Although there are fall jamborees, the cold winter months are the high point of majorette jamboree season in Memphis. Majorette jamborees exist in other cities, but they are a unique part of Memphis culture, at least in their original incarnation, where drill teams and majorettes worked out routines to beats and grooves provided by a squad of drummers. This concept dates at least as far back as the late 1960’s, and at least one such squad, the Klondike Drum and Bugle Corps, was described in a Commercial Appeal article in 1970 as doing a step called the “Moonwalk”, long before Michael Jackson became famous for it. Unfortunately, the majorette jamborees I recall from my teenage years are largely a thing of the past, as today’s majorettes tend to work out their routine to popular songs on compact discs rather than drums and drummers. However, at the Sophisticated Divas jamboree at the JIFF Center in Downtown Memphis last Saturday, at least three of the competing groups included drummers, so the traditional format is at least hanging on by a thread. The Millennium Madness Drill Team has always included drummers, but this year’s squad is larger than what I’ve seen in the past. The Black Diamonds had a drum squad that competed in one category, and Crump Elementary always has a drum squad and a majorette team. The rest of the competitors were working out to recordings, but I was also impressed with a local dance group known as M-Town Image. A number of reasons have been proposed for why drill teams and majorettes have dispensed with drummers, including lack of money or equipment, lack of interested young men wanting to play, and lack of suitable percussion instructors. In a city where there are far too few wholesome activities for young people, particularly young men, here’s hoping that someone steps up to get the young men interested in playing drums, or other musical instruments.
The Black Indians of New Orleans have always fascinated me. I read about them long before I had ever seen one. Their culture is ancient (perhaps as far back as the 19th century), and fairly secret, although the recording of musical albums shed some light on the otherwise mysterious subculture, and the Indians seem less shy of the cameras and spotlights these days, perhaps recognizing public awareness as a potential ally in helping to preserve the culture.
Certainly, in the old days, I would not have been able to attend an Indian practice. Such events were unpublicized, held in obscure neighborhood bars and generally closed to outsiders unless one was invited. But nowadays, some of the practices are listed on the events boards for WWOZ, Gambit or OffBeat, and one of the early arrivers for the morning’s second-line had mentioned that a practice would be going on that night at a club called Handa Wanda, so I knew that I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
The Mardi Gras Indians (really a misnomer, since the gangs of Indians exist year-round) are groups of working-class Black men who “mask Indian” and are organized into what they call “gangs” rather than “tribes.” At one time, before Hurricane Katrina, there were said to be 25 of these gangs, with names like the Wild Magnolias, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Creole Wild West and so on. They traditionally appeared on Mardi Gras day, and on St. Joseph’s Night, a Catholic holiday associated with working men. By the early 1970’s, a third holiday had been added called Super Sunday in March, held on different weekends for the Uptown and Downtown tribes, giving them an opportunity to show off their elaborate, homemade costumes. The tradition would seem to be ancient. Earliest references to Black men masquerading as Indians in New Orleans can be found in newspapers from the late 19th century, and through the first five decades of the 20th century, confrontations between these gangs of Indians could occasionally grow violent. Much of the violence began to subside during the 1960’s, and the emphasis shifted to beautiful, intricate costumes, and following a protocol of danced combat when gangs meet in the streets.
But Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Indian tradition, much like she devastated every other aspect of New Orleans. Prior to the storm, most Indian gangs had separate practices in their neighborhood bars, but the practice I was attending tonight was billed as a “Unified Indian Practice”, meaning a practice at which members of multiple tribes could participate, at least in part perhaps because there are fewer tribes and fewer practices these days. Like all Black Indian activities, the practice began with the singing of “My Indian Red”, a song that Indians refer to as a prayer. Its lyrics state “Indians of the nation, the whole wild creation, we won’t bow down, on that dirty ground” setting forth the bravery and pride that characterized the tradition’s earliest years. After that, there were about five or six drummers on stage, with two bass drums, congas and bongos, and to the insistent rhythm they started, the Indians in the hall began to run through their traditional chants, all of them structured in typical African call-and-response, and including many fragments of an Indian language that is rather mysterious. Such words as “handa wanda, hoo-don-day, two-way-pock-e-way, jockamo fin-na-nay” are all examples of this language that are likely familiar to New Orleans music fans through their incorporation into popular song. Just exactly what these phrases actually mean, however, is something of a mystery. Scholars have suggested links with Spanish or French words, but many of their conclusions are far-fetched, and cannot be proven anyway.
On occasions, the big chief who was presiding over the practice grew annoyed when he didn’t feel enough people were singing the words. “You should know these songs. This is the reason a lot of big chiefs don’t hold practices anymore,” he said. “The culture is dying, and we are trying to keep it alive.” But the culture didn’t seem dead on this particular night. It seemed as alive as ever. The room had been somewhat chilly before the practice, but it was downright hot now. The drummers’ faces were covered with sweat, the Indians in the middle of the room danced and jumped to the rhythm with enthusiasm, and those around the edges of the room and upstairs cheered them on. Aesthetically, it could have been a scene from the Caribbean or even from Africa, but it was actually right in the 3rd Ward of New Orleans, not a block from where our second-line had passed earlier in the afternoon. All too soon, the practice came to an end. If it hadn’t, I probably would have remained there all night.
Last year, the Lady Jetsetters second-line had started in the new apartments that replaced the Calliope projects, but this year the starting point was a placed called Ed’s Bar in a neighborhood to the north called Zion City, caught in a triangle between Washington Avenue, Earhart Boulevard and South Broad Street. I had never heard of Zion City, but as I walked its streets toward the parade’s starting point, I was amazed at how isolated and rural it looked. A lot of houses and buildings were abandoned, and clearly this area had not come back much since the hurricane. But some of the houses were occupied, there were a few churches, and a bicycle repair shop for the neighborhood kids, and a tiny bar tucked between two houses where vendors and second-liners had gathered. Soon some musicians began to appear as well, members of the Stooges Brass Band who had been engaged for the day’s events. The weather was warm and pleasant, and as we headed out Washington Avenue, we were already a large group. Like all second-lines, the crowd grew bigger as we proceeded, and the dancers became more exuberant, with young men jumping up on roofs and slamming street signs as we came to intersections. Toward the end of the afternoon, the Stooges began playing a number of crowd favorites, including Deniece Williams’ “Cause You Love Me Baby” and Mel Waiters’ “Got My Whiskey”. Although the parade disbanded at the Foxx II on Washington Avenue, it wasn’t all that far away from where we began, and it was easy enough to walk it.
After dinner, I had tried to go to the Kermit Ruffins/Rebirth Brass Band show at Tipitina’s, but they would not allow me inside because I had camera equipment. And TBC had a gig in Avondale anyway, so I headed out to New Orleans East and checked into my motel room, and by that point it was time to head to the Avondale gig, which started at midnight. The location proved to be another hole-in-the-wall club, this one across the street from a large and busy truckstop on Highway 90. The event was apparently a birthday party, and the little club was packed to overflowing, but somehow or other the crowd parted and TBC made their way inside to play for around 20 minutes or so, then marched back out the door and disbanded outside. By then it was nearly 1 in the morning, and I decided to call it a night.
Normally, when I drive into New Orleans, my first order of business is to hit a restaurant and get something to eat, but on this particular Saturday, Darren Towns, my bass-drumming partner from the TBC Brass Band had told me that the band had a gig in the French Quarter at 5 PM, so I came straight off the Causeway and headed into the Treme neighborhood, because there’s always free parking available near the Treme Coffeehouse, and when the weather is fairly pleasant and warm, as this day was, the walk is not difficult and rather enjoyable. Unfortunately, I arrived at the museum where the parade was to start a little late, and the band and revelers had already left. I actually had already run into them as I was passing Jackson Square, but I didn’t recognize them because the tuba player was playing a green tuba, and I had never seen Bunny from the TBC with a green tuba. Finding everything dead around the Pharmacy Museum, I decided that the band I had seen must have been TBC after all, so following the distant sounds I heard, I caught back up with them on Royal Street. My eye caught Darren’s and he smiled, and tourists in the quarter were lining the street and filming. The occasion was actually just a private wedding, but quite a crowd was assembling all the same. We headed around the Supreme Court of Louisiana building and finally ended up at K Paul’s Restaurant, where the whole thing came to an end. It was a great way to start a weekend in New Orleans, and Bunny and Darren decided to meet me at Frankie and Johnny’s uptown for some seafood.
Memphis soul singer Devin Crutcher comes from a legendary musical family in Memphis, the family of Stax songwriter Bettye Crutcher, and is probably the most in-demand male singer in the city today. He can be heard at different venues most nights of any week in Memphis, but it is not so common for him to appear with the excellent 4 Soul Band, which my friend Otis Logan is the drummer for. So when I heard that Devin Crutcher would be performing with 4 Soul and some sort of fashion and hair extravaganza at the Ice Bar on a Sunday night, I made plans to be there. 4 Soul is one of the city’s best soul and funk bands, and Devin is one of the best singers, so his brief two sets of music were a treat indeed, separated by a brief fashion show.
My homeboy Otis Logan had told me about an event that Devin Steel of K-97 was sponsoring at the Hi-Tone called the Kickback. The party was to feature several DJ’s, back by Otis on drums, and Otis’ band 4 Soul was supposed to play as well, so I decided to go. The new Hi-Tone on Cleveland seems somewhat smaller than the old Hi-Tone, but it filled up quickly. For most of the evening, Otis was on drums behind several different DJ’s, soloing, adding fills and breakdowns and amplifying the grooves. Briefly, the whole 4 Soul Band played behind the DJ’s as well. The drum and DJ format is new to Memphis, but the crowd seemed to enjoy themselves.
The TBC Brass Band had two gigs on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, but fortunately, there was enough time between the first one and the second one for my homeboy Darren and I to grab dinner at a new spot in Uptown New Orleans on Freret Street called the Hi Hat. The second gig was at a little hole-in-the-wall club in Gentilly that had a crowd spilling out onto the front lot and the street. This event was apparently also a birthday party, but instead of having the band come inside the tiny club, the decision was made to have them play on the outside and then parade around the neighborhood with the revelers. It was wild, but the whole thing amounted to a little late-night second-line that lasted about 20 minutes. Altogether, it was a lot of fun.
At the end of the second-line, my homeboy Darren had to leave out quickly because the To Be Continued Brass Band had a gig at an apartment complex in New Orleans East, and I wanted to go as well, so we headed out there as quickly as we could, and found that it was a birthday party. With the weather so warm, a huge crowd of people came out to the courtyard to dance and party as TBC played. On trombone was Edward “Juicy” Jackson, just back from Southern University in Baton Rouge (the Bayou Classic had been the day before), and it was great to see him. The band played for about a half hour, and then we all headed out.
In New Orleans, “buckjumping” is another name for second-lining (in Memphis, it refers to “gangsta walking”), but the term “buckjump” seems to have masculine connotations, and by some accounts, in the earlier days of Black New Orleans culture, it was not common for women to second-line. So, when a group of women started a social aid and pleasure club, they named it the Lady Buckjumpers. Nowadays, they have a men’s auxiliary called the Male Buckjumpers, and their uptown New Orleans parade in November featured two brass bands, the Stooges and the Rebirth, and was one of the largest second-lines I have ever seen. Despite being the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the weather was warm and sunny, and there was a decent crowd at the beginning of the parade route, and of course second-lines pick up participants as they proceed. Here and there, exuberant dancers jumped up on power boxes, roofs, porches, and even graves as we passed by a cemetery, while others slammed the street signs as hard as they could, a tradition whose rationale has been lost to time. At each stop along the route, the crowd seemed to grow larger, and at one of them, the Rebirth Brass Band didn’t take the break, but rather gathered in a circle and played a haunting rendition of “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday.” The act seemed a ritual, probably in honor of fallen musicians. My homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band had come with me, and fortunately, he had left his car at one end of the parade, and I had left mine at the other, as this was one of those second-lines that ended several miles away from where it started. At the end of it, I was thoroughly tired, but the pleasant sort of tired, for nobody can really leave a second-line unhappy.