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.
After the Duwayne Burnside performance on Sunday night, we went for a late-night breakfast at the St. Charles Tavern, one of a handful of 24-hour restaurants along the streetcar route on St. Charles Avenue uptown. The place was crowded in the wake of the Mardi Gras parades, balls, concerts and music events, but the service was relatively quick for the level of crowd, and the breakfast food was really good.
About eight hours later, we woke up and checked out of the condominium on Oak Street where we had been staying. We walked up the street to the Oak Street Cafe for breakfast, and as usual, the place was crowded. But because it was Lundi Gras, they were serving a special and extremely-limited menu, unfortunately. Still we managed to get a brunch, and then headed out on the way back to Senatobia and Memphis, stopping briefly in Ponchatoula. In Jackson, wanting seafood, we stopped at Drago’s, a New Orleans favorite that has since expanded to Jackson, and the workers were busy decorating the restaurant for Mardi Gras as we enjoyed our dinner of oysters and shrimp. It was fairly late when we made it back home, and I was glad that I was off work the next day.
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.
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 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.
Because rain was predicted, the city of New Orleans had moved up the starting times of both Lundi Gras parades by an hour. That had managed to keep the Krewe of Proteus parade dry, but it did not suffice for the Krewe of Orpheus parade that followed. My homeboy Darren and I were posted up in front of the Krewe du Brew Coffeehouse, checking out bands from Talladega College and Alcorn State University, but when St. Augustine High School’s Marching Band came past (which was a band I had really hoped to see), a sudden blast of icy cold wind hit us in the face, and within a few minutes, it started raining, and not a few drops, but a downpour. My digital camera did not need to be exposed to water, and so we retreated into the coffeehouse. Eventually, the rain let up enough that we were able to make our way to an area under the Crescent City Connection bridge approach, where Darren said a lot of “band heads” gathered each year to see the bands. Because of the heavy winds, we weren’t entirely dry even under the bridge, but we were at least drier. The temperature had also dropped from 73 to 48 in less than a half-hour, but a festive mood continued under the bridge, where one group of revellers had even hired a DJ to play bounce music between bands. I was most intrigued by the use of flambeaux in the Orpheus parade, I suppose due to tradition, and also to illuminate the elaborate floats at night, although Orpheus is one of the newer krewes, dating only back to 1968 or so. The young men bearing torches brought a cheerful but somewhat mysterious ambiance to the whole thing. When it was finally over, we were thoroughly wet and cold, and set about the task of finding something to eat, which was easier said than done. Such places as were open were fairly crowded, but we managed to get into O’Henry’s on Carrollton and enjoy a hamburger before Darren got called to a last minute TBC Brass Band gig on the West Bank.
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.