The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.
I was exhausted enough that I didn’t wake up early on Mardi Gras morning, and I barely stirred when my friend’s wife got the kids dressed to take them to her mother’s condo uptown so they could watch the parades. I had hoped to go to breakfast with Darren, assuming we could find a place open, which is not easy to do on Mardi Gras Day, but when I saw that he was not going to wake up any time soon, I got dressed and headed down the road to an IHOP that was open near the Oakwood Mall at the border between New Orleans and Gretna. I felt sorry for the people there having to work, but it was nice to be able to get some coffee and a good bacon and cheese omelette. After breakfast, I called Darren and found that he had woken up, but the price I paid for my breakfast was missing the Zulu Parade. But Darren and I headed across the bridge and uptown, and on Washington Avenue, we actually caught up with a portion of the Zulu Parade. Even though rain had been predicted, instead the sun was out, and the temperature was a pleasant 72 degrees. In fact, it seemed as if we had gone from winter to spring in 12 short hours. There were huge crowds along the parade route, and to my disappointment, the float riders in the Zulu parade were quite stingy with their throws, perhaps because they were getting to the end of the parade route. We still managed to catch 30 or so of the Zulu floats, and then we made our way down to the corner of 6th and St. Charles, where we were able to park at Darren’s mother-in-law’s condominium complex in order to catch the Rex parade. Although there were a few bands in the Rex parade, it was less bands and more floats, but the floats were interesting, as they had to do with New Orleans and Louisiana history. It seemed as if there were more beads being thrown in the Rex parade, and eventually, due to the hot weather, I got thirsty, so I walked across the street to the Gracious Bakery and Cafe, which surprisingly was open, and I got an iced coffee. When the Rex parade was over, it was immediately followed by a truck parade sponsored by the Krewe of Elks, but that parade soon came to a halt and stayed stopped for nearly an hour. We didn’t know it at the time, but there had been a shooting along the parade route on St. Charles Avenue, and a teenager had died. But I was not as interested in the truck parade, and hoped to run into the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians, so Darren and I left St. Charles Avenue and headed to the vicinity of Second and Dryades, a known location for the Indian tribes.
My last day in New Orleans is always a little sad, but for this Sunday morning, Darren Towns and I decided to head out to Katie’s, a restaurant in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, which somehow I had never been to. Although the place looked crowded, we were able to get right in, and I was impressed with the shady ambiance of the outdoor seating, although due to the heat, we opted to eat indoors. Katie’s is a full-service restaurant, offering a lot more than breakfast, yet breakfast is what we came for, and Katie’s is amazing. I chose a seafood omelette, asking them to exclude the green onions, which they did, and I enjoyed it very much. While we were enjoying our breakfast, the place crowded up very quickly, and there was soon an hour wait or more, so it’s a good idea to go early. I noticed that Katie’s also offers po-boys and hamburgers, so I will have to visit again when it isn’t breakfast. I don’t know how I missed this place for so long, but I won’t miss it anymore. After leaving there, we headed down to North Claiborne Avenue where there was supposed to be a coffee bar called Addiction, but it wasn’t open. Next door was a strange example of the oddities of gentrification, as the building was the old Clabon Theatre, but its current owners, who apparently didn’t know any better, painted the boarded-up front black, with a legend “The Clabon”, and then for some reason, a map of Claiborne Parish, on the opposite side of the state near Shreveport, showing the location of Homer and Haynesville and such. Of course Claiborne Parish and Claiborne Avenue and The Clabon theatre have nothing in common except having been named for the same governor of Louisiana. But apparently these millennials didn’t know that.
Katie’s Restaurant & Bar
3701 Iberville St
New Orleans, LA 70119
Later in the evening, my homebody Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band had a gig with a pick-up band of musicians from various brass bands for a birthday party at Vaso, a club on Frenchmen Street. Since the City of New Orleans had put a stop to brass bands playing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter around 2009 or so, bands often frequent Frenchmen, a funky, music street that appeals more to locals than tourists, although the police will occasionally run brass bands away from the Marigny neighborhood as well. On this occasion, the birthday girl wanted the band to parade up Frenchmen Street from Vaso to the intersection with Chartres Street and back, but at Chartres, there was another brass band playing at the entrance to a brightly-colored building that has always reminded me of the Caribbean. At least one of their musicians was wearing a shirt for the Young & Talented Brass Band, but Darren told me that the band was comprised of musicians from several different brass bands. As is often the case in New Orleans, the two bands confronted each other, although in a friendly manner, and they quickly locked in with each other on a version of the brass band standard “Tuba Fats”. The crowds of locals and tourists in the intersection near The Praline Connection were thrilled. Eventually, our band headed back down toward Vaso, leaving the other one on their corner. It was one of those serendipitous musical moments that happen frequently in the Crescent City.
New Orleans is actually quite the breakfast city, and it has always had a huge number of choices for food to start the day, but the last year or so has seen even more new locations open up for an eye-opener. On my trip in early August, my Yelp app (which I heartily recommend as the best way to discover new restaurants) showed a place called Two Chicks Cafe near the Convention Center in the Central Business District. So, with my friend Darren Towns of the To Be Continued Brass Band, we headed to the CBD, and with a little difficulty, found the location, which is about a block from the Howling Wolf. Despite the Convention Center Boulevard address, the cafe really fronts on Diamond Street, and there is street parking in front, although it costs. Although the place is fairly small, it didn’t feel cramped, and it was bright and sunny, with plenty of glass. The menu includes breakfast and lunch items, and is surprisingly varied and diverse, with options ranging from juices and breakfast sandwiches to omelettes, sandwiches and po-boys. I opted for the seafood omelette, and was very impressed , and my friend thoroughly enjoyed his breakfast as well. Service was prompt and cheerful, and prices reasonable. Two Chicks is definitely a welcome addition to the breakfast scene in New Orleans.
Two Chicks Cafe
901 Convention Center Blvd, Suite 109
New Orleans, LA 70130
After getting off work, I changed clothes, packed my car and headed out Interstate 55 into Mississippi. My friend, the trombonist Edward Jackson had asked me to come to New Orleans and record on his album, so I decided to head down for the weekend, passing through a fair amount of rain as I headed through Jackson and into Louisiana. When I got to New Orleans, my friend Darren Towns, the bass drummer for the To Be Continued Brass Band told me that they were heading to a gig at a club on St. Bernard Avenue, so I met them there, and afterwards he and I headed to the Port of Call on Esplanade for a steak dinner. But it was TBC’s second gig of the evening that I had been looking forward to, a birthday party at midnight at the Sportsman’s Corner uptown on the corner of Second and Dryades. The place was literally standing room only, and TBC brought the kind of energy they always bring, particularly when they are playing for the hood. After about a 20-minute set for the 100 or so people that were inside the club, they headed back outside and disbanded. It was my first time inside this bar, which serves as a headquarters to the Wild Magnolias tribe, and it was an awesome brass band experience in my favorite city.
Monday morning was still overcast and rainy, but at least the rain had breaks in it. My homeboy Darren and I went and picked up Bunny, the tuba player from the TBC Brass Band, and we all headed over to my favorite breakfast place, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe on Burgundy in the Marigny neighborhood. Afterwards, we headed over to the Treme neighborhood, where there was a new mural in honor of the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill, the musician who died suddenly in Japan earlier in the year due to complications from a dental procedure. Although the rain was starting back up, we managed to take some pictures there, and then I was trying to pick up a TBC Brass Band t-shirt, but we could not get in touch with the band member who had the shirts. So I dropped Darren and Bunny back off, headed Uptown to a new coffee bar called French Truck Coffee, which was really good, and then hit the road back toward Memphis.
When I headed out from Monroe on Sunday morning, it was still raining. Although I had hoped the rain would end, it really did not, and was still going on when I arrived in New Orleans. I stopped and ate lunch at a place called Dis & Dat on Banks Street, a burger concept opened by the same people who started Dat Dog. From there I made my way over to the Treme Coffeehouse, and enjoyed a latte, as the second-line I had hoped to see was not being held due to the rain. Instead, I called my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band, and we ended up riding out to Pizza Domenica with him, and then to the Maison Bourbon for live jazz. Ultimately, we ended up at the Howling Wolf in the Central Business District, where the Hot 8 Brass Band plays every Sunday night.
Not only is Mardi Gras a legal holiday in Louisiana, but so is Lundi Gras, the Monday before, and kids are out of school and a lot of people off from work. Finding places to eat can be more difficult than usual, so I was thrilled to see that my favorite breakfast spot, the Who Dat Coffee Cafe in the Marigny neighborhood, was open with a full menu. Thus fueled for the day, my homeboy Darren from the TBC Brass Band and I headed uptown to check out the parade route along St. Charles Avenue, on a day that was gloomy and overcast, yet a balmy 73 degrees. This was my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and I soon learned some interesting facts. People will start showing up at 5 in the morning to stake their claim to neutral ground or sidewalk space along St. Charles Avenue, using either lawn furniture, or elaborate, decorated ladders that seem designed uniquely for the purpose. The latter had brightly-colored wooden boxes at the top, presumably for catching beads or doubloons thrown from floats during the parade. A few people had set up tents, and some people were already sitting in their chairs along the route, even though it was only around 11 AM, and the parades were still five hours away, their start times moved up an hour due to the threat of rain. I also learned about “bead trees”, small trees along the parade route covered with beads instead of blossoms. I actually wasn’t sure whether the trees “catch” the beads as they are tossed from floats, or whether people throw beads into them on purpose, but either way, they are beautiful. Almost no tree along St. Charles Avenue was completely devoid of beads, and homeowners along the route had used them to decorate their wrought-iron fencing. Most houses were thoroughly decorated for the holiday as well, suggesting that Mardi Gras has the same importance as Christmas in New Orleans. A few of the larger groups along the parade route had set off their locations with tents, and one of these had a rudimentary brass band of a sort playing on the neutral ground. Darren and I walked all the way to the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, and then made our way back to a spot just outside the Krewe du Brewe coffee house, where we posted up for the start of the earlier parade, known as Proteus.
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.