Friday, November 24, 2023

Damon Batiste. NOSACONN. A Local, National, and International Family Affair.


by: Helena Deville Shaw

CSAN 3250 - History of Anthropology of New Orleans

Tulane University

Dec 2011, updated December 2012


NEW ORLEANS AGENDA - "Most of the time, folks think that I'm a lot older because they've heard about my work for a while," says 43 year-old percussionist and New Orleans cultural icon, Damon Batiste. "They think I'm this old man, you know, like in my 70s."  Batiste has deep roots in New Orleans culture.  He's been a part of the Batiste Brothers Band since 1978 and is the son of keyboardist, David Batiste.

According to Paul Batiste, Damon's uncle and leader of the Batiste Brothers Band, The New Orleans Batiste family holds the title of, "Louisiana's largest musical family."  Damon's grandparents, on his father's side, are John Jeffrey Batiste and Estella Curtis Batiste. 

John Jeffrey Batiste, born in 1913, with Cajun French roots, is from New Iberia.  In recent years, the Batiste family learned they were related to other New Orleans legendary artists who shared the name Batiste, even though some of their names were spelled differently.  According to Damon, his family is related to, Alvin Batiste - a musical educator and clarinetist; Harold Battiste - a record label founder, composer and saxophonist, as well as the band director for Sonny and Cher; and Milton Batiste who played the trumpet "always with a smile."

"Well, we didn't know that we were even related," says Batiste.  "Harold, you know, someone went to the genealogy institute and found that out and the name [John Batiste] was really Jean Batiste, but because of the Africans birth certificates, a lot of times the name didn't matter on the birth certificate.  You were who somebody else said you were.  So in those days, birth certificates weren't a big thing.  So some folks put two 't's or a 'p' in the name."

Estella, African-American, was born in 1915 and raised in Georgia, but not unlike many African-Americans, her ancestry is unknown.  Just as Neb Sublette points out in his book, The World That Made New Orleans, "slaves in the United States have lost their ancestral vocabulary, and were raised from birth to have no past and no future, as members of an eternally subjugated caste whose great-grandchildren would be born into slavery."

Estella and Jean Batiste met in New York City and settled in New Orleans.  They had seven boys, including Damon's father, David.

Estella was 92 years old when she died in 2007, and Jean just passed away June 27, 2012 at 99 years old.  According to Damon, his grandfather was one of the first African-American business owners in the Ninth Ward.  When David was 17, his father bought the boys a piano, but Estella was the musical driving force in the family.  She taught music to her children and was responsible for the creation of the Batiste Brothers Band.  But before that, David's band was called David and Gladiators.

"Well, David and the Gladiators was my father, and the Gladiators became the Batiste Brothers Band when my dad went on to join the Meters," says Damon.  When David left the Meters and joined the Batiste Brothers Band, Damon and his brother Russell also became part of the family band.  "I think he was fifteen years old at the time, and I was thirteen."

As young as six and seven years of age, Damon was on the stage with his father, along with a variety of major Blues artists, including Jackie Wilson.  So Damon has been surrounded by talented musicians his entire life.  The Batiste Brothers Band toured Japan on a regular basis, making Damon a world traveler at a very young age.  He also comes from a very large immediate family, with fifteen brothers and sisters.

Damon went to St. Stephens Elementary School and St. Augustine High School, then attended Southern University of New Orleans and the University of Southwest Louisiana.  At the age of 19, while still in college, Damon started working with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

"I was the Assistant Director with the community events for the kids," says Damon.  Because of his knowledge and experience in music, he played a unique role in the development of Jazz Fest for a number of years.  He has also performed at Jazz Fest over the years with the Batiste Brothers Band.

Damon also played an instrumental role in the development of music venues along Frenchmen Street.  Initially, he was even an investor in Ray's Boom Boom Room on Frenchmen Street, where he played together with his good friend, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Shaka Zulu in a band called Damon Batiste and the New Orleans All Stars.  Chief Shaka Zulu is a renowned New Orleans stilt dancer, and owns the Golden Feather Restaurant and Museum across from Congo Square.  Zulu is also a Vice President of NOSACONN, and works very closely with Damon on many of his projects.

Damon has performed with other prominent New Orleans bands as well.  He recorded a live funk song with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, featuring the djembe drum.  He's also played with George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars in their HBO special in Aruba.

But Damon has committed his adult life to preserving and growing New Orleans culture and music through a variety of programs and ventures.  His accomplishments are both numerous and admirable.

In 1998, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial selected Damon as the New Orleans Cultural Ambassador to South Africa.  Damon was asked by the State office of Economic Development to go to South Africa on a fact-finding mission during the African Renaissance - at the end of Apartheid in South Africa.  Their goal, to develop trade and business opportunities between New Orleans and South Africa, was a great success, motivating Damon to continue pursuit of cultural bonds and trade between South Africa and New Orleans.

"Africa was being explored on just the possibilities," says Batiste, "but I took my own initiative after visiting townships to say that, now that government has given me a chance, how can I do it and keep it going as a non-profit, where it's tied to government with relationships, but I'm not a government employee?  So I formalized, with the help of South Africans because I had to work closely with them.  It was pretty amazing to South Africans for somebody from America to just come over there.  You know, it's just taking ownership and not really asking anyone what should be done."


So in 1998, Damon created a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization to promote music, art, culture, film, trade and arts in education, for economic development and tourism, between the United States and Africa.  He named the organization "New Orleans South Africa Connection, Inc." (NOSACONN) and has worked tirelessly with countless ambassadors, celebrities and government officials, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

NOSACONN's mission is a great success story, with a long list of accomplishments.  In 2004, NOSACONN sponsored over 150 South African artists, highlighting South Africa, at the 2004 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  Damon also prepared a mission statement for South Africa, at the end of Apartheid, which he believes resulted in South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup.  He's made numerous trips to South Africa, and was even able to attend Nelson Mandela's 80th birthday. 


In October and November 2010, NOSACONN sponsored the KCAP Drummers, Dancers and Theatrical Performers from Durban, South Africa.  They performed for the New Orleans City Council and participated in the New Orleans Halloween parade.

In December 2011, Damon traveled back to South Africa for a film festival he has been involved in developing.  This year, for the first time, both Winton Marsalis and Lil' Wayne visited South Africa during the film festival.

One of the most exciting and promising of Damon's achievements is the NOSACONN-sponsored, "AM/PM After School Program and Summer Camps."  This unique after-school enrichment program's motto is, "Linking Worlds Together that are Worlds Apart," and is focused on academic as well as cultural arts enrichment.  The program is operating at five New Orleans schools, serving over 700 students and is dedicated to the realization of the five following measurable goals:

1. Participants will demonstrate increased academic achievement in reading and mathematics;
2. Participants will demonstrate improved social skills and class participation/homework completion in other subject areas;
3. Participants will demonstrate positive behavioral changes (i.e. attendance, decrease in disciplinary actions, respectfulness, and a decrease in other adverse behaviors);
4. The AM/PM program will provide services that benefit the entire community, including families, as well as collaborating with other agencies and non-profit organizations; and
5. The AM/PM program will aid in increasing students' knowledge, participation, and skill in the arts. Participants in the program will improve their skill in one artistic discipline per semester session

The program, funded by the 21st Century Grant, has been a huge success and viewed as an exemplary program.  Its vision is based on the premise that children will achieve in a safe, caring and supportive environment, when goals are set with high expectations, and the adults that care for them are committed to their academic and social development.  Sponsored activities in the cultural arts program include a marching band, dance, creative writing, visual arts, film, photography, foreign language, and media technology. 


But by far, that is not the only area where Damon Batiste gives back to the New Orleans community.  The Batiste family was approached by Senator Mary Landrieu to create an innovative new approach to learning, utilizing one failing urban school.  The school they chose was Live Oak Elementary School at 3128 Constance Street.  Thus, the Batiste Cultural Arts Academy was co-founded by Damon Batiste in 2008, and it too has become an exemplary program.

"It made sense to them because there was a big need to bring the community into this thing," says Damon.  "At the start of this, the whole city changed because everything became education and charter schools.  So we set up a movement...  I would say the movement that we started here is probably going to be one of the biggest movements in the history of education.  We are now one of the best places for innovation in the whole country.  It's become an example of how you do things.   I told my dad, I said, 'Dad, watch what happens.'  It's been a great transformation to be a part of something like this." 


A father himself, Damon and his wife Johana, have two daughters and a son.  His daughters, Leileh Marie and Nala Jean, have shown early signs of their own musical interests.  His son, Damon Batiste, Jr. (D.J.), born with cerebral palsy, is a source of inspiration for Damon. 


Motivated by music, Damon has made a concentrated effort to utilize every creative asset at his disposal to preserving, teaching and promoting the culture that is New Orleans, as well as serving as an advocate and role model for New Orleans' at risk kids. 

"My greatest gift," says Batiste, "is actually seeing creative children.  When I look at them and they smile, that means so much!"

Damon Batiste is currently in the process of expanding NOSACONN cultural

relations between New Orleans and other parts of Africa, including, but not limited to Uganda and the Congo.  But he has also started a new venture in promoting similar cultural exchange programs between not just New Orleans, but all of French Louisiana, and France.  On his first trip to Paris, he immediately sparked interest in his new idea.  Because his efforts have been so successful between New Orleans and South Africa, he believes he can achieve similar success between Louisiana and France, and he is well on his way. 


A NOSACONN delegation, including Damon, his father David, his brothers - Jamal, Russell and Ryan, along with musicians Donald Harrison, Jason Neville and Cyril Neville, as well as Chief Shaka Zulu just performed at the Alunay All Blues Festival, just outside of Paris, Nov 19 - 24.  The New Orleans delegation showcased two successful performances: A Tribute to Congo Square, and the Batiste Family Extravaganza.  Damon also served on the Congo Square panel for a colloquium conference during the festival.  It is safe to say that Damon's new cultural partnership between New Orleans and Paris is off to a good start.

It is hard to believe that a single individual could accomplish as much as

Damon Batiste at the age of 43, but the fruits of his labor are ever-present from New Orleans to South Africa.  With exciting new ventures on the horizon, Damon Batiste will go down in history for his dedicated works and commitment to improving the education of urban children as well as preserving and promoting the cultural uniqueness of New Orleans. 


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