blame it on the mardi gras.

Speaking of fundamentalists, maybe my headlines today owe too much to representatives of the Christian evangelical organization "No Greater Love" who stood in Jackson Square, amidst the French Quarter's developing decadence as Mardi Gras Day approached, holding huge scroll-like signs: "Forsake Your Sins And Find Jesus Now." One guy (and they were all men) clutched two housing beams intersected to signify crucifixion (man, what a cross to bear).

The drinking and debauchery went on unabated in the Quarter, but I was here to witness subtler and more meaningful intersections of faith and sin, order and chaos, and ties that bind in a city where Piety and Desire are consecutive streets.

blame it on bush.

I still don't -- two days after Mardi Gras, and despite the fact that I gave up drinking long ago -- have the time to spill it all out here with regard to my first Mardi Gras (strange, since I've been coming to NOLA for some 20 years now). I'm under the gun to head over to Dillard University, where California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity, will lead a field hearing to address the post-Katrina affordable housing crisis in the Gulf Coast region: To write about musicians in New Orleans (hell, to consider anything here) is to think about housing (and crime and politics and funding and fairness...)

So I can't tell it all. I can tell you that much of Mardi Gras has to do with parades. If you think you know about parades, but you have not been to New Orleans (or, say, Brazil, or Cuba, or other key African Diasporan cities), well, you don't know about parades. (Lolis Eric Elie's recent and excellent column in the Times-Picayune
can help outsiders grasp some of the significance.

I can tell you that to walk from the Convention Center, where the Krewe of Orpheus (Harry Connick Jr. rode as King) was readying their costumes and floats, over to Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River, where The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club held its 15th annual Lundi Gras (day before Mardi Gras) festival, is to gain more than a little insight into the divisions of race and class that punctuate this city's story.

Not that there isn't passion, glory, and abundant pride on display when Orpheus turned from Tchoupitoulas onto Napoleon Street, past the iconic Tipitina's club, and rolled into action. Other than the unerringly disciplined and fabulously musical marching bands (for more on these, see Darran Simon's piece in the Times-Pic. or Jon Pareles's in The New York Times) and the cheerleaders, the only black faces in this parade are those of men carrying the dangerous gaslit flambeaus that light the way (and who receive coins trickled down to them).

Contrast that to the Zulu Parade, at once a celebration of African American pride and a cynical commentary on racist stereotypes, all in the guise of a Mardi Gras krewe parade. (The Zulu parade once rolled down Claiborne Avenue, through the communal heart of the Treme neighborhood; but since the 1960s, when the construction of Interstate 10 ripped out the live oaks and eliminated a wide pedestrian boulevard, it has made its way through Uptown streets. (Royce Osborn's excellent PBS documentary, "All On a Mardi Gras Day" gives good background; you can view a clip here.)

credit the big chiefs.

What you take away from witnessing Mardi Gras Indians masking rituals -- the feathered-and-beaded finery, the Congo and West African-derived drumbeats, the chants of pride, power, and purpose, the intertribe mock battles (once, these were real fights), and the overwhelming sense of radiant love (unconditional, familial, the kind that carries both protection and a sense of responsibility) -- can't be clutched and then possessed like the beads thrown from Mardi Gras krewe floats or the coveted painted coconuts tossed out along Zulu's route: It's far subtler, as easy to miss as the Indians' "coming out" is hard to find, and generally difficult to grasp without generations of bred-in knowledge. (Though historian Ned Sublette, who was of course on hand for this year's Mardi Gras, will likely relate a thorough-going and insightful prehistory in his forthcoming book, "The World That made New Orleans" -- and let's hope that book matches the heft and detail of his masterful "Cuba and Its Music").

The passing of tradition, knowledge in the blood, pride of purpose regardless of circumstance: You could feel all that when Bo Dollis, who recently celebrated his 62nd birthday, and his son, Gerard ("Bo Junior"), 26, led the Wild Magnolias out of their clubhouse on Dryades Street, with "spyboys," drummers, and nine-year-old Little Chief Juwan Sylbe in tow.

Later on that afternoon, while waiting for Big Chief Donald Harrison to lead his Congo Nation out of Treme's St. Augustine Church ("the only parish in the United States whose free people of color bought two outer rows of pews exclusively for slaves to use for worship," a plaque outside informs), it was great to see a lively daylong party in front of Sylvester Francis's Backstreet Cultural Museum http://www.backstreetmuseum.org/ that spilled out onto the front stoop of photographer Jim Belfon's house (Belfon founded The Gulf Coast Photography Project, which has put cameras, and heritage, in the hands of New Orleans kids.)

It was near dusk when Donald Harrison finally made his way out of the church. For much of the day, he, his sisters, his mother Herreast, and assorted friends and family furiously sewed beads, glued feathers, and assembled the many complex sections of his Big Chief suit. Harrison was understandably rushed: The night before, he'd been on the stage of New York's Merkin Hall, playing his alto saxophone, and dealing with another legacy -- jazz pianist Freddie Redd's music for "The Connection."

When Harrison did make his way out, his suit, some ten feet tell and six feet across in all directions, was a wondrous thing: white feathers billowing out, accented by long spiky pheasant feathers, shorter guinea hen feathers, intricate beadwork, and strips of mink and fox fur. As Harrison and his tribe made their way down St. Phillip Street, not far from Congo Square, they ran into drummer Shannon Powell, who played some tambourine along with the African drums that flanked Big Chief Harrison. A bit later, Harrison and tribe encountered Big Chief Eugene Thomas of the White Eagle tribe, and Big Queen Theresa Crushshon (who had traveled from Minneapolis to mask). The two chiefs sung greetings and challenges, briefly standing off and then embracing.

Harrison's tribe included his sister, Cherice Harrison-Nelson; some twelve hourse earlier she'd organized the procession of Young Guardians of the Flame, extending a cultural tradition that dates back more than a century and a family tradition that owes to the legacy of Donald Harrison Sr. (For a great account of Cherice's work and the Young Guardians of the Flame tradition, read this Wall Street Journal piece by Rick Brooks) Cherice wore a suit emblazoned with a beaded likeness of her father, sewn by her mother. Above it, covering her heart, was a beaded American flag, its stars represented by crystals shaped like tears.

...There's so much more I should write, could write, may just write. (And one day, I'll post the pictures.) Later that night, as I worked my way through throngs of costumed revelers filling the Marigny's Frenchmen Street, I felt a bit like some Jean-Paul Belmondo character, in film set, say, in Brazil, alienated in sea of connectedness, clearly an "Other".

And the sight of Harrison in his suit, of an ailing Bo Dollis and his son, of a block party on a Treme street that had one week earlier been rocked by more senseless murder, reminded me of how clarinetist Michael White, in thinking about the resilience of New Orleans brass-band and Mardi Gras Indian traditions, called up images from films: first, The Last Samurai; then, more thoughtfully, the end sequence to "Black Orpheus," which brilliantly transplanted the Geek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to Rio's Carnival. That film's final coda is touching. Orpheus carries Eurydice's body away, but a stone thrown by the jealous Mira knocks him over a cliff to his death. Back up on the cliff top the young child Benedetto takes Orpheus's guitar and starts playing while his two young companions dance. It is an affecting reaffirmation that despite tragedy the dance of life goes on.

"The idea is," White told me, "this is all gonna continue."

February 22, 2007 1:00 PM | | Comments (3)

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3 Comments

hey, man. did you get a chance to check out super sunday. i like what you are doing here.

Hi, Larry -- It's interesting to read about events from a perspective of someone with whom the same experienced was shared.

That pre-dusk run for Congo Nation was Mardi Gras for me. It was why I'd come again, for the third year in a row. Ned's gotten back the prints of some of the photos he took. Mine haven't gone out yet, due to the rolls of my film getting lost at the bottom of his bag. Gack.

A busy day in the neighborhood. My only reference point for Mardi Gras parading is the West Indian Carnaval on Eastern Parkway every Labor Day, which effectively goes through my living room, with about 6 million feet (from what I hear) in the perfumy procession.

Maybe if I am a good lad someday I will be able to enjoy the Rio Carnaval, while I am still (just barely) young enough to appreciate all the fresh sounds and abundant flesh.

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