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 love affair with New Orleans brass bands actually began with a disappointment during the Cutting Edge Music Business Conference back in 2010. Hearing of a place called Donna’s Brass Band Headquarters on Rampart Street, I walked all the way from my hotel room at the Westin Canal Place to it, only to find that it had closed for good, its owners relocated to Florida. I really wasn’t sure what New Orleans brass band music sounded like, but I wanted to find out.
Fortunately, while I was in town for the conference, I saw that the Stooges Brass Band were playing a gig at a place called the Hi-Ho Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, and drove out there to catch it. In those days, the Hi-Ho had a decidedly inner-city vibe about it. People parked on the neutral ground in the middle of St. Claude, and there was a truck out front with a huge oil barrel smoker on the back cooking chicken wings and such. Inside the dark and steamy lounge, a standing-room-only, predominantly-Black crowd was enjoying brass band music, with a large crowd of buckjumpers in front of the stage. I had heard the traditional brass bands at Preservation Hall, but this music was at once rawer, newer and quite different. The rhythms of it were more African or perhaps Caribbean, the attitude more of young Black New Orleans than jazz tradition. I found both the music and the vibe thrilling, and then, unexpectedly, the band decided to take a break. As they walked out the front door to the sidewalk, I heard the beat of drums, and suddenly a brass band materialized from the dark neighborhood behind the lounge. They marched up to the Hi-Ho and called out the Stooges to a battle right in the intersection of the streets, and as the two bands battled back and forth, I was especially impressed with the band that had marched up to challenge the Stooges. As they played a tune that I later would learn was called “Why You Worried About Me”, I asked a young white girl if she knew who they were. She handed me her business card, which said she was Lisa Palumbo, and told me that they were called TBC Brass Band. That night, TBC became my favorite brass band in the world.
Within a year, the Hi-Ho had come under different owners, and brass bands were out. DJ’s, bounce rappers and electronic music were in, and the owners were clearly going for a different crowd. So I never would have imagined in a million years that I would be seeing a brass band in the Hi-Ho Lounge again, and certainly not To Be Continued. But Mardi Gras does strange things, and as I came into New Orleans from my day-long trekk across Mississippi, Brenard “Bunny” Adams texted me that they were playing at the Hi-Ho, so I made my way to the spot as quickly as I could. Finding a place to park was not as easy as it had been eight years before, but I could hear the unmistakable sounds of my favorite brass band coming from the club from several blocks away as I walked up. Unfortunately, as I walked up to the entrance to see about going inside, I heard them announce that the last tune had been their final one, and to wish everyone good night. Although I was disappointed, the TBC band members were glad to see me, and we spent nearly an hour out in front of the club getting caught up and talking, while other bands set up and played for the party crowd that was gearing up for the holidays. Because Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras are actual holidays in Louisiana, lots of people are off work, so the Sunday night parties go on into the wee hours of Monday. But I was exhausted, so I ended my night early at the house of a friend on the West Bank.
Although New Orleans is my favorite city, and it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were in town primarily for a Duwayne Burnside concert that I was playing keyboards on, so we didn’t have the opportunity to really get out and enjoy the parades or other performances. In fact, the parades ended up being more of a bother, as they made it hard for us to get from our condominium to the venue. But where we were staying, on Oak Street, was remarkably quiet and empty on the Sunday afternoon, apparently because everyone was further down St. Charles along the parade route. The holiday also wreaked havoc on our food options, with some places closed altogether and others on three-hour waits. But Pizza Domenica is a great stand-by, as it is just about the best pizza in the city anyway, and usually open even on Sunday or at Mardi-Gras. When we arrived, it was largely empty, but after we were seated, it started quickly filling up with people who were making their way back from the parade, and the place went from dead to crowded in less than a half hour, but we were satisfied and comfortable as we headed to the show venue.
It was perhaps a strange night for Hill Country blues in New Orleans. It was raining heavily. Mardi Gras parades had led to road closures and gridlock across portions of the city. And the NBA All-Star events were going on at the New Orleans Arena. But at the Circle Bar on St. Charles, a small crowd braved the rain and parade aftermath to enjoy the music of Hill Country legend R. L. Boyce, playing with a backing group of local New Orleans musicians. The Circle Bar, located on Lee Circle in the Warehouse District, is a very small venue which books a rather eclectic music schedule on a regular basis, with events ranging from classic rap and hip-hop DJ parties to Mississippi bluesmen like Boyce or Duwayne Burnside, New Orleans classic bands like the Iguanas, or rock groups. It doesn’t sell food, and has almost no room or parking, yet its music policy is free-wheeling and worth checking out. Despite the gloom of the rain, the crowd was in a festive and cheerful mood, many of them decorated with Mardi Gras beads, and some of them dancing to the trance-like grooves that Boyce played on his guitar. R. L. was joined by his daughter Sherena, who danced and played the tambourine, and with a guitarist, bassist and drummer. The show, having started at 11 PM, didn’t end until 2 AM.
When I left the North Claiborne Avenue area, it was dark and I was hungry. I thought about heading on to find something open for dinner, but I decided to head Uptown first and see if I could find any of the Indians out and about on Mardi Gras evening. Thanks to my friends in the TBC Band, I had known exactly where to find the Downtown tribes of Indians, but I was not so sure about the Uptown tribes. There were two places where I thought it likely that I might run into Indians; one of these, Shakespeare Park proved to be a disappointment, as it was mostly dark and unoccupied, as were the streets of the neighborhood around it. There were lots of cars parked in some blocks, but they represented private indoor house parties rather than any outdoor activities. But the other one, the area around 2nd & Dryades is a known hotbed of Indian activities, and is the location of a club called Handa Wanda, where Indian practices take place in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. Sure enough, I was not disappointed, although finding a place to park the car proved difficult. At least three different tribes of Indians were visible, with fair-sized crowds on the sidewalk of First and of Dryades. These Indians seemed a little wilder than those Downtown, the confrontations between tribes a little more heated, the drumming a little rawer and more insistent. At least one encounter between tribes looked as if it was going to become a fight, but somehow tempers were cooled and the tribes parted amicably. Unfortunately, the night’s activities were marred by a girl from the Ninth Ward that had come with one of the tribes. She kept starting an argument with a girl from Uptown, and the argument escalating into fighting. She refused to stop, even when asked to do so by a Big Chief. The recurring fight darkened the mood of those gathered, and the tribes started walking away and getting in cars to go home. A New Orleans police car came through shortly after, but the combatants had already left. It started raining, and I headed down on Magazine to eat at Pizza Domenica, which I had seen open when we passed by on the Jefferson City Buzzards’ bus earlier in the afternoon. The pepperoni pizza was absolutely amazing.
The only thing worse than being cold and starving is being cold and starving after parading for about 7 miles from Audubon Park to Canal Street, so when I finally made it back to my car, the only thing on my mind was getting food and coffee. I had seen the day before that Who Dat Coffee Cafe had been bragging that they would be open all day on Mardi Gras Day, so I decided to try to get from Uptown to the Marigny neighborhood, not an easy task on the holiday, what with all the parades. But I managed to get up to I-610, and from there to Franklin, and once I was on Franklin it wasn’t hard to get to Who Dat. But when I arrived, although they were open and crowded, they told me that they had shut their kitchen down. So I headed back out west to Jefferson Parish, but almost nothing out there was open at all, not even Dot’s Diner. Finally, in desperation, I stopped at the little Tic Toc Diner at I-10 and the Causeway, which was open and crowded. I felt sorry for the people that had to work, but they were fairly cheerful about it all the same, and the bacon and cheese omelette, hash browns and biscuit seemed like the best I had ever had. As I enjoyed my late afternoon brunch, floats were roaring past outside on the Causeway, on their way back to storage from one of the Metairie parades. Warmed and filled, I set out to meet back up with my friends in the TBC Brass Band under the bridge on Claiborne Avenue downtown.
Proteus is one of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes, and the only one of the old original ones to stage a parade on the streets of New Orleans. The other two, Comus and Momus, quit parading after the city passed an ordinance requiring organizations to not discriminate on the basis of race as a condition of receiving a parade permit. The ordinance was later found unconstitutional (primarily because it required all krewes to submit their membership lists to the city), but only Proteus returned to parading. For people used to second-lines, Mardi Gras parades are far different. They are not at all participatory events, and there is no second-lining, and such bands as there are are the more traditional marching bands from local schools and colleges. Still, there is a considerable amount of good music and fun, and of course the beads and medallions that people want. Fortunately, the rain held off through the Proteus parade, and the Krewe of Orpheus parade was lined up to roll directly behind it.
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.
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.
Memphis, unfortunately, is not as much like New Orleans as it should be, despite some obvious points of similarity. We do have krewes, a legacy of the old defunct Cotton Carnival/Carnival Memphis/Kemet, but the krewes don’t hold parades. In fact, the longest Mardi Gras parade in Memphis runs the two blocks of the Beale Street Entertainment District. But Memphis does have a cool New Orleans-themed restaurant called DejaVu, whose owners are originally from the Crescent City, and we do have some great musicians like Suavo J, so on Mardi Gras Day 2014, DejaVu had an all-day Mardi Gras party with live music and free king cake, featuring another one of Suavo’s numerous alter egos, the MemphOrleans Street Symphony, which seems to be an indoor band that takes influences from outdoor brass bands such as the ones in New Orleans. There were set drums rather than the marching snare and bass, and an electric bass rather than a tuba or sousaphone, but the music had a certain New Orleans vibe to it, and at least on this particular day, much of membership seemed to overlap with my homeboy Otis Logan’s band 4 Soul. Logan himself was on drums. So while I was disappointed about not being in New Orleans on Mardi Gras Day (I in fact never have been), I was cheered by the shrimp po-boy, king cake and great music at DeJaVu downtown.