quilt making techniques.
The Guardians Institute has donated more than 35,000 books to New Orleans schools and community youth through its Sankofa literacy program, Harrison-Nelson said.
“You have to be a role model for the youth and for the kids, whether that’s what you signed up to do or not,” said Big Chief Brian Nelson, current Big Chief of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society.
Guardians of the Flame is not just a title, it is a way of life, said Harrison-Nelson, who usually carries the youngest Young Guardian of the Flame child on her hip during the group’s Jazz Fest performances.
The program instills in youth the importance of being “rooted in knowing that you have inherited something,” said Harrison-Nelson. “We want children to know that they are not entertaining, they are educating, but it’s fun.”
This year the Young Guardians will be performing in the Kids Tent at Jazz Fest on Sunday (May 7) from 12:35 p.m. to 1:20 p.m.
Festival goers can expect an experience that includes singing, dancing, martial arts, New Orleans Indian Masking with musical influences from Cuba, Brazil and Africa.
“They’re going to be drumming with Papa Titos Sompa [this year], who is from the Congo, doing a performance with him where he has them singing [an] African song and playing African instruments,” Smith said.
Smith has two grandchildren performing at this year’s Jazz Fest: Princess Ariya, 10, and Wild Man Nicholas, 12. Princess Ariya will perform the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society birthday song in French, while another Young Guardian sings it in Spanish.
“We have a call and response and all of the birthday celebrants for the month of May will get a plume, a long feather,” Smith said.
Sunday’s show will also feature a Brazilian jiu-jitsu demonstration and a sing-a-long of old hymns. The youth are paid for their Jazz Fest performance through what Harrison-Nelson calls a “love offering.”
“Being with the Young Guardians of the Flame showed me that there’s many different aspects and different paths you can take,” said McGee, who played the saxophone during her Jazz Fest performances. “It helped me to make positive decisions in life and walk down the good path.”
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