This week’s local events offer a sensory overload
24th March 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
An African Diaspora of Sound
Armstrong Park is a beautiful locale though it is much more than that. Within its boundaries is Congo Square where, uniquely in the United States, enslaved Africans were allowed to play their drums, dance and trade their wares on Sunday afternoons. The memory and sounds of those burdened people forever beckon and particularly during the Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival to be held on Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, 2014. This free festival, presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, gathers together the beats and spirit of the music that originated in Africa and spread, primarily and horribly through the institution of slavery, throughout much of the world. On foreign shores, it found its own uniquely individual voice.
New Orleans’ most direct link to the African continent can be heard, seen and experienced through the Mardi Gras Indians whose rhythms still echo those of their ancestors. Particularly in the modern era of the over 150-year-old tradition, many Black Indian gangs such as downtown’s Fi-Yi-Yi have incorporated more African influences in their elaborate suits. On Saturday, at 5:30 p.m. there will be a gathering of Mardi Gras Indians, or as Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. like to refer to them, Afro-New Orleans tribes, for a “Indian battle” that will surely be a friendly though fierce competition for who’s the prettiest and liveliest gang.
Haiti, an important part of the African diaspora that shares close ties with New Orleans, is well-represented at the Congo Square Festival by the arrival of the Grammy-nominated ensemble Boukman Eksperyans that performs Saturday at 4 pm. The group, formed in 1978, has been at the forefront of performing an electrified style of Haiti’s rara music. It has also played an important role in expressing its social and political concerns through its lyrics that are sung in Haitian kreyol. Boukman’s music might be considered Haitia’s answer to Jamaica’s reggae.
In this age of global communications, musical styles mix and match more than ever before. A good example of the many possibilities can be found in the Brooklyn-based, multicultural, brass and drum ensemble Red Baraat, a group that has more or less “adopted” New Orleans as another home and likewise, the city has embraced them. The group fuses East Indian bhangra rhythms with brass band funk, jazz, go-go and hip hop with its core being street music. It’s celebratory music that plays a similar role to that of New Orleans brass bands in marking life’s occasions. Red Baraat closes out Saturday’s music beginning at 6 p.m.
A popular aspect of the Congo Square Festival is the Class Got Brass competition with brass bands made up of high school students from their respective schools vying for top honors and $20,000 worth of instruments for their band programs. One by one, the groups march down the street to the delight of the crowd and under the watchful eye of the judges. It kicks off at the park on Sunday at 3 p.m.
For the full schedule, go to www.jazzandheritage.-org/congo-square.
St. Joseph’s Night –
Indians by Moonlight
As improbable as it might seem, the most significant date for the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians apart from Carnival is March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. Come sundown on the Italian saint’s holiday, the Mardi Gras Indians once again put on their splendid feathered and beaded suits, taking to the streets to meet other gangs. They don’t follow a certain route as they do at the Indian Super Sunday parade rather the Black Indians roam the neighborhoods more like they do on Mardi Gras. Uptown, they can most often be found around the areas of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street and Second and Dryades streets. In recent years, downtown has also been quite active on St. Joseph’s night. The Indians can often be spied around the Montana residence on North Villere Street just off St. Bernard Avenue, a boulevard that has been increasingly popular with the Black Indian gangs.
The question of when the tradition of the Indians masking on St. Joseph’s night began remains a mystery. The late Mardi Gras Indian Council Chief of Chiefs Robbe once recalled Indians out on the holiday when he first started masking in 1929. He also knew Indians who hit the streets on St. Joseph’s night before World War I.
Most Mardi Gras Indians concur that the custom originated because throughout this predominately Catholic city, which boasts a large Italian population, people enthusiastically observe St. Joseph’s Day. The streets would be active with folks visiting food-laden altars constructed in the saint’s honor at churches, private homes and Italian-owned stores. Decades ago, many of the Italian grocers were familiar with the Indians as they often supplied them with the chicken and turkey feathers they used to decorate their suits.
“Every corner had an Italian grocery and they’d be celebrating,” the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame once explained. The late Big Chief Lawrence Fletcher of the White Eagles agreed, adding, “It was an excuse for Indians to mask — it was the only time it was allowed.”
The law permitted the Indians to mask during this period, but required them to carry lanterns as they roamed the streets. According to Chief Fletcher, the reasoning behind this was to prevent the citizenry from being scared by the Indians. In more modern times, flashlights replaced the kerosene lanterns and some fanciful Indians used other forms of illumination. Sylvester Francis, curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, remembers a St. Joseph’s night back in the early 1960s when Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas took that extra step. “Tootie came out with those small white Christmas lights on his crown,” Francis recalled. “That was pretty.”
Speaking of Mardi Gras Indians, the uptown Indian Super Sunday festival is Sunday, March 23. Activities at A.L. Davis Park begin at 11 a.m. and the parade starts there at 1 p.m.
This article originally published in the March 17, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.