All Because It’s Carnival Time
11th February 2013 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
There are so many, many ways to “do” Carnival Day in New Or?leans. Families gather on parade routes often at the same locations as they have for generations. Some folks set up camp at North Claiborne and Orleans avenues to take in the music presented at the “Mardi Gras Under the Bridge” festival that this year features all brass bands. It’s also a prime locale for catching the Zulu parade and Mardi Gras Indians. Nearby, the Backstreet Cultural Museum, the home of the North Side Skull & Bones gang, hosts an all-day party that has become a regular “stop” for Black Indians, Baby Dolls and revelers.
Four years ago, a new addition to the offerings for the holiday began when the Hi-Ho Lounge, 2239 St. Claude Avenue, began presenting the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra in the evening. The nine-piece ensemble combines members of Black Indian gangs and noted New Orleans musicians from an array of genres including jazz, rock, zydeco and even classical music. Because the festivities begin at 4:30 pm., an increasing number of people have found this gig to be the ideal way of capping off Carnival Day. Adding to the excitement, the Brooklyn-based, multicultural, brass and drum ensemble, Red Baraat, which fuses East Indian bhangra rhythms with brass band funk, jazz, go-go and hip hop, opens for the Orchestra at the Hi-Ho after parading through the French Quarter and Marigny earlier in the day. Later, Red Baraat returns to the stage for another set between performances by the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra.
“It’s the bomb,” says Big Chief David Montana of performing with the eclectic ensemble. “It’s going to be a little spicy at the Hi-Ho so do keep something cold on the side to drink,” he adds with a laugh.
Before he joins the orchestra, the chief will lead his gang, the Washitaw Nation, through the city streets in traditional Black Indian fashion throughout the day.
Big Chief David Montana is the son of the late Indian Chief Edward Montana whose brother was noted Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. Once the second chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, Chief David hit the streets with his new gang for the first time last year.
“I love masking and I love designing the costumes,” the chief says. “I decided I know enough, so why don’t I pull my own gang?”
Chief David Montana and the Washitaw Nation will leave from 2527 DeSoto Street, where he now lives and where his father and mother once resided. “There’s a spirit there,” Montana declares, remembering when he used to help his father build and decorate his suits. The family ties continue with his son, Santana, 41, and 11-year-old granddaughter coming in from Texas to join the gang. His former queen with the Yellow Pocahontas, Ausettua AmorAmenkum, will act as his head queen. “I’ll have a bunch of queens on the street,” Chief David declares estimating the number to be around four to six. On its travels, the gang will stop at several of the chief’s relatives homes. While in the 7th Ward, he will pay his regards to two of his aunts including Joyce Montana, the widow of Chief Tootie Montana and Edward’s and Tootie’s 94-year-old sister who lives just around the corner.
The Washitaw Nation name is in recognition of a group of what are believed to be indigenous Blacks who lived in North America and who were not of African descent. “It comes from the people of the mounds,” Chief Montana explains. “They are the ancient ones and roamed Northern Louisiana for many, many years.”
Big Chief David Montana’s new suit will be white in honor of the prophetically sacred White Buf?falo. “Come one, come all and see the coming of the White Buffalo put on by the Washitaw Nation,” he encourages.
Chief Montana’s arrival at the Hi-Ho will end his day as a Black Indian on the streets, a tradition estimated to be some 150 years old. Then it’s party time and a celebration of this city’s many musical genres and influences. With the addition of the group Red Baraat to the event, the music’s scope travels beyond borders.
“We’re psyched to be doing a double bill with the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra,” says Sunny Jain, Red Baraat’s dhol (drum) player and leader of the group that has established a strong following in New Orleans. “I think it’s going to be a really interesting juxtaposition. You have the Mardi Gras Indians and then you’ve got the East Indian Indians.”
Jain, who was born in Rochester, New York of Indian parents sees the kinship between his band and New Orleans brass bands as being very close. It’s a relationship, he says, that might be described in India as “cousin-brothers.” The baraat, which is at the core of Red Baraat’s musical fusion, is an East Indian wedding procession where music is played, dhol drummers pound out rhythms and people dance in the street similar to the way brass band and second lines celebrate important events in New Orleans. Both traditions boast a wealth of brass instruments and encourage participation.
“My focus has always been to fuse the elements of my culture with the music I grew up with in America,” says Jain, who is also a jazz drummer. “I didn’t want it to be just an Indian brass band. People in this country hear the New Orleans influence, Indians hear the baraat, others hear the jazz improvisation or the ska and reggae influences and when we go to Washington, D.C. audiences get the go-go influence.
“We know you like to party,” says Jain, anticipating Red Baraat’s Carnival visit. “We like to get a party going, we like to see people smiling and dancing and New Orleans is for us in that way.”
“I think it’s going to be a very interesting addition to this event,” says jazz saxophonist and Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra member Tim Green of the appearance of Red Baraat. “I’m very attached to that (Indian) music and I’ve performed a lot of it.”
With affection, Green describes the Orchestra’s rare performance as “controlled chaos.” “There are literally 12 people or more on the stage,” he explains. “It’s fun to play music that I don’t often have a chance to do and and I’m completely free. So it kinda gets out there. It raises energy.”
The organizer of Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, John Driver, promises another Carnival evening of “cohesive mayhem” at the Hi-Ho Lounge.
“Controlled chaos” and “cohesive mayhem”—sounds like Mardi Gras!
This article was originally published in the February 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper