Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Elements of Carnival in New Orleans: Part III

As they had for decades, [brass bands] provided the music for the endless cycle of dances and parades in New Orleans, popularizing the startling fusion of influences and celebration that came to be hails as the only original art form created in America. It would be hyperbole, if not false, to name jazz a child of Carnival, however the joyous license of the music owes more than a passing acquaintance to the liberties of Mardi Gras and a population long-accustomed to dancing in the streets
--Henri Schindler

The organizations that create floats for the Carnival parades are called Krewes. For instance, the people who ride the Zulu floats are called the Krewe of Zulu. The riders for the Rex floats are called the Krewe of Rex. In New Orleans, there is a hierarchy when it comes to Krewes. Throughout the weekends leading up to Mardi Gras, there are many parades that travel through different parts of the city. Some of them are relatively young or small but lots of fun, nonetheless. One of my personal favorites is the Krewe of Barkus. Others Krewes are humungous and have a long standing history with the city. There's Bacchus (a infamously raucous Krewe) and Orpheus (I have family in this one) and Endymion and Iris (a women-only Krewe with over 1000 members) and Zeus (celebrating their 50th anniversary this year).
When it comes to the top of the hierarchy the creme de la creme Krewes parade on Mardi Gras day. While they are certainly not the only ones, the hands-down most important ones are Zulu and Rex. I could derail this entire list by elaborating on these two organizations. They represent the essence of Mardi Gras. As Zulu and Rex go, so goes the city of New Orleans. Being a member of one of these Krewes means you are among the aristocracy of New Orleanian culture. On Mardi Gras day, the local newspaper devotes it's front pages to interviews with the King and Queen of each of these two Krewes. No one else receives that honor, not even President Bush got that sort of attention when he visited.

Brass Bands: Almost every musician in New Orleans got their start in a brass band. These groups can range from four or five members to 15 or more for the larger ones. They are the ultimate keepers of our Jazz music traditions in New Orleans. Brass bands perform many different functions within the community. You can sometimes catch them playing gigs at local clubs or accompanying a "tribe" full of wild Mardi Gras indians but that's not the only place they can be found. They can be hired to perform at birthday parties or weddings but their most important role is the services they provide for the dead.
In New Orleans, we have a funerary tradition that can be found no place else on the face of the earth. A jazz funeral is the last and finest way of showing respect for the dead. It's an honor reserved for important political figures, members of social aid & pleasure clubs, and the city's musicians themselves. I remember when my brother performed in the brass band that played for Doc Cheatam. He was especially affected by the death of the Doc because he'd had the honor of playing a gig with Cheatam at the JazzFest just a couple of months earlier. The Doc died eleven days before his 92nd birthday and the city mourned his loss according to our traditions.
While the average folks usually can't afford the sort of jazz funeral that the mayors and the Carnival royalty receive, even in this disproportionately-poor city, poor people can provide their dead loved one with the proper send-off for only a few hundred dollars. For that price, the brass band will come out and (after the minister/priest's prayer) play the saddest, sweetest jazz dirges you've ever heard. Then, after all have had time to openly express their grief, the band slowly picks up the tempo and the rejoicing begins. They belt out tune after tune filled with music designed to celebrate the deceased person's ascent into the heavens. The dancing that accompanies this music is referred to as "second-lining". Courtesy also dictates that you at offer them some food and drink after they finish playing.
A lot of brass bands make almost nothing off of these gigs yet they keep the prices low enough that even those in the poorest communities can afford to hire them. On more than one occasion, I've seen people in the housing projects pool their funds and provide a dead resident's family with the money they need to hire the brass band. But don't think that means they don't know the true monetary worth of their services. When you see a brass band marching with a parade during Carnival, performing their particularly boisterous form of jazz with its joyous call-and-response elements, just know that they are smiling because they'll have a nice chunk of change jingling in their pockets by the end of the night.
Mardi Gras Indians:
Of all the groups you may be fortunate enough to see during Carnival, the Mardi Gras Indians are the least understood by outsiders. I belong to an online group for Native Americans (NAs) and, a few years ago, one of the 24-hour news stations showed some footage of the Mardi Gras Indians. The next day, some members of the NA group logged on and left several scathing comments about how these black people were trying to mockingly imitate their culture. If I wasn't from here and I saw just a few pictures of them, I am sure I'd have been inclined to believe the same thing because this country has a history of appropriating elements of NA culture in order to create crude caricatures for the enjoyment of non-NA's. However, the Mardi Gras Indians are an entirely different case.
The origin of these groups comes from the period in history where slavery existed in New Orleans. The French first attempted to use the NAs as slaves but when that proved unsuccessful, they switched to kidnapping people from western Africa and using them as slaves. Because the Africans were on unfamiliar territory, they could not escape from slavery as easily as the NAs that the French originally tried to capture.
These Africans were forced to work for their "owners"--I refuse to go along with the notion that they ANYONE can ever truly own another human being--every day except for Sundays. On Sundays, the slaves were allowed to go and sell their wares (that they somehow managed to produce in their spare time) at a place called Congo Square. This area quickly became an place where the African slaves had the opportunity to congregate and freely engage in traditional dancing, singing and religious rituals.
Congo Square was located in what had been, prior to colonization by the French, the territory of several different NA tribes. Even after the French came along, the NA tribes continued to use these prime hunting and fishing grounds as they had during centuries before. As a result, the NAs and Africans became familiar with one another and began to exchange goods as well as ideas for getting rid of the rightfully-hated French colonizers.
Their relationship proved to be very fruitful. Many Africans who escaped from their French "owners" managed to find refuge in the NA colonies. Because the NAs knew the territory better than them, the French were often disinclined to go venture far beyond their own enclaves. Over time, the NA and African populations became intertwined through marriage and treaties. Not surprisingly, both groups incorporated customs that they learned from each other forming a distinct culture that was both African AND NA. The Mardi Gras Indians are a product of that shared culture.
Today, a relatively small group of New Orleanians, most of whom are the offspring of NA and African marriages, carry on the traditions handed down to them from those original alliances. Each year they put in hundreds of hours of work creating regalia to be worn during Carnival (and St. Joseph's Day aka Super Sunday).
The suits are completely handmade. That means each of those THOUSANDS of seed beads were put into place using a needle and thread in someone's hands--no outsourcing. Just buying the supplies requires thousands of dollars. This is a major sacrifice for those in a group that is among the poorest communities in New Orleans. And if you're thinking that this is just an initial investment, you're wrong. Tradition dictates that the Indians create new regalia each year and that the suit from the year before be completely disassembled. The work put into making it is as much a part of the tradition as the Mardi Gras day performances.
Can you imagine wearing one of these elaborate creations? I don't think most people fully realize what a feat it is for the Mardi Gras indians to even walk in these suits. Each one weighs in excess of a hundred pounds. Now consider the fact that the Indians wear them while dancing for two or three miles and you may begin to understand what a commitment it takes to keep this tradition alive.


Foofa said...

I am often surprised that more people don't know the extent of the links between african and Na cultures and peoples. I have seen "Black Indians" so many times and they have such a respect for their heritage. THis happened not only in New Orleans but throughout the country. I wish it was more well kown. Thanks for talking about it.

Anonymous said...

You don't know anyone in Orpheus, hell you ain't even from New Orleans, you poser!!!

jurassicpork said...

After a year and a half of living with Lent, the Big Easy could use some fun time. I still find their resilience amazing in holding a Mardi Gras the same year that Katrina and FEMA laid them low.

They are the embodiment of the Can Do American spirit and God bless 'em.

How are you feeling, Bint?

bint alshamsa said...

The German strikes again!! Don't you have any cabbage soup you should be eating right now, Kraut! :oP

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the richness of these passages. As an outsider, I could have never have appreciated them without seeing them through your eyes. The jazz funeral and the availability for poor people was especially poignant.

bint alshamsa said...


I think it has to do with the fact that up until a few years ago, most people would have been taught that having African or NA ancestry was something to be ashamed of, not celebrated.Unfortunately, this is still going on in much of the Black community.

I remember reading a study about how 3/4 of the African-American population has Native American ancestry too. When you understand that, I think it explains why so many of us "have Indian in our family". These familial recollections are mostly based on what wasn't even a noteworthy fact a couple of generations ago.

Because of the "One Drop" rules, people with features that didn't look like the stereotypical image of a Native American, got labeled by the government as just Black. To a large extent, I think that all of America has internalized this arbitrary "One Drop" system of labeling people.

Unless we happen to be one of those African-Americans who could pass for a real life version of Disney's Pocahantas (and down here in New Orleans, there's a lot of folks like that), then any claims that one makes about having Native American ancestry tends to get shot down. As a result of that, a lot of us have become reticent to admit that we are more than "just Black".

Like you, I wish all of this was more well known. However, I'm glad to know that you're aware of it. Of course, as smart as you are, I'm not surprised at all. :)

bint alshamsa said...


You got that right! We need to keep these traditions alive now because they are threatened more than ever thanks to that asshat Katrina.

By the way, I've been feeling really great. I don't know if it's knowing that I had to be feeling better if I had any thoughts of being able to get out to the parades, but whatever it is, it worked. :)

bint alshamsa said...


I really wondered whether it would make any sense at all to make a series like this since there was so much that wouldn't get explained. I am very, very happy that you were able to gain something from them.

The brass bands are very near and dear to my heart. My brother spent years as a member of the Li'l Stooges brass band. It wasn't until then that I found out exactly how it all works and why they engage in what a business-minded person would say was counter-productive practices.

In a way, I think that these brass bands serve as a sort of non-traditional priestly class. They certainly see their funerary role in society as a sort of public service and not necessarily anything they should be looking to get rich off of--and believe me, they don't. It is virtually impossible to become financially-set from working in a brass band.

However, the universe always has its way of rewarding altruism. There is no better way for a young musician to get his talents noticed than to show his skills by playing in a brass band. The majority of New Orleans rarely look through the local papers to see who reporters are calling the city's next great phenom but a musicians in a brass band get to take their music to the people and word of mouth is the best advertisement there is.

As a teenager, my little brother took his first trip around the world because he was invited to be a part of someone's jazz tour. They saw him playing around the city with the Li'l Stooges and they liked what they saw. His career took off from there. Several other guys in the band have also gone on to have sucessful music careers.

As each person moves on from the band, he is replaced by another young musician. In that way, the bands are self-perpetuating.

bint alshamsa said...

By the way, my "Kraut" comment was for "anonymous" and not Jurassicpork.

Anonymous said...

So you've turned to blaming any anonymous post that you don't like on this mysterious "kraut"?? Instead of shifting the guilt of being a poser onto some unknown poster name kraut (???), how about you own up and deal with your honesty issues, poser?? I heard that you were from Djibouti by the way!!

Cursed Tea said...

I have some photos from my first Mardi Gras in N'awlins - and a bunch of Mardi Gras Indians parading in uptown.
My blog is:

thanks for the link to the great site on the history of the Indian tradition!!
best wishes

Anonymous said...

You are only Native American if you are only Native American. Mixed races do not apply. Get over it. I live on the rez and I am pure 100% Indian. I cannot pass for black, white, Asian, or Pacific islander beacuse I am a Native American ( a member of a race that genetically evoled separate from Asians thousands of years ago on this great continent of North America…South America also applies in this scenario). I go to college on a Native American scholarship because my ancestors have suffered genocide, rape, women getting there hair and breasts cut off. I am my people.

And I am sick of this constant “bull” about who is blackindian, whiteindian , Japaninidian, etc. Good lord people.

If you’re mixed you’re mixed…Power to you mixed people…I’m sure you are a beautiful combo….but I suffer because I am pure…I am the face of a thousand Native American generations…..a Native American. I have straight black hair, a long straight curved downward nose (I am proud of because it makes me look distinguished), copper colored skin, very high cheekbones, and slanted almond shaped eyes.

It is my opinion as a member of a race that is so badly depleted in my own land that Native Americans today suffer racism at the hands of African Americans and European Americans. I have seen it. Too many Africans have adopted the white mans mentallity to hate on other less fortunate groups. You are not the only ones who have been mistreated.

You cry out what about the freedman who you enslaved. We took Europeans as slaves to because you were on our land. But we didn’t do the horible things whites did to blacks. We even married and interbred at times. And for years on our meek riches we get through casinos (we will never have wealth) we gave freedmans reparations. The white man didn’t give anything back to the freed slave descendants yet? He is the one who owes you. Consider our slavery of blacks and whites rent for being on our land. Hell! today in Africa they are still enslaving Africans. And what about those wonderful Buffalo Soldiers killing Indians for the white man. Some damn nerve people have these days with there bad memories.

As a full blooded Native American I compete yearly for Native American scholarships, but with black and white men and women who claim they are Native American beacuse some not too distant grandmother was Native. And they came from the suburbs and had more oppotunities than me. Oh, and they end up getting the scholarship. Less for me I guess. They would never know what it was to be a Native. To be hated because a great nation built its kingdom on your blood and bones. To live with the thief in your own house. But I gotta give it to Europeans they out teched us and out diseased us. I still prefer my peaceful, earthbound culture, no matter how quaint it is.

And if you ask why am I so angry, so long winded, and so upset….live the life of a full blooded Native American woman trying to prove her worth in a black and white world where people think you are a worthless, druken, whore who will never amount to anything……..Hell. In Canada Native American women get killed all the time, ever hear about the Highway of Tears, and no one does anything until one white girls goes missing. Then OH the publicity.

bint alshamsa said...


I responded to your comment here:

Who Is A Real Native American?

Feel free to comment on this thread. I appreciate the fact that you took the time to write so many heartfelt comments and I want to give it the attention that I think it warrants.