There was plenty to worry about in the days after Hurricane Katrina’s wrath, survival being first on the list. Not too many notches down, however, especially in New Orleans, was saving the culture. New Orleans is a town that oozes with elements of character, many of which could be considered as part of a unique culture.
Like jazz, much of what becomes culture starts in the streets as it did when the musical improvisations of poor Black people and struggling Italians began to mingle. Being an outcast can have an enormous bonding effect. Black people in early New Orleans found some kinship with area Choctaws who were also out of the mainstream. The cultures mingled. The most visual manifestation was the Mardi Gras Indians. For Black males, this was a chance to be a part of a gang and to direct talents in a creative way. The feathery costumes were influenced by the style of the Plains Indians, who they saw perform at traveling Wild West Shows. From the local mens’ Afro/Caribbean heritage evolved a music form itself a Smithsonian-worthy bit of culture.
By the time of Katrina the number of Indian tribes was on the wane, but something happens to culture when it is threatened. It often proves to be resilient.
Once the most private of Carnival related groups, the Mardi Gras Indians transcended from the back streets to becoming a global symbol of the recovery. The challenges of an Indian Chief were even a plot line of the HBO series “Treme.”
There is evidence that the tradition is surviving. There are approximately 38 tribes of various sizes. The tradition of the Indians making a second appearance on the Sunday nearest St. Joseph Day is now branded as “Super Sunday.” Some tribes make a third appearance at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Far from being exclusive to the city’s back streets, a Jazz Fest appearance can bring global recognition.
Of all the tribes the two best known, The Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, made recordings, the latter having connections to the Neville family as The Meters who recorded an album of their chants. The former, most identified with the late Big Chief Bo Dollis, recorded an early single of “Handa-Wanda” as well as albums and have done extensive touring.
Two groups that were once part of the Black Mardi Gras almost perished but are making a comeback; one is of the Skeletons and the other is the Baby Dolls.
Men dressed as skeletons once prowled the Treme neighborhood on Mardi Gras morning with the intention of frightening folks in a good natured sort of way. (Skeleton costuming is common in many cultures, most famously in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations.)
When Interstate-10 was built along N. Claiborne Avenue much of the vitality of the predominantly Black neighborhood was lost. Another cause of cultural decline was assimilation. Nothing endangers traditions within minority communities more than that. As people move to other neighborhoods the old customs often gets lost.
In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the Skeletons. Le Krewe D’Etat, whose symbol is a skeleton skull wearing a jester’s cap is led each year by a group called “The Skeleton Krewe” whose costumes resemble the early boney ramblers. Another group, the Bywater Boneboys, prowl the street on Mardi Gras though its maskers are not necessarily all-Black. A 2003 documentary made for public television station WYES, Ch. 12 by filmmaker Royce Osbon incuded some haunting footage of the early skeletons.
Where skeletons once prowled so to did the Baby Dolls a group of Black women dressed as babies. The practice started in 1912, suffered a similar falloff as the skeletons, but by 2012 there was a celebration of the tradition’s centennial. Antoinette K-Doe, the flamboyant wife of super flamboyant R&B singer the late Ernie K-Doe (self- proclaimed “Emperor of the Universe”), is credited with having revived the tradition in 2004. On Mardi Gras 2009 the Dolls’ big day was saddened when they learned that Antoinette had died that morning. To her credit, a new generation of the emperor’s universe has learned about the Baby Doll tradition,
Down in New Orleans the recovery continues. Should you be in the right place at the right time on Mardi Gras morning you might see the Mardi Gras Indians, Skeletons or Baby Dolls. The yearn to preserve the culture from the wrath of nature has been a powerful force. In the end, the culture conquered.
OUR PICKS: TOP 6 MARDI GRAS INDIAN SONGS
- Corey Died on the Battlefield – The Wild Magnolia
- Indian Red- Traditional – Danny Barker
- Big Chief – Earl King
- Hey Pocky Away – The Meters
- Jock-A-Mo – Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters
- Handa Wanda – Bo Dollis, The Wild Magnolias
Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.