“They Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”: Mardi Gras Indians Uptown and Downtown

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.

The Zulus and Rex Uptown on Mardi Gras Morning

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.

Strange Winter Rituals on a Busy Lundi Gras

Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras Day, is basically a holiday in New Orleans, and thus ordinary things like getting breakfast can become a little complicated. My friend Darren Towns, his wife Jarday, and their children and I had planned to grab a breakfast at a new spot called Cloud 9 Bistro uptown at Magazine and 9th, a place that was supposed to specialize in liege waffles. Unfortunately, because of Lundi Gras, the restaurant had both cooks and servers not show up for work, and the owner stated it would be 45 minutes before he could even take our order. As a result, we walked around the corner to the Red Dog Diner, but they stated that the wait for a table would be at least two hours. Desperate, not to mention starving, I suggested that we try further uptown at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, and although we did have to wait, it was a reasonable length of time, and we got seated. The breakfasts there are always great, and this day was no exception. However, the delays in finding a place and in getting seated meant that when we were through with breakfast, Darren only had about an hour before he was supposed to play at his afternoon gig.
I had traveled to many gigs with Darren and other members of the TBC Brass Band, and almost all of them had been fun, but this one on this particular day was not much fun at all. For one thing, it wasn’t a TBC gig, but rather a pickup band that had been hired for this particular event, and for another, the event had been put together by a certain celebrity performance artist who is often in New Orleans. Her desire to protect her privacy and not disclose her whereabouts meant that I was not to use my phone to film or photograph the goings-on, and that in fact I was to keep my distance from the whole thing. The organizers had given several different addresses to the musicians, perhaps another step in trying to keep paparazzi and other unwelcome guests at bay, and we had gone first to a location in the French Quarter before ending up on a rather desolate street in the 9th Ward neighborhood known as Holy Cross.
The organizers had hired both some Mardi Gras Indians, and musicians, for some sort of outdoor event. They wanted everyone other than the Indians to wear white, and one of the women explained to Darren that they were going to “build an altar” for their ritual, and that they would then walk to the river with the Indians and musicians to “make their offerings.” None of us were quite sure what exactly was going on there, whether voodoo, or New Age, or neo-paganism, but it was all quite strange, to say the least. The weather was bitterly cold as well, and eventually I retreated to the car, where I turned on the heat and sat there for the hour and a half or so that the procession and ceremony continued.
When it was finally all over, Darren and I decided to go and get dinner. Perhaps because of the cold, it never even occurred to me to suggest that we go to the parades. Instead we headed to the new Saltgrass Steakhouse in Metairie, where we enjoyed a steak dinner, and then we stopped by the Cafe du Monde on Veterans Boulevard for after-dinner beignets and coffee. Thoroughly exhausted, we decided not to go out for live music, but to head to the house and get rested up for the big day on the morrow.

Uptown with the Young Men Olympian and the TBC Brass Band

Sherena had never been to a second-line, so on our weekend trip to New Orleans, I wanted her to experience one first-hand. And by chance, we ended up going to the biggest second-line of the year, the four-hour Young Men Olympian second-line, with its five divisions and five bands. As I have discussed elsewhere in this blog, the YMO is the oldest social aid and pleasure club still existing in New Orleans, and would seem to be the largest as well. One of the divisions had hired the TBC Brass Band to play with them, so when we got to the starting point for the second-line after a leisurely breakfast at Slim Goody’s Diner on Magazine Street, we looked for TBC and quickly fell in behind them. Sherena had brought her tambourine, and though it was all new to her, she fell into the rhythm perfectly as if she had been doing it all her life. Despite the hot weather, the turnout was truly large, with hundreds of people buck-jumping behind the various bands. The division behind us had hired the New Creations Brass Band, and I met some of their members when we stopped at the Sportsman’s Lounge at Second and Dryades. When we passed by a cemetery on Washington Avenue, some young boys were actually dancing on top of tombs along the fenceline, an example of the tendency of dancers to look for elevated locations where they can be seen, although there may be further significance to dancing on graves. The act might be a defiance of death itself. But the heat took its toll on Sherena, and the large crowds made it hard for us to keep up with one another. When we got back to Simon Bolivar Street, we decided to leave the second-line and find something indoors and cooler to get into.

A Birthday Party Uptown at Sportsman’s Corner With TBC Brass Band

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.

Lundi Gras From New Orleans to Memphis

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.

Oak Street, New Orleans, Sunday Afternoon on Mardi Gras weekend

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.

Remembering Trumpet Black on a Rainy Monday Morning

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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.

“Won’t Bow Down On That Dirty Ground”: The Mardi Gras Indians Uptown

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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.

A Badly-Needed Brunch at Metairie’s Tic Toc Cafe on Mardi Gras Day

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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.