All On A Mardi-Gras Day: “I Run Through Water and Swim Through Mud”: Black Indians Uptown

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.

A Reception for the Mentors and Apprentices of the Tennessee Folklife Arts Project


After the six months of mentoring under the Tennessee Folklife Arts Program, mentors and apprentices were invited to a reception at the Tennessee Arts Commission office in Nashville in order to highlight what they learned during the program. So Kesha Burton from Brownsville, R. L. Boyce, Sherena Boyce and Willie Hurt, who had all been involved in the project to reintroduce fife and drum music to West Tennessee, all headed out to Nashville for the reception. Although the weather was stormy and wet in Memphis, we found that Nashville was dry and sunny, with the downtown area extremely busy with various events and festivals. In addition to the fife and drum project, other apprentices learned basket-making, chair-making, guitar-making, Panamanian dress making, buckdancing, Black gospel quartet performance, and square-dance calling. Although the space for the reception was somewhat cramped, everyone had a good time. Afterwards, I took Kesha Burton to Shipwreck Cove out at Percy Priest Reservoir to celebrate. After a stop for gelato at Legacy Gelato, and a run by Trader Joe’s to pick up some items that we cannot get in Memphis, we headed back to Brownsville, and then I to Memphis.

“They Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”: Mardi Gras Indians Uptown and Downtown


The traditional Mardi Gras parades can be fun, but my favorite part of carnival is in the ‘hoods and backstreets, where the gangs of Mardi Gras Indians appear in their elaborate costumes, beating drums, chanting and marching through the streets. Despite an ostensibly First Nations frame of reference, the Indians, who call their organizations “gangs” rather than “tribes”, seem far more an American reading of an African tradition, or perhaps one from the Caribbean. There are both “uptown” gangs and “downtown” gangs, as this is the broad division that once defined the difference between “Creoles” and “American Blacks,” but on this particular Mardi Gras Day, all of the gangs I saw were from Uptown, even the Black Flame Hunters which I encountered downtown under the I-10 bridge on North Claiborne Avenue.
My homeboy Darren Towns went with me briefly as I went to encounter the Indians, even though he didn’t particularly want to. Like a lot of Black New Orleanians I have met, he didn’t particularly want to see the Indians, as he remembered seeing someone’s head get split open one Mardi Gras Day when they didn’t get out of the way of a gang that was coming. Fear of violence seems to be the main reason for negative views of the gangs, even though violence in the Indian subculture has been decreasing steadily since the 1950’s. Nowadays, the bulk of the battles are ritual confrontations that consist of dancing and drumming in known places where the tribes meet, such as Second and Dryades, an uptown corner which is important to the Indian tradition. One bar on the corner, the Sportsman’s Lounge, is the headquarters for the gang known as the Wild Magnolias. Behind it is a large brick building called Handa Wanda, where I attended my first Indian practice ever a few years ago.
The gangs are accompanied by drummers, generally playing bass drums, or occasionally tenor drums, and tambourines are also used. After beginning their day with a “ritual prayer” called “My Indian Red”, the gang may run through a number of call-and-response chants, such as “Shallow Water O Mama”, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, “They (or Somebody) Got To Sew, Sew, Sew”, “Get the Hell Out The Way” or “Two Way Pocky Way.” The Big Chief may engage in a considerable amount of boasting and bragging, some of which may include words from an “Indian language” that might include French, Spanish, Creole or African terms. The drumming, chanting and brilliant-colored costumes all create an atmosphere that is quite reminiscent of the Caribbean, and unlike anything elsewhere in America. The men in these tribes will wear their elaborate outfits only twice more this year, once on St. Joseph’s Night in March, and once again during uptown or downtown events called Super Sundays that occur toward the end of March. In the past the suits would have been burned, but a number of them have ended up in museums nowadays, which is quite appropriate, as they are intricate works of art. At the end of the day, I was quite tired, and when I caught back up with Darren and his wife and kids, we decided to head uptown to Pizza Domenica, which we knew was open from previous years. It was crowded, but we managed to get in, and enjoyed some delicious pizza there, before heading out to City Park for coffee and beignets at Morning Call. It was truly a Mardi Gras for the ages.






Great Coffee, Gourmet Food, Designer Clothes and Art on South Main

1730 Coffee Selection1731 387 Pantry1732 Stock & Belle1733 Stock & Belle1734 Coffee1735 Stock & Belle1736 Stock & Belle1737 387 Pantry1738 Brews1739 Stock & Belle1740 Stock & Belle
I was on South Main downtown one evening because I was to speak at a hip-hop conference at Leadership Memphis, but I wanted a coffee before it started, so I started walking down toward the nearest coffee bar, hoping it would be open. To my surprise, much closer to the Leadership Memphis offices, I came upon a sign that said “387 Pantry- Coffee”, so I ventured inside to discover one of Memphis’ newest retail establishments. It’s hard to say exactly what the space at 387 South Main actually is, as it is a little bit of everything. I suppose the main space is called Stock & Belle. Primarily it is a fashion boutique, with designer clothing, but also some really cool local art for sale on the walls. Upstairs there is a salon. But another section of the space has been walled off to form a small grocery store known as the 387 Pantry. Gourmet foods and rare brands of coffee beans are the draw here, and within it is a small counter called Brews, where cups of coffee are available, made from the amazing $11,000 coffee machine known as a Clover. Clovers reproduce the French Press process in a machine, and have been said to produce a more flavorful cup of coffee. So I had to try one, and I was quite pleased with it. I also could not resist buying boxes of Velo brand Colombian Tierradentro and Guatemalan Waykan coffee beans. The employe informed me that the store’s brands of coffee beans will change monthly, so it’s probably a good idea to buy what you see that you want when you see it.

Stock & Belle/387 Pantry/Brews
387 South Main
Memphis, TN 38103
(901) 222-8972
https://instagram.com/stockandbelle/
https://www.facebook.com/StockandBelle

https://instagram.com/387PANTRY
https://www.facebook.com/pages/387-Pantry/507476216072950

Devin Crutcher and the 4 Soul Band Live at the Ice Bar in Southwind @IceBarMemphis @DevinCrutch901

234 Ice Bar235 Ice Bar236 Ice Bar238 Devin Crutcher & 4 Soul239 4 Soul Band240 Devin Crutcher & 4 Soul241 4 Soul Band242 Devin Crutcher & 4 Soul244 Devin Crutcher247 Devin Crutcher248 Otis Logan249 Devin Crutcher250 Lloyd Anderson251 4 Soul Band252 4 Soul Band254 Devin Crutcher & 4 Soul255 Devin Crutcher & 4 Soul
Memphis soul singer Devin Crutcher comes from a legendary musical family in Memphis, the family of Stax songwriter Bettye Crutcher, and is probably the most in-demand male singer in the city today. He can be heard at different venues most nights of any week in Memphis, but it is not so common for him to appear with the excellent 4 Soul Band, which my friend Otis Logan is the drummer for. So when I heard that Devin Crutcher would be performing with 4 Soul and some sort of fashion and hair extravaganza at the Ice Bar on a Sunday night, I made plans to be there. 4 Soul is one of the city’s best soul and funk bands, and Devin is one of the best singers, so his brief two sets of music were a treat indeed, separated by a brief fashion show.

Vinyl Returns to Jackson, Mississippi at OffBeat Arts @OFFBEATjxn

505 Offbeat Arts506 Offbeat Arts507 Offbeat Arts508 Offbeat Arts509 Offbeat Arts510 Offbeat Arts511 Offbeat Arts512 Offbeat Arts513 Offbeat Arts copy
This year’s closure of Morning Bell Records was a terrible blow to Jackson, Mississippi’s music scene, so the news that a new record shop had opened in Jackson was welcome. But Offbeat Arts, the new venture from adventurous Jacktown DJ Young Venom is not exactly a record store in the ordinary sense, and what it is might at first seem confusing. It is (all at the same time) an art gallery, a record shop, a clothing store, a book store and a performance space. When I visited for the first time the weekend of the Core DJ’s Retreat, it was hosting a video shoot for local hip-hop artist Jaxx City. Its vinyl selection isn’t huge, but leans toward the funky, hip and less familiar side of the spectrum, and as might be expected, there’s a decent selection of local artists and releases (but not much in the way of CD’s, so be forewarned). There are also books about hip-hop and Black culture, comic books, local Jackson clothing gear, and beautiful local art. Occasionally, on weekends, Offbeat becomes a performance space for various DJ-based genres of music, which is appropriate, as the shop sits in the middle of Jackson’s burgeoning Midtown Arts District. When visiting, it’s probably a good idea to call ahead, as some days Offbeat is open by appointment only, and the opening hours seem to vary and be a little sporadic. That being said, Offbeat is as cool as store as I’ve seen anywhere in the South.

Offbeat Arts
151 Wesley Av
Jackson, MS 39202
(601) 376-9404
veryoffbeat@gmail.com
http://offbeatjxn.com/

An Early Black Friday at @flykixatl


When I rolled through the Castleberry Hill neighborhood of Atlanta on Thanksgiving night, it was well after midnight and yet I noticed that the hip-hop clothing store Fly Kix was not only open but crowded, so I found a spot where I could park for free a few blocks away, and walked back to the shop. It turned out that Fly Kix was having a customer appreciation sale, with a lot of merchandise heavily discounted, and I found some T-shirts that I knew would make great Christmas gifts. The store was literally filled with people, and I met the young woman who owned the place, as well as Atlanta rap artist Money Makin Nique. Checking out ended up taking an hour of waiting in line due to the crowds of shoppers and significantly-deep discounts.

Men’s Urban Wear at @Threadz_Atlanta @A3C #A3C2013


I had seen some designs I really liked at the Eight and Nine Clothing tent at the Style Village, but they didn’t have my size in them, so the people there advised me to drive nearby to a store called Threadz. In the event, Threadz didn’t have the sizes I needed either, but it proved to be a really cool urban wear boutique that I hadn’t been familiar with at all. Similar to Wish Atlanta, Threadz has a front room that features shirts and pants, and a separate room in the back that seems dedicated to sneakers. Fans of Eight and Nine Clothing will find plenty of designs (at least when supplies haven’t been decimated by special events like A3C).

Threadz Atlanta
1060 St. Charles Ave. NE
Atlanta, GA 30306
(404) 963-6874
http://www.threadzatlanta.com/
http://www.threadzatl.com/

From the Old Fourth Ward to the Style Village at @A3C #A3C2013


After lunch, I headed over to Edgewood Avenue to check out the two outdoor stages, one between the Joystick and Mothers which was called the Old Fourth Ward Stage, and the other behind Noni’s Deli, which was called the Noni’s Village Stage. But I soon realized that the afternoon would probably be my only opportunity to check out the Style Village in Little Five Points, so I drove over there, parking near the Variety Playhouse. First I stopped by Stadium to pick up a shirt I had admired when I had stopped in there on Wednesday, and then I walked over to the Style Village, which was three rows of tents set up behind the Star Community Bar. Each tent was devoted to a different clothing line, and with the exception of Born Fly and Akoo, most of the lines were fairly new or underground lines. Some of the bigger, more familiar were giving away shirts and caps in exchange for email sign-up, so I ended up leaving the village with a bag of free swag.

Cool Atlanta-themed Hip-Hop Wear at @atlastclothing #A3C


One of the coolest places in East Atlanta Village is a new retail shop which is the home of Atlanta-based Atlast Clothing, a hip clothing line that at least in part is centered around Atlanta identity. Despite the hometown appeal, Atlast clothing features really attractive designs that should appeal to anyone who loves urban wear, even if they’re not from Atlanta. In addition, the store supports Atlanta’s local hip-hop scene by hosting special events, and was a ticket sales point for this year’s A3C Hip-Hop Festival.

Atlast Clothing
493-C Flat Shoals Ave
Atlanta, GA 30316
(678) 387-8354
http://www.atlastclothing.com/