“Mardi Gras” to most Americans conjures up images of crowds on Bourbon Street and girls pulling up their dresses in the hopes that someone will throw them beads. But the real Mardi Gras in New Orleans takes place far away from the French Quarter, where actually no parades take place on Lundi Gras or Mardi Gras. Most of the bigger parades occur uptown along St. Charles Avenue, but even that is not to be compared with the holiday that occurs in the city’s Black neighborhoods along the backstreets. There the day begins with groups of youths in macabre costume known as the Skeleton Men, and groups of women called the Baby Dolls, who are followed by the Black Indian tribes, whose elaborate suits are true works of art. Accompanied by drummers, these tribes march through the neighborhoods, challenging other tribes to a competition ritual involving dance and bravado.
Although the tribes are usually accompanied only by drums and tambourines, this year the Black Mohawks had hired the To Be Continued Brass Band to accompany them on the holiday, and they met at Verret’s Lounge on Washington Avenue to begin the day. As is usually true on Mardi Gras day, the weather was warm and pleasant, with a blue sky and plenty of sun, and quite a few of the different tribes and their drummers were out in the Third Ward where much Black Indian activity takes place.
Later the TBC Band made their way to a private house party uptown, where they had been hired to play in the backyard, which featured an outdoor bar and deck. When that was over, my friend Darren Towns and his family and I headed to the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company in Terrytown, one of the few restaurants to actually be open on Mardi Gras Day. The fried seafood turned out to be really good, and I ended the holiday as I usually do each year, pleasantly tired from a day of parading and fun.
Being able to actually enjoy a relatively-ordinary Mardi Gras after the disruption caused by the pandemic was a blessing this year, and the live performance of the TBC Brass Band at Kernit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in the Treme neighborhood was a great way to kick off this year’s celebration. As always, the patio was crowded with party-goers enjoying themselves between the banana trees and the outdoor bar and stage. The weather was warm and pleasant and the space in front of the stage was full of buck-jumpers. There’s really no better place to get into the mood of Mardi Gras.
On my previous birthday weekends in New Orleans, the TBC Brass Band was usually playing the Dumaine Street Gang second-line, but that didn’t happen this year, and instead Sunday was a day of gigs. It started with an outdoor wedding in front of a Ninth Ward church where the couple was paraded across the street to the house they were going to live in. That was followed by some sort of party at a reception hall in Metairie, and then two TBC gigs, the earlier of which was at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge in Treme.
Kermit’s is always a fun place to catch TBC, because they play on the outdoor patio, which has a real Caribbean vibe to it, complete with banana trees. This year a fire pit had been added, which provided extra warmth, as the winter evenings can get somewhat chilly even in New Orleans. Kermit had a funk band playing inside this year when we arrived, but they ended their set soon afterwards and everyone moved out to the patio. Although the To Be Continued Brass Band plays in a lot of places in the city, at Kermit’s there is always a great interaction between the band and their fans, and plenty of footwork in front of the stage.
The later set was down the street at Derrick Tapp’s Treme Hideaway, which I had usually viewed as a rap and R & B club. It has a sort of patio or courtyard as well, but at the Hideaway, bands play indoors. By the time TBC started playing their late set there, I was thoroughly exhausted and fairly hungry. And in post-COVID New Orleans, it doesn’t do to be hungry late at night, as there is nothing open. Everything closes early. I was finally able to pick up some breakfast at Coffee And in Marrero, one of the few places that remains open 24 hours a day.
After breakfast, my friend Darren from the TBC Brass Band and I headed into the Central Business District of New Orleans. I had always wanted to go to the rooftop bar on the Troubadour Hotel called the Monkey Board, but unfortunately, we learned that they didn’t open until 4. I had thought that the views of the city from there would be worth photographing, but since the band had a full day of shows, we would not be able to go back later in the day.
In fact, on a typical Saturday, TBC can have upwards of ten gigs or more. These are typically short, no more than 15 to 20 minutes; people hire them for funerals, wedding receptions, birthday parties and sometimes holiday parties, and they may have to traverse the whole New Orleans area from one end to the other. As it was my birthday weekend, I enjoyed nothing more than traveling around the city with my favorite band.
However, the day started off sadly, as the band had been engaged to play at a Catholic school out in the Holly Grove area in memory of a little girl who had drowned in a mop bucket at a daycare when left unattended. The case had been publicized locally, and a fairly large crowd was present to remember her. How the relatives can dance and buckjump at such a tragic time is something I have never fully understood about New Orleans, but I suppose that people can recall the good times and celebrate the lives of those who passed.
Other gigs were scattered around the city; one was in a ballroom at the Jung Hotel where we were kept waiting for a significant period of time. But perhaps the best one was for a birthday party at a neighborhood spot called the Sportsman Bar and Lounge on Odeon Avenue on the Algiers side. There TBC assembled on the corner of Odeon and General Meyer Avenue and then paraded down Odeon to the bar, where a large crowd of people had gathered to honor someone’s birthday. As is typical at such events, the band paraded through a side door into the bar, played for about 15 minutes and then went back outside. But the whole neighborhood seemed to be out as if there had been a second-line. The weather was warm and people were in a festive mood.
From there Darren and I headed to Lakeview to my favorite restaurant The Steak Knife for my birthday dinner. As always the food and atmosphere were great, and it did not take us long to get our food and eat, which was important, because TBC had yet another gig.
That final gig of the night was not far from Canal and Broad, and was yet another party, in a fairly small room that was packed to the walls. When it was over, I would have liked to grab some beignets and coffee or a dessert somewhere, but the pandemic was still having an effect on New Orleans. The Cafe du Monde had closed at 8 PM, and Morning Call at midnight, and Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, which once stayed open until 4 AM was now closing at 10 PM. It was all disappointing and demoralizing, but still, the Saturday of my birthday weekend had been fun.
After dinner, I managed to catch up with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band. New Orleans nowadays has many brass bands, with new ones appearing all the time, but I became a fan of TBC years ago when they battled the Stooges Brass Band at the latter band’s gig at the Hi-Ho Lounge back in the days when that was a great place for brass band music. On this particular Friday night, they had been hired to play for a party being held in a banquet hall on the top of an office tower in New Orleans East. The people throwing the event had spared no expense; in addition to the band and the DJ, they had exquisite food laid out on the banquet table. Since TBC is my favorite brass band, the performance was a great way to kick off the weekend, although it was, like most such gigs for them, quite brief, lasting only about 20 minutes or so. Afterwards, the TBC bass drummer Darren Towns went with me to the new Morning Call Coffee Stand near City Park to get beignets and cafe au lait.
Glenview, a neighborhood of single-family homes along Lamar Avenue southeast of downtown Memphis was one of the first historically-white neighborhoods to open up to African-American residents. Their coming was not without controversy, as the first house purchased by a Black family was firebombed in the late 1940s. Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood became a fairly stable Black community, but the business district along Lamar has not fared as well, with many abandoned businesses.
Paint Memphis is a local non-profit which seeks to improve the look of neighborhoods by painting colorful murals on abandoned buildings in the city. They have done so twice in the Glenview area, and both times much of their work had a music theme. On a hot September Sunday I found images of the Mighty Souls Brass Band, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding among the bright murals along several blocks of Lamar. Other images included useful slogans like “Take the good with the bad. Everything has its season,” and “if you love it, do it everyday.” On the wall of a daycare was the slogan, “Show us the way to love,” and a block east of that, an image of Beale Street with the legend, “I love the blues, she heard my cry.” As an organization, Paint Memphis has not been without controversy. Many of the artists involved are not from the communities where the murals have been installed, and that has occasionally garnered controversy and even demands for removal. Occasionally, some have requested the removal of certain images that seem grotesque or bizarre. But the presence of so much artwork in public areas seems to have caused others not affiliated with Paint Memphis to add more slogans and images.
In the same area were slogans like “RIP George Floyd,” and “We Must Vote,” along with beautiful stylized images of jazz musicians on the boarded-up window of a building adjacent to Glenview Park. Also adjacent to the park was an old mural that read “Glenview” which looks as if it dated from the 1970s, but which seems to have been repainted.
Although the murals with their brilliant colors definitely bring cheer to a streetscape which had been quite drab, the large and historic Lamar Theatre still is a cause for concern. The building, which would make a wonderful live music club or venue, has been vacant for many years. Restored and opened, it could make a wonderful catalyst for a transformation of that stretch of Lamar Avenue into a destination for Memphians and out-of-town visitors alike.
By the end of the TBC Brass Band show at Kermit’s Mother in Law Lounge in Treme, I was at the end of my endurance, running on fumes. I had been awake for more than twelve hours, and on my feet for the bulk of them. I had, since Sunday night, taken more than five hundred photos and videos! In addition, I had not eaten anything since the early morning breakfast at Coffee & in Marrero.
When planning my trip to Mardi Gras, I had seen Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza on my Yelp app. It was not a place I had noticed before, so I assumed it had opened rather recently. I had hoped to go there Monday night, but Jarday Towns, Darren’s wife, had warned me that we would not be able to get anywhere near it on Lundi Gras because it is located near the convention center, and the parades end there during Mardi Gras. She was undoubtedly right.
But fortunately, on Mardi Gras Day, by the evening, the parades are largely over, and it was very easy for us to get to the area. In addition, there was street parking, and it was free because the day was a holiday and the meters had been turned off. However, from the street, it seemed that Tommy G’s was closed, even though I had called them earlier and they said they would be open normal hours, from 11 AM to 4 in the morning. The interior looked fairly dark, and nobody was sitting in the chairs. However, when Darren and I tried the door, it opened. We soon found that the street address really reflects the back of the restaurant, and on the front side, there were a number of people at the bar and some of the tables. That number grew as we enjoyed our dinner.
While a number of restaurants offer coal-fired pizza, Tommy G’s was impressive. First of all, the pizzas were delicious, as good as any I have ever had (mine was made with capricola and pancetta), but it also needs to be pointed out that the menu includes many other options, including wings, roasted shrimp, Italian sandwiches and pasta specialties. Then Tommy G’s also has a full espresso bar and an exquisite selection of Italian pastry desserts and gelatos.
As Darren and I talked over the events of the day, we decided to order gelatos, and they were delicious as well. Suddenly, it was 2 AM, and we decided it was best to head to bed!
Not the least attraction of Tommy G’s is the hours. They are open from 11 AM to 4 AM, seven days a week. When other places are closed, they are a great option.
The approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
The house where TBC was to play at 4 PM looked like a fairly ordinary Uptown home from the street, but it was abuzz with activity and people coming and going, including a number of Black Indians who had been down at Second and Dryades. The party was being held in the back yard of the house, and when Darren Towns and Bunny Adams arrived, we were all led into the backyard, and it became apparent that the house had been beautifully equipped to host parties. On the back, a roofed deck complete with a bar was full of partiers, and another free-standing bar was located in a corner of the backyard. At least fifty people were present as the TBC Brass Band struck up a brief set of their most popular tunes, and everyone had a remarkably good time. I was later told that the house in fact belonged to the Big Chief of one of the Black Indian gangs. Although it wasn’t even 5 PM when we left the party, and Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge was less than a mile away, due to Mardi Gras, it took us from 4:45 PM tp 6:15 PM to drive the mile from First Street to Treme.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.