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It’s Time for Jazz Fest ’12

23rd April 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the granddaddy of them all, begins this week (April 27-29 and May 3 through 6). Held annually on the last weekend of April and first weekend of May, it’s been around long before springtime in New Orleans was considered festival season. Other events sprung up around it like, as legendary pianist Ellis Marsalis says, music bubbles up from the streets in New Orleans. Now it appears that the “season” starts with March’s Congo Square World Rhythms Festival, one of the community events put on by the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, continues with a scattering of other music-oriented happenings while building up to the French Quarter Festival and then, of course, Jazz Fest. It doesn’t stop there as next up comes mid-May’s Bayou Boogaloo.

What sets Jazz Fest apart from all the others is that it offers not only some of New Orleans finest musicians but an abundance of major artists from around the country and the globe. In that number are some natives of the city who now live elsewhere or rarely perform here because they are continually on the road.

Because New Orleans is a bit off the beaten track for touring acts – there are east coast, west coast, mid-west and coast-to-coast circuits – Jazz Fest offers one of the few opportunities to hear national greats like Herbie Hancock, Al Green, Poncho Sanchez with Terence Blanchard, Frankie Bever­ly & Maze, Esperanza Spaulding and more. Fest-goers also get the chance to experience important acts from the African Diaspora such as afrobeat artist Seun Kuti and be introduced to Cuban-born congoist Pedrito Martinez.

In 2011, the festival put the spotlight on Haiti by dedicating the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, a tent located just across from the Congo Square Stage, to the arts and music of the country that was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. It was interesting to observe many of this city’s Mardi Gras Indians visiting the tent. As they wandered around, they paid particular attention to the displays of beadwork and often turned pieces over to see how an article was sewed. Beading is a tradition of the Haitian and Black Indian cultures and one for which they are both renowned.

While Mardi Gras Indians have always participated in the Fest – the Wild Magnolias, Golden Eagles and the Black Eagles performed at the 1970 event – this year they will hold the place of honor at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion. Visitors to the tent can learn from sewing and beading demonstrators what it takes to build a suit and the meaning of such uniquely Indian terms as “sticking a crown,” “bead popper” and “hickey.”

“I come from a long line of teachers,” says Keith “Keitoe” Jones the Big Chief of the Seminoles gang. The chief began masking Indian in 1974 with the Ninth Ward Hunters under the leadership of Big Chief Rudy Bougere. He’ll be running the first weekend’s daily jam sessions, dubbed “practices” in reference to Indian terminology, to take place each day in the pavilion. Jones, the son of the late blues singer Little Sonny Jones, will be on hand when the processions of Indians make a stop to perform in the tent during their parades.

Chief Keitoe’s longtime sewing assistant, Jerome Warren will act as a demonstrator. “He knows everything about sewing,” says the chief. “We’re going to bring some nice pieces for you guys.” Warren, incidentally, will be masking Indian for the first time on Carnival Day 2013. Some of the patches and designs he’ll be creating out at the Fair Grounds might just be part of his debut suit.

It was watching his brother Johnny sew that initially spiked Keitoe’s interest in the Black Indian culture. “I liked it and I wanted to get involved with what was going on,” he says.

Chief Felton Brown became Keitoe’s next mentor when he joined the White Eagles in 1977. “He would teach me to lay my beads down flat,” Jones remembers adding that his sister Linda and brother Darryl were both in the gang.

Jones held the spyboy position in most of the tribes he ran with including the Creole Wild West and the Golden Sioux. He moved to gang flag when he joined the Seminoles that was led by another legendary chief and sewer, Joe Pete. “He taught me how to decorate and stick a crown and do wings,” the chief recalls. Big Chief Keitoe took over the Seminoles in 1992, following the passing of Chief Joe Pete.

Like all Mardi Gras Indians, Chief Keitoe learned the traditions from those who came before. Until more recent times, most people outside of the culture weren’t as familiar with the customs as they are today because they’ve always been carried out privately in homes in the Black community where the members sew and sing or in barrooms where Indians gather and confront each other with their chants, traditional signals and dance. The Black Indians participation at Jazz Fest either on stage or on parade increased their exposure to New Orleans’ general population and the outside world immensely.

Chief Keitoe appreciates that the Indians are getting recognized and receiving the respect that they are due. “The Indians are finally starting to get pecans instead of peanuts,” he says with a laugh. The chief won’t be masking at the Fest but members of the Seminoles will be there and he’s ready to participate.

“I’ll do what I got to do because I love what I do. I’m not a great singer,” he says while mentioning several Indians noted for their strong voices like chiefs Bo Dollis and Little Charles Taylor. But when I hear some Indian music, the spirit comes over me and I sing.”

This article originally published in the April 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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