Collins “Coach” Lewis was a Mardi Gras Indian costume artist whose Aug. 13, 2011, wake sparked a drama of the African imagination in the Tremé.
A blue-collar worker and Vietnam veteran, Coach was a soft-spoken, yet vibrant, presence in the folkways of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Spirit of the Fi-Yi-Yi, a downtown Indian gang led by Big Chief Victor Harris.
A niece of the deceased opened the ceremony at Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home: “We start by dedicating this day to those who are fighting for us in foreign lands.”
Everyone rose and sang the Star Spangled Banner, which is rare at wakes.
Goat Carson, a folk preacher and descendant of Lakota Indians, gave an invocation: “We ask the ancestors of the west to remember him for singing ‘Indian Red’ … We ask the ancestors of Africa to welcome him. We ask the grandfather earth to let his spirit stay with us. Now repeat, four times, ‘Let the healing begin.’”
The refrain rang through the 250 seats in the parlor.
The open coffin rested next to the platform for speakers, and just below stood a table with photographs of Coach and examples of his Indian beadwork with shells and sequins on armbands and kneepads.
Then came the rolling rhythms of African drummers from Bamboula 2000, the percussion-and-dance group led by Luther Gray. As five dashiki-clad men worked the congas – two hitting hands on skins with drums between their knees, three, including Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, hitting with curled sticks – a man in sunglasses and a kufi worked a rattling tambourine.
The percussions drew women in dancing swirls into the center of the room, all of them barefoot. A white-robed lady shaking a calabash melded into the tonal currents; a lady in yellow moved to the tempo of escalating drum voices. Two more women, then a man, joined the circle of spontaneous choreography. When the drumming hit a crescendo, the music and dance suddenly stopped. The room fell quiet.
“Coach, where are you?” called Cinnamon Black, a lady in a colorful African headwrap. “Coach, are you here? Some people may not know Coach the way I did. He was an ambassador of the second-line. Every Mardi Gras, he was at Hunter’s Field.” Hunter’s Field is a gathering park under the shadow of the Interstate 10 overpass along North Claiborne Avenue.
She continued, “You cannot say when it’s your time, you only get what your time is. An ambassador is someone who keeps things in balance. … That man had a heart. He is coming back through all of us. He brought Africa to New Orleans. He brought Congo Square to New Orleans.”
The remnants of Congo Square, the grassy commons where slaves danced across the decades leading up to the Civil War, is now a small tract inside Armstrong Park, near the wall at St. Peter Street.
“Coach loved the second-line,” Cinnamon Black continued. “He had a phrase from the Indians, ‘Needle and thread, kill ’em dead.’ Remember Coach Collins Lewis.”
As several others from the second-line clubs voiced praise songs to Coach, a woman in a chair flew into sobbing convulsions; people came close, becalming her in embraces of bereavement.
Teachers at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp played a musical tribute. Trumpeter Marlon Jordan, who spent days on the roof of his house in New Orleans East during Hurricane Katrina before being airlifted to Birmingham, Ala., sent up a sweet version of “I’ll Fly Away.” People danced in the aisles, including several women dressed as Baby Dolls, swirling their decorated umbrellas.
The music shifted to tambourines and hand drums advancing from a courtyard behind the room, and into the space came Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi. The Tremé-based Indian gang with three women, two kids and several men in various costumes moving to tambourine jangles and striking percussions that shot a charge of energy through the room.
“Coach! Coach!” cried the Big Chief in an oversized African head mask with square-slitted eyes and brown raffia fringe. He loomed in linkage to the fabled Engungun from Yoruba tradition, the figures in shimmering costumes that dance the memory of ancestral spirits. The engungun signify a cosmos made of the living, the dead and the unborn.
“Coach Collins Lewis, bringing Africa to the spirit of Mardi Gras!” cried the Big Chief. “Out of the darkness you’ll see the light! You can’t delay God’s will, so you better lie ready!”
“Then that morning comes, he comes like a thief in the night. Gird yourself! That’s what Coach did – he made his confession! It won’t be long. Remember Coach, Remember Coach! I feel the spirit of Congo Square.”
As the tambourine rhythms, laced with percussive thunder, swelled around the Big Chief, his force galvanized dancers in the aisle around him. “They took the jungle beat to Basin Street!” he cried. “Coach carried the sound.” In a raw voice, emotions breaking like glass on sidewalk, Big Chief Victor Harris wailed: “He was more than a friend, he was my brother!”
“That’s all right, dawlin’,” called a lady in the aisle.
“We still have people in bondage,” cried Big Chief. “Arkansas, Alabama, New Jersey, Mississippi, people trying to come back to New Orleans. Come back!”
“Speak the truth, darlin’,” called the lady.
“The Lord has prepared a better place for Coach,” rasped Big Chief, energy draining. “No more bills, no more sorrow.”
As Big Chief led Spirit of the Fi-Yi-Yi on a sinuous procession around the chairs and into the courtyard, the crowd was calling “Coach! Coach! Coach!”
Soon emotions settled.
A prayer service followed.
There are many theories surrounding the origin of the Mardi Gras Indians, including “that native Louisiana tribes sheltered runaway slaves” and “that Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show inspired imitation of native rituals.” “Either way, present day styles are more Hollywood than Plains Indian, whose resplendent headdresses originally inspired the Mardi Gras Indians. Costuming is called “masking,” dressing in tribal costumes for the purposes of marching, as they do on Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day.” Selections from “My Gang Don’t Bow Down: Mardi Gras Indian Chief Kevin Goodman leads his tribe to Texas,” by Margaret Moser, as published in the Austin Chronicle, on Fri., May 5, 2006.